Photo: Adriana Duduleanu/EyeEm/Getty Images
Back in October, we heard First Lady Melania Trump pose what turns out to be a profound question: “Who gives a fuck about Christmas stuff and decorations?” she asked in a taped conversation with former senior adviser to the First Lady and author of the memoir Melania and Me, Stephanie Winston Wolkoff. The question is an especially complicated one this year, as Americans enter a holiday season that will unfold at the peak of the worst pandemic in a century. But the moment in Wolkoff’s tape that really captures the gendered complexity of holiday merrymaking is what the First Lady says next: “But I need to do it, right?” She does. And this year, like the three years before this one, she did.
First Ladies have been tasked with project-managing the holiday decoration of the White House for generations. This custom is just a grander, highly visible version of the dynamic that governs two-parent households headed by heterosexual couples all over America. “What Americans expect from their First Ladies with respect to Christmas — the decorating, but also the general cheer and spirit — they also expect from their ‘ordinary moms’ (if there is such a thing!),” says scholar Juliana Rowen Barton, the associate curator for a project called Designing Motherhood. “We look to them, as we do with all other aspects of a First Lady’s public persona, for indicators of how things are and for signals of stability and normalcy, even or perhaps more so in such unprecedented times.” The open secret about Santa Claus isn’t that he doesn’t exist; it’s that he’s a mom.
Women have long been charged with the labor — emotional, physical, culinary, and aesthetic — of the interior aspects of the holidays, while men are more apt to take on outdoor projects (when there’s outdoor space available to decorate). Men are more likely to put up exterior lights and animatronic reindeer; women spearhead the cleaning and preparation for family visits, decoration and craft projects, cooking, gift-wrapping, and the intangible but crucial task of managing the mood and making sure that everyone is having a good time.
Since the Victorian era, illustrators have depicted Santa Claus as an old-fashioned craftsman, and the métier of his annual Christmas operation is largely hands-on and physical. He makes toys, drives an airborne sleigh, totes a large sack of gifts, and manages to get down and back up many millions of chimneys in a single night. But what he actually delivers, in the end, is something more ineffable: surprise, delight, joy, fun, cozy feelings, and ultimately, memories. Michelle Janning, a professor of sociology at Whitman College, has written extensively about the ways in which families make meaning and inscribe relationships through the objects and rituals in their lives. Describing her own love of ensuring that her family’s Christmas celebrations are wondrous and cozy, she says, “I want to control the magic.” Janning describes the constellation of tasks during holiday time as “telling the family story,” because the sum total of all the decorating, baking, photographing, and toy-assembling is freighted with meaning, both present and future.
The control of magic is connected to the sort of domestic gatekeeping that tends to happen in heterosexual partnerships where women do more housework than men do, in part because they don’t trust their male partners to do it properly. One 2019 study revealed that men and women are apt to perceive degrees of cleanliness and order similarly, but — crucially — women are more apt to be worried about the mess, and thus more likely to take on the work of cleaning it up. So in thinking about differences between the amount of housework performed by men and women, it’s important to note that what even qualifies as “work to be done” isn’t necessarily an agreed-upon piece of objective reality.
Judith Shulevitz, author of The Sabbath World: Glimpses of a Different Order of Time, famously described this perceptual gap as the realm of “worry work” in a 2015 New York Times op-ed. Of this year’s pandemic holiday season, she says that her own 2020 Thanksgiving was quite small and relatively easy (“I did all my Hanukkah shopping online on Black Friday,” she notes) but adds that “mood management is another matter, since we’re all going mad. But again, that’s not holiday-specific. And life under COVID undeniably is harder for working mothers [than working fathers].”
Janning echoes the consensus that pandemic life is extraordinarily hard for working moms of school-age kids. “[Moms] take on the responsibility of the day-to-day tasks of homeschooling and that matters, demographically: We’re already seeing challenges for working moms in particular. A break from school for the kids is not a break for parents, and disproportionately moms bear the brunt of that.” But with much smaller (or nonexistent) family gatherings, and no real need to decorate the house beyond what entertains the kids and what can be seen through the lens of a laptop camera during Zoom stocking-stuffer hour, certain physical aspects of holiday prep might be easier this year. What will almost certainly be harder is the aspect of domestic life that Janning calls “telling the family story,” which is a critical, if intangible, facet of “women’s work” year-round.
Traditionally, this has meant getting organized sometime in October about taking photos for holiday cards, making sure the address book or email list is up to date, and more recently, getting relatives and older parents up to speed on FaceTime or Zoom so that digital chats can happen regularly, reinforcing familial and social ties. This sort of thing is usually nonpartisan. But in 2020, as with so many things, the documentation and visibility of physical gatherings — or lack thereof — is one of the most politically fraught activities of the moment, and it’s all but impossible to opt out, or to please everyone.
Janning offers the example of a young family where there are grandparents on opposite ends of the spectrum as far as masking and social distancing are concerned. One set of grandparents will be angry not to see their loved ones in person, and the other set might be horrified to see Instagram photos documenting a physical gathering that put their loved ones at risk. The addition of video chat on top of Facebook, Instagram, and old-fashioned photographs multiplies what Janning calls the “vectors of surveillance.” Women tend to do much of the curating of the family narrative through objects, images, and social media. 2020 will add even more pressure and anxiety to an already emotionally charged process: Are these photos alienating my loved ones? Am I being a good mom? Am I denying my kids the fun of one of the few, precious holidays of their early childhood?
Compared with the avalanche of illness and death we’re likely to experience in the coming weeks and the collective trauma we’ve already endured, these concerns may seem trivial. But the impulse to make memories and engage in “future nostalgia” could be a key part of what’s driving people to make risky and ill-advised decisions regarding travel and family visits. Janning explains: “Moms may feel that if they can make this holiday special, they will feel like they have control in a time when no one has control. ‘Because I got to decorate my house a certain way, or we got to light the menorah all together, I feel like I have one nugget of control in an uncontrollable world.’” Perhaps, in the years to come, we’ll be better equipped to appreciate a less controlled kind of holiday magic.