When I told my extroverted 15-year-old daughter that we were going to be having a simple, quiet Christmas at home, she said that sounded terrible. She wants the house full of relatives, kids running all over the place, lots of food, music and noise, late nights of movie watching and late mornings of sleeping in. I guess her response shouldn't surprise me -- she has been listening to Christmas music since the day after Halloween, and she's been waiting for the season premiere of the Hallmark Channel's cheesy holiday movies for months. And my other two kids agree with her. Apparently only grown-ups are attracted to words like "simple" and "quiet."
Almost every magazine I pick up this time of year is filled with tips on how to make this holiday special while keeping things simple. (Except for the short article I came across on how to dye your own cloth napkins using real cranberries. Who does this?)
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We had a houseful for Thanksgiving. My extended family came from Michigan, and there were close to 20 of us (kids far outnumbering the adults) eating, playing and sleeping in close quarters for four days. It was loud, chaotic, fun and exhausting.
Every year, as we enter the holiday season, I think, "I'm just going to keep things simple." And then there is this clumsy dance I do, trying to keep things simple while making it the best Christmas ever. Attempting to pull it off makes me feel like I am twirling plates in each hand while on Rollerblades. I don't want the hustle, bustle and stress. I want to stay within my budget and not overextend myself. But I also want to give homemade Christmas cookies to friends and neighbors, put lights on the roof, write a funny yet poignant Christmas letter and give gifts that people will love.
While I can simplify to make things run more smoothly, to lessen the workload or expense of the holidays, we all want it to be something special. We don't want to eat hot dogs and baked beans -- we want a feast with all our favorites. We want food we don't eat everyday (because it would be hazardous to our health), food that tastes like the holidays. For our family, that means turkey on Thanksgiving and fondue on Christmas Eve. My sister, Kari, makes her husband's favorite broccoli casserole every year for the holiday dinner. Two of the ingredients are Velveeta cheese and Ritz crackers -- the broccoli is really only there to give the cheese and crackers something to hold on to. This is the only time of the year Dave gets to eat this casserole and I'm pretty sure it wouldn't feel like the holidays to him without it.
For me, it's my sister Deb's sweet potato casserole (with the marshmallows and pecans on top), stuffing and lots of gravy. You can have my share of the turkey -- this is really all I need. Oh -- and brussels sprouts. A whole plateful. (This year I roasted them with rosemary, long skinny string beans, and bacon.) And always make sure you have leftovers for the next day.
Last year at this time, our family was reeling from a devastating turn of events. My mom was diagnosed with cancer the week of Thanksgiving, and everyone came and spent Christmas together at our house. We feared it would be Mom's last Christmas with us, and sadly, it was. We had our traditional holiday food and exchanged gifts like we normally do. But what I most remember is the way I took in every moment: My mom reading to the grandkids, praying together as a family, watching "Elf," hugging one another with love and tears while we sang "Silent Night" at the end of our church's Christmas Eve service. When asked what her favorite Christmas was, Mom answered, "This one."
You cherish time with one another more than ever when you understand that time may be cut short. You let go of some things you've held onto for a long time when you realize that they don't really matter as much as you thought. You become fully present in the moment when you see that each moment you have is a gift.
Now I say keep it simple and make it special. But make sure that whatever you do to make this season special for yourself and your family doesn't take away from what matters most: time with your loved ones.
Use disposable plates or buy a pre-made dessert. Read to your children or go to evening services. Take a walk together in the falling snow. Resist the urge to spend money you don't have just to make your house look as nice as the picture in the magazine (or your friend's or your neighbor's). Practice being present in each moment.
And do not, under any circumstances, even think about dying your own cloth napkins using real cranberries.
• Becky Baudouin lives in the Northwest suburbs with her husband and their three daughters. She blogs regularly at beckyspen.blogspot.com.