Here are some things that the holidays are not:

They are not a competitive sport.

They are not an exam.

They are not a performance.

We all know this. Don’t we?

Deep in that chamber of our hearts labeled “wisdom” — a chamber that may be hard to locate in the dark days of December — we know that this time we call “the holidays” comes without a scoreboard or a report card or a performance review. The holidays are not an event to be won, lost, awarded, failed, measured.

Yet every year a lot of people need to be encouraged, once again, to make peace with that thought. We need to be reminded to resist all the messages about what the holidays ought to be, all the little admonishments that we may not be doing them as well as we’re supposed to or as well as other people are.

And the key to making peace with that truth? Simple. It’s understanding that the holidays are always complicated.

And complicated is OK. More than OK. Complicated is inevitable, which means it’s normal.

For almost everybody.

I started thinking about this — hardly for the first time — a couple of days before Thanksgiving when I ran into a friend who’s about to get divorced. Her marriage has been faltering for a while, which has made past holidays tense, but this will be the first year that the marriage is declared over, even if the papers aren’t yet signed.

This year, she said, the holidays feel to her like something she just has to get through, a slog through quicksand. It wasn’t even December and she was wishing for them to be over.

But as she talked, she brightened. She said she’d rented a car and planned to drive her two school-age sons from Chicago to her parents’ house in Michigan.

“A rental car with a good sound system!” she said. She laughed and said she was really looking forward to that. She was also looking forward to seeing a childhood friend she hadn’t seen in a while.

At that thought, though, she sighed. Visiting her old friend — who lives in a nice house with an intact family — would test her ability not to compare her life with other people’s during the holidays.

No sooner had she said that than she added that it’s not a good idea to climb the ladder of comparison. Then she smiled the kind of wan smile that says, “But just because it’s true doesn’t mean it’s easy.”

Since that conversation I’ve been thinking about the complications so many people I know are carrying into these holidays. A good friend just lost her father. A close relative is estranged from her children. My brother’s beloved dog of 14 years just died. These are different categories of loss, but they’re all losses that will color the holidays of each of these people.

I have other friends facing other, if less momentous, challenges to their holiday cheer: too much travel, too much work, the stomach flu. As of this writing, at least two of those apply to me.

Some people are more skilled than others at finding the bright side of holiday complications. I grew up with two very different examples of how to approach the challenges.

My father, who struggled financially for most of my childhood, was often sad and angry at this time of year because he wanted Christmas to be his idea of perfect. He yearned for the perfect tree, the perfect meal, the perfect mood, a quest that guaranteed he was never satisfied. Mostly, I think, he yearned to believe that he was the perfect father and the holidays made him think about the ways he wasn’t.

From him I learned an important lesson: This is no season for perfectionists.

My mother, in contrast, shared the financial struggle, but she was always grateful for whatever the season brought. She never worked too hard at it. Perfection was never her guide or goal. She never prepared fabulous holiday meals (though we ate just fine). Our Christmas gifts were few and often recycled (though I rarely wanted more). She imbued the season with a sense of generosity and gratitude unburdened by expectation or comparison.

It’s the spirit that even when life is extremely complicated I try to carry into the holidays, and it comes down to this:

Do what you sanely can and disregard the rest.

Reject the comparisons.

Embrace the complication.

As much as possible without self-destructing, be the brightness you want to see.

Remember that other people are carrying a weight too.

When in doubt about what to do, err on the side of generosity.

Mary Schmich is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

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