Sunday, February 25, 2024

Self-indulgence during the holiday season

by Bill Rutherford
| December 3, 2010 8:00 PM

Waking up at 3:30 on a snowy Friday morning, my daughter and I hop into the family sleigh and head to the shopping mall to watch the mayhem. Nursing self-induced stuffed bellies created from roasted turkey and pumpkin pie consumed the night before, our focus is not on food but on coffee.

Driving into the Target parking lot we decide to stop for a starter cup of caffeine to fuel our fun. Our search for coffee is delayed as we see the hundreds if not thousands of chilly shoppers waiting to be first to enter the store for its 4 a.m., Black Friday opening. We look at each other and laugh. Our laughter is not directed at the people waiting in line; in fact, we are laughing with the shoppers. Opting instead for the line of 30 waiting to enter Macy's at this early hour we decide the coffee must wait because the party has begun.

Our mission is not to buy a reasonably priced television or half-price global positioning satellite traffic director. My daughter and I sacrifice sleep on this post-Thanksgiving morning to be part of a happening.

In the past my daughter and I have enjoyed being part of community events that make no sense but create a reason to feel a part of something. This is a gift we give each other. Together we have participated in the Polar Bear Plunge and skipped school to see an art exhibit that was deemed too risque for school children to see. We love to watch the human race acting against their humanity.

Shopping local markets and stores at 4 a.m. is like walking down the middle of Sherman Avenue following the Christmas Lighting Festival and Parade. Both of these events feel odd and foreign, are illegal and unsafe on any other day but are exciting and freeing in an unexpected way. Walking on a busy street or being in a store when it should be closed can get one arrested or killed while breaking the rules of normality is oddly refreshing.

The holiday season brings a sense of adventure to many people. Often, individuals change their beliefs, habits and securities between October and the end of December and become more adventurous in their spending, gift giving and eating - creating an ugly reality check in January. Looking inside, one discovers the freedom of celebrating joyously, creating positive holiday memories or choosing to celebrate out of obligation while punishing one's self.

There are numerous psychological and sociological reasons why individuals, communities and cultures celebrate, and more psychological reasons than can be printed here why humans punish themselves during celebrations to their detriment. Let's first examine the punishment individuals endure in the name of celebration then talk of the freedom holiday offers the giver and receiver.

First let's look at the adventure of holiday spending. Spending money on a gift does not equate to love, and spending more than one has while going deeply in debt depletes the giver of love. This depletion of love is often taken out of the gift recipient.

Adventurous spending (or overspending) during the holidays often creates a resentful and depressed giver as unpayable credit card bills begin to arrive in the January mail. Humans pair important experiences and events with positive or negative memories. The positive memory of offering a gift one cannot afford is negated by the negative memory of not being able to pay the bill when it comes due, creating the opposite emotional effect intended by giving the initial gift.

Conversely, if one has the financial means to give expensive or meaningful gifts to important people in one's life, then give. Giving within one's financial means feels good and carries no remorse.

Next we examine the adventure in gift giving. Giving feels good but gifts offered for the wrong reason feel dirty. Offering a gift because one feels they have to is not a gift but an obligation. Many state the media, corporate America, peer pressure, keeping up with the McGillicuttys, family pressure, pity, love, needing self-assurance, tradition or loneliness as their reason for giving gifts during the holidays. This is unhealthy psychologically.

One should only offer a gift if they truly feel in their heart that they wish to give that gift. A gift given must be purposeful, have meaning, be offered in love and received in the same manner to be significant.

Many purchase insignificant gifts for adults because they feel obliged to give. In this exchange, the giver and receiver both feel obligated to say insincere "Thank yous," and neither feels rewarded in the offering. A card or note thanking the receiver for something heartfelt carries more reward for the receiver than that beef log or necktie (unless the receiver loves neckties or logs of beef).

When offering gifts to children, forget what I've written above. Children do not receive gifts with the same emotion as adults and do not equate money to giving. Kids have little history of Christmas' past and each holiday of giving is a new experience for the child. A $1 tube of Playdough might receive the same excitement as a new bike.

Adventurous gift givers offer deeply desired, meaningful gifts to people who make a difference in their life. This might lead the giver on a wild adventure searching to discover the true desires and wishes of the receiver as the journey makes both giver and receiver close emotionally.

Thirdly is an examination of the adventures in holiday eating. Holiday overeating is a choice and I choose to eat. Eating and sometimes overeating during the holidays is absolutely acceptable and expected (in my opinion).

Mirroring food with celebration allows one to focus the culinary attributes of creative cooking while celebrating one's time in the kitchen. As I baste my oven-roasted turkey in my contemporary kitchen my mind snaps back to my grandmother's country kitchen with pine paneling and the Formica topped, red kitchen dining table full of the same food I prepare 40 years later. Remembering the past is a gift my grandmother offers me that is offered in love and costs nothing.

The negative psychological issue involved with eating and celebrating is over celebrating. When food becomes the excuse for over-eating and over-drinking the individual might have an issue. If one uses the holidays to start drinking after four months of sobriety or eats to excess having diabetes, help is mandated.

Continually saying, "I'll wait until January to start my diet," creates an unhealthy viewpoint to human wellness. Telling oneself, "I'll celebrate during the holidays while maintaining my senility," might be a healthier way to work through the over-abundance of holiday food.

Lastly I wish to talk about the freedom of celebrating joyously. Life is good when one spends money one actually has on people who appreciate the offered gift during this time of celebration. Celebrating offers one the feeling of being alive and the feeling of being part of life.

The giddiness and celebration of the first snow, the desire to reward oneself with an extra few pieces of candy, the need to share and offer love to people we've forgotten or have taken for granted this past year and the excitement of the season should not be corrupted by poor choices and becoming too adventurous in one's actions. Maintain the sanity and enjoy the season.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at and check out