Romanticizing holidays creates unrealistic expectations

Twinkling Christmas lights, snow-capped landscapes, crackling fireplaces and the whistle of a Christmas carol through the air a classic holiday film opening. Packed with joy and nostalgia, the holidays are believed to be full of family traditions, romantic confessions and friendship. Media and pop culture depictions of the holidays often create perfect pictures of domestic bliss around the holiday season. However, the romantic portrayals all too often represented in popular culture do not represent reality, and often create unrealistic expectations about what the holidays actually entail.


Expectations of a grand holiday dinner feast are shown in the extravagant meal in the famous Disney film “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.” Family and friends from all over town come with presents and gifts to celebrate the holiday together. People clink their glasses, savor the food and have a merry time. The fragrant Christmas tree is adorned with beautiful ornaments, candy canes, fairy lights and a glistening gold star at the peak. Along with the grand depiction of holiday festivities in media, are also portrayals of characters falling in intense, romantic love. This is featured in major film franchises such as the “Harry Potter” film series and the romantic comedy “Holidate.” In the movie “Holidate,” a man and woman agree to be each other’s holiday date to avoid remarks on marriage from family, but ultimately end up falling in love.

Throughout the Harry Potter films, Harry and his friends form bonds of friendship as they spend time or keep in contact with each other over the holidays. Ron Weasley’s feelings for Hermione Granger are officially confirmed during the Yule Ball, a holiday celebration at Hogwarts, in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.”

Of course, one cannot forget the music. The winter playlist that many people compile yearly is often full of Christmas Carols such as “Jingle Bell Rock” by Joseph Beal and John Boothe, “All I Want for Christmas is You” by Mariah Carey and “Deck the Halls” by John Ceiriog Hughes. With lyrics such as “deck the halls with boughs of holly,” to “dancin’ and prancin’ in Jingle Bell Square,” all of these songs depict an atmosphere of love, beauty and joy in celebrating the holiday season. These various forms of media depict a version of the holidays that cause people to form high expectations for their own holiday season.

Popular culture often dictates that finding true happiness can be as simple as huddling around warm fireplaces, decorating Christmas trees and sipping seasonal drinks topped with whipped cream. In reality, however, holidays can often be a time of stress, loneliness, schoolwork and extracurriculars.


Finals are always scheduled the week before winter break. This year, finals week falls during Hanukkah and ends merely three days before Christmas. For students, the high-pressure academic environment in the middle of the holiday season makes it difficult to truly get into the holiday spirit. The stakes are especially high for seniors, who likely must turn in their college applications less than a week after January 1. Students also feel pressure to receive good scores on finals in order to maintain or achieve their desired semester grade. With academic stress at its peak, expectations for how the holidays should unfold only add to the pressure. Nonetheless, holiday movies and commercials depict people in a state of unblemished joy, oblivious to the stresses and pressures of everyday student life. The pressure to enjoy the holidays, ironically, makes them even less enjoyable.

A realistic holiday season for many students will likely look like this: After recovering from finals, they will stay at home, scroll through their phone and binge-watch a season or two of their favorite TV show. If they themselves are not traveling out of town, they may miss their friends who are. Students might spend more time bonding with their parents, pets and siblings. Equally likely, they will spend the entire break holed up in their room on their devices, surfing through social media to see what others are doing over the break. Seniors will anxiously try to get their college applications in order while juniors will worry about the upcoming Advanced Placement (AP) tests in the spring. Freshmen and sophomores may feel nervous about their first semester final grades, hoping for a better second semester, but lacking motivation to prepare. Of course, everyone will still feel bouts of the holiday spirit—when lighting the menorah, exchanging Christmas presents or having a small family holiday dinner, for example—but much of the time in between time-honored holiday traditions will feel, for the most part, boring. As winter break comes to an end, students may return to feeling unproductive and unaccomplished, as well as anxious about the upcoming semester. The holidays, in the end, will have passed just as any other two week vacation.

Next Steps

Students should avoid criticizing themselves for not living up to their high standards of unreasonable happiness around the holidays, nor should they assume that none of their peers feel the same way. Although constant joy may be an unachievable expectation for the holidays, true love—the everyday kind, not the all-encompassing Disney-movie variety—and genuine human connection are not. Spending time with friends and family and having moments of true social bonding can be much more fulfilling, not to mention realistic, than singing Christmas carols, decking the halls or any other cliché holiday tradition. Instead of idealizing the so-called season of joy and good tidings, students should mitigate their expectations by seeing the holiday season as it truly is: a time of self-love, compassion and giving. The holidays are a time for you to take a break, enjoy yourself and spend time doing the things you love. As the quintessential holiday movie “The Grinch” once said: “To kindness and love, the things we need most.”