The other day, while my children were in the process of wolfing-down dinner in between multiple sports practices and school activities, my teenage son called me a Grinch. My kids were all talking about how excited they were for Christmas, and I subconsciously uttered an “Ugh,” under my breath. My son, who can’t remember to pick up his dirty clothes off his bedroom floor, but somehow has a keen understanding of my human condition, picked-up on my negativity and immediately called-me- out. It was a fleeting moment; within minutes the dirty dishes were piled in the sink, and we were off in the minivan, headed to practice. Somehow, however, my mercurial teenager’s look of disapproval got me thinking of the upcoming holiday season, and reminiscing about the joy that had once been very much a part of my December.
The next day, my sister called, and she had Christmas on her mind. We exchange gifts every year, by buying for each other’s children. She wanted to know if I had any ideas about what my children would like to receive from her this year. I told her that I had no good ideas, so we settled on Dick’s SportingGoods gift cards the boys, and American Eagle gift cards for the girls. In one fell swoop, my nieces, my nephew, and my four kids were covered for our Christmas exchange. You can never go wrong with a gift card, right? Even better, my sister was headed to the mall, so she could purchase all the gift cards, and I could just reimburse her on Venmo. So, “the first gift of Christmas” was nothing remotely close to a sacred bell from Santa’s sleigh, but rather a cold, hard, cash transaction. Here’s hoping the boys will be able to purchase yet another solid colored Under Armour hoodie that I can pick-up off the bedroom floor!
In an effort to rid myself of my “Negative Nancy” mentality, I headed to the local Starbucks, with the hope that a holiday coffee beverage would put me in a positively Christmas mood. While in line, I ran into a neighbor, and immediately relayed my lack of holiday mojo. Not only did she agree that she wasn’t “feelin’ it” this holiday season, she told me that she was avoiding the entire “commercial Christmas all together,” by booking a Christmas vacation for the entire family, to St. Kitts. While this idea seems likes a fabulous fix, my entrepreneurial budget does not include island getaways. I would have to come up with other ways to celebrate and to enjoy the season. I left with my gingerbread latte in-hand, and decided to devise a foolproof way to make my December “merry and bright.” I know it won’t be easy, but I’m committed to giving it the old college try. Here are my thoughts and suggestions for taking back the Christmas Season! I hope that they sound as promising to you as they do to me.
Get the Friends and Family Involved, Early and Often
As crazy as the holiday season gets, I find that it is really important to schedule downtime for family and friends. It doesn’t have to be a huge block of time, it can certainly be in small increments, but this time will be impactful. Establishing some family traditions is a great way to start. For example, for years, we’ve played Christmas trivia during dinner; we started with the basics when the kids were little, but now the kids delight when they can recite an obscure quote from a Christmas movie, or nail the question about the top selling Christmas gift from 1984 (think Cabbage Patch). The trivia doesn’t take much time, and it’s easy to find online, or order the cards on Amazon. We certainly don’t do it every day, but it has become a fun little tradition. Also, watching the favorite holiday movies, with treats and warm blankets, on cold December nights, is an easy memory maker.
Last year, for the four Fridays before Christmas, we started a “Secret Santa” in our house. We picked names at Thanksgiving, and we set the price at $5-10 per gift, per week. I am so glad we instituted this, because it was a lot of fun. We laughed so hard over who bought the Harry Potter undies for one “Secret Santa” gift, and who thought that the “Flamin’ Hot Cheetos” and a large Gatorade were a good idea for another gift. We marveled that our 10 year old gift-wrapped the mini-basketball so skillfully! Easy family connections really do make for great memories; what’s more, many of these ideas can be extended beyond the family, as well. Why not start a “Secret Santa” alcohol themed tradition in the neighborhood? Or organize a “new sock swap” for your daughter and her friends?
It’s great to be mindful of the spirit of the season, and to plan to “do a little good” in December. Getting your children involved in a “Giving Tree,” where they help buy and wrap the presents is a must, as is donating old toys and clothes. In particular, the teenagers who think they have it so bad because their xbox time is limited, can really benefit from a little bit of time “outside of themselves.”
Go Outside and Enjoy the Splendor
Speaking of outside, it is terrific if you can plan a few nights of outdoor fun, because they magical (providing the weather cooperates!). The cold air is invigorating and you can almost feel the excitement of the upcoming holiday in the air. It could be as simple as loading up the kids in the car, grabbing coffee and cocoa, and checking-out all the holiday lights around town. Many people go to great lengths with their holiday light and decoration displays, and it’s great to honor their work. In addition, a trip into the big city for Christmas is always a great take. If it’s in the budget, attend a holiday show, or concert. Walk around the streets of the city, and breath it all in; even if your end result is Nike Town, to look at the latest basketball sneakers, the city setting and bright lights will make for a great holiday experience.
Focus On the Little Things
Last year, I spent more money than I care to say on outfitting my daughter’s American Girl dolls, and on making sure they had the best retro-designer kitchen that high-end plastic dolls could possibly ask for. Yet, on Christmas Day, do you want to know what gift delivered the best return on investment? A unicorn pen, that poops M & M’s. I bought it at CVS, for $3.99, on Christmas Eve. In second place was a pair of socks that had a pizza pattern on them, which I purchased at Target for $4.99! Based on this research, I am planning on focusing a little bit more on the fun, random, inexpensive surprises. I’m not suggesting that you completely ignore their lists, but getting a little creative is fun, and pretty inexpensive. Trust me - it’s always the small, slightly random things that excite and deliver, and make for a memorable Christmas Day!
Bake-up a Storm
Let me preface this section by saying, I am no Betty Crocker; however, there is something special and timeless about the “smells of the season,” lofting from the kitchen. So, I give it my best. Cooking shows, Pinterest, package mixes, and kits from Target to Trader Joe’s make the baking easier and more interesting. Are you on a diet and not looking to have the sweet treat around the house? Then, bake for someone who would really appreciate it, like a senior center, or an ailing neighbor, and it will be all the more powerful. Sometimes I cringe at the thought of dipping all the chocolate oreos every year, but they are such a big hit with the masses, and I know it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without them. My daughter is convinced that “hooking Santa up with the dipped oreos” is the reason she gets all the good stuff every year!
Put Down the Measuring Cup
I know I just said that I was going to “bake up a storm,” which is pretty hard to do without a measuring cup; but this measuring cup is a figurative measuring cup, whereby you compare your life and your family to everyone and everything. “Compare and despair!” Trust me, all is not what it appears to be on social media. Chances are, those pictures were professionally taken for big money, with Photoshop edits and flattering filters. Social media is wonderful during the holiday season, if used for recipes, inspiration, ideas and shopping; if however, you use it to “keep up with the Joneses” it will be downright depressing. Focus on being the best version of YOU this holiday season, and not on creeping on random people via your Facebook feed, If you get sucked-in to the vortex of jealousy, remember that those images of people who seem to be living a beautiful, problem-free life are all “smoke and mirrors.” We’ve all got problems, issues and baggage, but some of us clean-up and present ourselves a little nicer! Put down the measuring cup. Keep it real, and try to lift others up!
Sing, Sing a Song
There is nothing quite like the timelessness of a Christmas carol, and it is certainly a rite of passage for a child to learn and to know the words to familiar, traditional tunes. I have flashbacks of all of my children, belting out various holiday tunes, at one time or another. What’s really fun, is to foster this love of holiday music, by getting input from the entire family. Make a family playlist, by asking everyone in the family to contribute 3 of their favorite Christmas songs, sung by their favorite artists. Have family members research new holiday songs on itunes, or on Spotify and Pandora. I’ve been doing this for a few years, and it is an easy, fun way to celebrate the season. The end result, is that your entire family will have an eclectic holiday music collection, which will feature everyone from Bing to Coldplay. Nothing brought me more joy last year, than hearing Bruce Springsteen’s version of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” playing from my son’s room. What’s more, I think he was pretty shocked when I admitted that I really enjoyed Snoop Dogg’s version of “Winter Wonderland.” If nothing else, your knowledge of new artists and popular holiday songs will give you instant “street cred” with the younger set. Buddy the Elf is correct: “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.” I defy you to not be in a good mood, with Christmas music or movies playing in the background!
Cut Corners for Your Sanity
Let’s face it, the holiday season is BUSY. Time management is truly of the essence. So, while in your mind you thought that the gold-embossed turtle dove homemade wrapping paper was spectacular and doable, in reality, you need to know that nobody will care if you simple “huck” the gift in a gift bag with a little tissue. There are some beautiful, inexpensive gift bags, with coordinating tissues and ribbons, that will certainly channel your inner Martha Stewart, while saving you tons of time!
In so many ways, you need to “practice simple” this holiday season. It will save you time, and it’s the right thing to do. For example, it may sound thoughtful to search the world over for the school bus ornament for the bus driver; however, keep in mind that the woman has been driving a bus for 30 years, and really only wants a “Dunkin’ Donuts” gift card. In particular, for acquaintances and service providers, gift cards or simple gestures make a LOT of sense, and will be very much appreciated.
It’s important to remember, however, that some things demand a little more effort, and time. For example, I love designing our family Christmas card, hand-addressing all the envelopes, and writing small notes to the recipients of the individual cards. I’ve always done this, and it’s sort of “my thing.” I know that I could save ions of time by spitting out the labels on the printer, and sending the cards, without a little “shout-out” in each individual card; but I enjoy doing it, and my friends and family often comment on how much they look forward to receiving our holiday cards. So, I find that I prioritize my “corner cutting;” the school bake sale might get store bought cupcakes, so that our holiday cards get done. I’m okay with that. I’m much more of a designer than a baker!
Don’t Go Into Debt
This suggestion is MUCH easier said than done. With a young family or with a large extended family or group of friends, it gets hard NOT to want to go on a massive spending spree, or to recognize all the wonderful people in your life. You will find that for adults, the cards that accompany the gifts are far more important than the gifts themselves; a sincere, well thought-out note of well wishes and gratitude goes a very long way. Most adults would much rather you focus your buying needs on children, rather than on them; they are thrilled with a small token and a kind word or two.
The greatest advice that I could give to young parents about Christmas gifts is: “do not set the bar too high.” If you start delivering half of the Target store to your house on Christmas, then it is very hard to stop giving an impressive haul, every Christmas. This generation of kids seems to “get, get, get” all year long, from all sorts of family and friends. These days, a trip without a hissy-fit to the grocery store warrants a prize; trust me, your children will not be deprived if you do not break the bank. Just keep telling yourself: less is more.
Smile and Take Pictures
I have to admit, I am a lunatic about taking pictures. This is partly due to the fact that I grew-up in the 70’s, as the youngest of seven children. There was never time or money to take pictures or to develop the film; school “All about Me” projects were always fraudulent, as my mother would send me to school with a picture of one of my older sisters. That being said, I vowed to capture every waking moment of my own children’s lives. As they’ve gotten older, I have definitely dialed it WAY down, but I still take a lot of snapshots. With our family owning multiple electronic devices, it is pretty easy to capture a moment in a few clicks or a quick video. The kids are actually pretty good about allowing me to “snap away,” largely because they don’t know otherwise.
Even if the kids do protest the picture taking a bit, PRESS ON: down the line, this visual proof of times gone by, is a true gift. Just last week, my teenagers stumbled upon an old video from nearly a decade ago, where they re-enacted Indiana Jones, with a rocking horse, a pirate sword, and a jump-rope whip; they howled at the surreal images of their younger selves. People will go in and out of your family’s lives, your family will change and grow, but the pictures will always tell a story.
So, there you have it - a few ideas to keep you on pace for an enjoyable and less materialistic holiday season. Little Cindy Lou Who from the Grinch is one of the smartest talking toddlers I know; in the world famous children’s book, she realizes and communicates to the old Grinch that Christmas is about people, and not about “packages, boxes and bags.” I know this to be true. When I think of the holiday season, I am so much more inclined to remember reading THE POLAR EXPRESS 5,000 times to my young son, or listening to my daughter persevere through the “Twelve Days of Christmas,” than I am anything else; in the end, it’s these little, imperfect moments, that make the magic of the holiday season.