It’s the most wonderful time of the year! Yes, I’m talking about the holidays. Comfort and joy! Let it snow! Peace on earth! Fa la la la la la la la laaaaaa!
I do love the holidays, being the sentimental Cancerian cheeseball that I am. But it’s very easy to get overwhelmed at this time of the year. We’re cramming all these activities, obligations and expectations into a compressed period of time, when a lot of us are feeling a little burned out, tired and sleepy. As a result, it’s easy to sap the spirit from the season and just wish you’d book yourself a month-long vacation far, far away from civilization instead. (And by “civilization,” I mean traffic and crowds.) But as tempting as that is, it’s worth putting time and effort into festivities that create lovely memories to remember years from now. (At least, this is what I tell myself!)
This is all complicated with the fact, too, that as a newish mama, I want to create holiday traditions that are meaningful and memorable for my child. I grew up in a family that didn’t do very much around Christmas — we’re Asian Buddhists, after all! — and it always made me a little sad.
But that lack of tradition also gives me a nice blank slate for my own family, and I’m free to create something that genuinely reflects our shared values and interests. Sometimes, though, I’m tempted to try and do everything holiday-related because it all looks so fun and interesting — but that’s a recipe for overwhelm and stress.
This year, I decided to issue myself a “not-doing” list — a list of things I won’t force myself to do if I don’t want to. One of my favorite little aphorisms is “Elegance is refusal,” supposedly said by either Coco Chanel or Diana Vreeland. (Pick your favorite fashion dragon!) It usually applies to accessorizing, but I apply it to everything! My not-doing list, then, like a permission slip to let myself off the hook on these — and give myself more freedom and time to devote to what I really, really do want to do.
What I’m Not Doing
+ A fancy tree. The truth is that our tiny apartment is waaaaaay too small for a real tree. It makes me a little sad not to have one, but it would require a massive rearrangement and cleanout of our house — and I’m not feeling up for it this year. So instead, we did a small mini-tree on our kitchen table. When Budgie gets older and we finally move, we will do a bigger, badder, more fabulous tree, mostly because my sweetheart has nice memories of going to a Christmas tree farm and picking one out every year — but for now, we’ll let it go.
+ Going to every single party and activity. My partner and I both come from larger extended families, but our everyday circle of people is pretty small, so we pretty much only attend events for our ‘everyday people.’ And I also work from home, so that automatically cuts out a lot of work-related holiday things. Yayness all around, because as an introvert, socializing is exhausting!
+ Lavish gifts. This year, I really made a point to set a price limits on gifts, especially for my nieces and nephews — who generally already get lots of gifts from their extended family. (We have a BIG family.) I feel Scrooge-y admitting it, but honestly, I will never win “Coolest Present From An Aunt” award, and I’m fine with that — I’m happier taking everyone out to the movies or doing activities with them. (And hey, last year I did a handmade birthday gift for each one of my nieces and nephews — that’s enough for me!) I’m not spending a huge amount on my child as well, as ogre-ish as that sounds — he’s very young and I’m taking advantage of the fact that he’s not obsessed with the “It Gift” of the year. He’s very into books, though, but luckily those are really simple to buy and gift — and I love shopping for them!
+ An Advent calendar. Honestly, this is one of those things that I love the IDEA of — but I never really get it together to buy, make or plan for this. Maybe next year I’ll do one — someone remind me next November to start planning my Advent calendar!
+ Yule logs and other complex Christmas dishes. This is also one of those things whose idea I love as well, probably because it’s very French-y or British-y — and completely delicious — but I just can’t bring it together to buy all the ingredients and such.
+ Baking cookies. One of my favorite holiday memories in San Francisco was throwing a cookie baking and decorating party — a bunch of people hanging out in our Victorian in the Mission, drinking, decorating and filling the house full of delicious smells. But the idea of baking cookies and then decorating them with a toddler now is just a little too much, especially with Budgie being too young to focus on decorating. (Plus, he’s obsessed with our oven — a recipe for disaster waiting to happen, really!) Maybe when he’s older we’ll do this — and certainly I will bake a few cookies this season — but I won’t go into the ins and outs of decorating them, because it’s just too finicky for me right now.
Of course, not doing the above will give me more time to focus on what I really want to do. Here’s my holiday to-do this year, and I’m happy to say it feels sane and happy-making.
Our Holiday Will-Dos!
+ A personalized holiday card. I thought about blowing this off, but honestly, I LOVE paper goods so much, and I love having a special card every year as a keepsake. But I really, really had to get over my perfectionism at not having the perfect family portrait to do my cards this year, because as a family we are really terrible about getting pictures of all of us in them. (Guess who doesn’t pop up in her own photos? Me, because I’m always taking them!) I was almost going to be like, “Screw it, there will be no Xmas card this year, we suck as a family and don’t deserve one!” (I was having a bad afternoon when I quasi-decided this.) But then I decided to do a collage of moments from the year — and I decided to do my card through a photo service like Shutterfly because digital = awesome. And yeah, maybe everyone will get a late card, but you know what? That’s what New Year’s cards are for!
+ Decorating my home. We used to never decorate our house when I was a kid, except for a Xmas tree. I didn’t notice it until I’d go to other people’s homes and see how beautiful and festive their own houses were. Sometimes people can go nuts, but for me, this is one of those things that brings a lot of payoff to just a little effort — there’s just something about having nice surroundings that make for a lovely backdrop to happy memories. I try to make it easy on myself by buying decorations instead of making everything — but I decided this year to make a paper wreath, which I think turned out nicely. Maybe next year I’ll make something else for the home for the holidays. New tradition? Let’s just wait and see…
+ Listening to Christmas music. Okay, this is cheesy, but I really, really love Christmas music. I’m talking really old-school British-y carols like “First Noel” and “Silent Night.” I’m so the opposite of religious and I’m very much not a Christian — though Jesus himself seemed like a good dude — but the hymns and chorales celebrating him and his life are undeniably beautiful. I do love a good rendition of something more kiddie-friendly like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” But generally, what I love about traditional Christmas music is the beauty and grandeur of it. Which is why my favorite Christmas music is actually Tori Amos’ Christmas album “Midwinter Graces” — which is quite beautiful in parts.
I also love listening to “wintery” sounding records that I love that aren’t holiday-related, like Bjork’s Vespertine, Madonna’s Ray of Light and even PJ Harvey’s White Chalk, which is a bit spooky but still really pastoral sounding.
+ Cookie-baking for fun, not for gifting. I may not have it together to make a Yule log, but I sure like brownies and cookies. I won’t decorate these — see the above — and I’m not going to give any out because my skills as a baker are pretty sub-par. But I do like to try! This year I’m trying out a flourless chocolate cookie recipe, which I hope will be a nice alternative to the typical sugar cookie.
+ Movie nights for mama and other cultural rituals. Okay, this marks me as a super-geek, but at the end of every year I really love to watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I also like to watch Love Actually because it’s London-y and Christmas-y, and Christmas in London is one of my unfulfilled fantasies in life. I also love to read my favorite book from childhood, Little Women. This year I’m adding to the ritual by busting open a bottle of wine or hot apple cider and opening some chocolates while I read or watch, because I DESERVE IT!
+ Thoughtful, creative wrapping. This is one of those things I do that bring me pleasure personally and make me feel creative, even though no one in my family ever really notices or likely cares how nicely wrapped their presents are. I don’t go too crazy, but I definitely enjoy finding a nice paper and finding a way to decorate gifts in a way that brings beauty and delight — as best as I can do, at least.
In the end
Beauty and delight, of course, are really at the heart of what I want this time of year to feel like — that’s what I want my little one to remember from this time of year. I want his memories of the holiday to be full of brightness and wonder, and I’d love for him to look forward to the little rituals that bring structure and sacredness to the holidays. Our family traditions will evolve as Budgie gets older — and I’m sure he’ll have his own ideas, too! But ultimately, what I like to remember is that “family” is a dynamic, evolving process as much as it is a set of relationships — but hopefully it all leads to beautiful memories that make life rich and meaningful.