The Compulsive Nature of Holiday Traditions

It was Christmas Eve. The fire crackled peacefully behind me while my favorite Claymation movies played out on my screen. I was perched on the edge of our fireplace, my aunt’s twenty year old onesie, that had I had long since outgrown, was digging into my feet, hips and shoulders. I had to bounce my foot every few moments to try and alleviate the crushing pain between my toes.


This red and white striped onesie, that my aunt had worn every single Christmas Eve, could no longer accommodate my most recent growth spurt…but taking it off simply was not an option. Since I never had the chance to meet her, my only connection to my aunt rested in wearing this outfit every single Christmas. If I put on any other pajamas, then it meant that I had no respect for her memory.

I balanced my computer on my left knee while I shook my right foot, moving the position of the onesie just enough to push my big toe through one of the holes in the bottom.  I had to get through ten more minutes of Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town before I could watch ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and then finally head upstairs to force myself to fall asleep before midnight. I bit my nails, sick with anxiety, watching the clock more than the movies. I so strongly believed that deviating from this rigid schedule would ruin my entire holiday.

For years, my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder made it nearly impossible for me to separate traditions from compulsions. I got so fixated on how I “had” to experience Christmas that every aspect of the season became torturous for me.


From the day after Thanksgiving until December 25, every single moment seemed to be filled with tasks that I had no desire to do.

If I didn’t run to the mantel every morning and shift the wisemen statues once inch to the right, then my mom would think I didn’t love her. If I didn’t really feel the spirit of the holiday while listening to A Change at Christmas by the Flaming Lips, then I’d have to play it again or I would be miserable for the entire year. If I didn’t reference photos and videos to lay out my Christmas town exactly the same as the year prior, my skin would feel like it was physically crawling.

When my OCD was at its worst, I remember spending ten minutes properly positioning one single figurine within this town. I would move the town nun half an inch to the right, half an inch to the left and back 12 times before feeling I had finally gotten it right.

While most of my OCD presents non-traditionally, this particular compulsion aligns with  touristic OCD, which involves “counting, symmetry/evening up, arranging, ordering, positioning, touching and tapping.” However, it’s typically not driven by magical thinking (or assuming something bad will happen if you don’t do a specific task properly). It’s an intense form of psychological tension, akin to the feeling of desperately needing to scratch an itch but not being able to reach it.

Since all forms of my OCD went undiagnosed until I was 24, I failed to recognize the severity of my condition and how it became inextricably intertwined with holiday traditions.

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I didn’t realize that watching Christmas movies, wearing particular items of clothing or eating specific, holiday themed meals at rigidly defined times were all compulsions for me. I would always hear about the importance of keeping traditions alive and felt like my behavior was simply respecting my ancestors’ legacy.

Every single family I knew seemed to have these beloved holiday traditions that they looked forward to every each year. So, for a very long time, I genuinely couldn’t see how my behavior differed from theirs.

It seemed utterly unfathomable that these joyful activities could be so profoundly unhealthy. Since I wasn’t doing anything to physically hurt myself, like washing my hands until they were raw, I assumed that all of my compulsions were helping me maintain one immutable truth: traditions are to be respected.

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It wasn’t until I realized that I was absolutely dreading the holidays, that I began to question my commitment to tradition.

“Why did I have to watch these movies before bed?” “Would I really forget my aunt if I no longer subjected myself to wearing a onesie 3 sizes too small?” “Do I need to lay out my Christmas town exactly as it was last year?”

Then I came across a quote by W. Somerset Maugham that perfectly summarized my feelings: “tradition is a guide not a jailer.” When traditions become so oppressive you stop enjoying anything, thats a clear sign that something must change.

When you have a mental health issue, it’s easy to forget that life is intended to be enjoyed. Sometimes, when my OCD is so overwhelming I can’t see through it, asking myself what I really want to be doing is the only thing that helps.

For a person with OCD, denying or altering compulsions can feel personally cataclysmic…but the change is necessary for growth. It’s impossible to truly enjoy life when you’re living in an endless thought loop.

Don’t be afraid to break from traditions and find what makes you actually happy this holiday season.