I’ve done a few Christmases in my time, and the ones that stand out in my memory were the ones where people were happy and what was exchanged had meaning.
Due to my Christmas Procrastination, this post should have been written several weeks ago, but much of what I am about to say will still, I hope, have value.
Here are my thoughts on how to have the most mindful, meaningful Christmas ever.
Like it or not, in our materialistic world, presents are important—the ones you give and the ones you receive. First, a disclaimer. There is no perfect present. Sorry! There just isn’t one.
So to ward off disappointment, be flexible. Act surprised. Plan to like whatever is under the wrapping paper. (And if you don’t, you can always regift it next year. More later on this point.)
I like toys. I like playing with toys, imagining how kids will play with toys. So first, I don’t go to Toys-R-Us when kids are about. Not fun. They are usually cranky and the moms are in a rush. So I go shopping at night. On years when I am planning ahead, I’ll hit the stores as SOON as the merchandise is stocked, which seems to be about mid-September.
I don’t have any little kids about any more, but that doesn’t stop me. I get a card off the angel tree, or check with the local church or mission, or donate to Toys for Tots. There are ALWAYS plenty of kids that need presents. I like to buy clothes, too, so I always pick at least one little kid that’s under the age of 2.
Clothes for adults
In a phrase, this is risky business. What you like, they may not like. It may look great on the rack but awful on them. Or it’s a great style but the wrong color. Or worse, the wrong size! An exception may be when the relationship is intimate, in which case, (for women) lingerie is fun, toasty slippers are appreciated, warm woolen mittens and gloves are useful.
Remember when Liz Taylor was in her salad years and hubby Richard Burton would give her a rock each year? I am talking major diamonds here. If you can afford same, go for it! Or if an engagement is in the wind, ditto, whatever the size. But otherwise? Jewelry is just like clothing—a very personal item to be chosen with care.
No, I’m not going to go Martha Stewart on you here. If you have oodles of time and lots of helpers AND you start about January 1, anything knitted, crocheted or fashioned out of wood or fabric may be a go. Or if you have thought ahead and put up an extra jar of pickles or jam last summer, this might be an option. Otherwise, let’s think simple.
I love Michaels. If I were rich I’d buy stock in Michaels. So sometimes, I’ll give a gift of a project—today’s equivalent of the good ol’ Paint-by-Numbers set. The reason these work is that Christmas afternoon and the following weekend is usually a winding down time.
So browse about and find something that might be fun to do. Or fun to do with a younger family member in tow. A 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle and a long afternoon with the snow falling outside? Pure heaven!
Last holiday I gave a simple soap making kit to a younger relative and we both had fun creating bars with daisies and cool slogans in lotsa colors.
Or, think in terms of items that you can combine. I was once given a gift of cheeses—Not the Hickory Farms inedible incomprehensible selection, but small quantities of gourmet-quality specialty cheeses. It was a gift we all could share.
Or you might put a favorite mug with small packages of coffee from your favorite coffee roaster. Another consideration is anything made locally in your area, especially for out-of-towners. One relative of mine this year may be getting a special soap made from Red Rock minerals.
I see nothing wrong with regifting special jewelry or books or dishes or artwork that you have enjoyed yourself. The key here, I think, is to choose something that has meant something to you, that you want to share with another. Save the recycled fruitcake for somebody you don’t have to look in the eye but once a year.
If you are a good doobie, you save bows from year to year and you buy your wrapping paper each January. There are some GREAT buys out there.
But also consider having a wrapping paper swap party with your friends. I once got a 250 foot roll of wrapping paper with cartoon penguins on it. After using it three season, I still I had enough paper to wrap a refrigerator. That would have been a great candidate for such a swap.
If you LIKE to wrap packages, great! Go for it. If you are like some of us, consider doing all the delegation on this that you possibly can.
There are professional wrappers out there, often in the Malls that will wrap for a good cause. There are stores that will wrap for free. There are teenagers in your neighborhood looking for extra cash and small fry relatives with a fondness for money of their own. There is no moral imperative out there that says you have to wrap your own presents!
The thank-yous come later. If you have the job of either writing thank you notes (or are responsible for nagging a younger family member to do it), try this trick. As SOON as the present is unwrapped, make a note of the sender on the reverse of the package tag and drop it into a Tupperware container that you won’t lose. Then you don’t have the chore of figuring out who gave what to whom, several days later.
Decorations are fun, but they take a lot of time. They also sometimes take cooperation of other family members that may not be in the mood when you are. Here are some suggestions that might help:
To tree or not to tree
This didn’t used to be an option. We’d trek off to the local tree lot, or for a special year, out into the woods, and gather the best, after having looked at them all. This, when children are small, is a BIG event. Considering sucking it up and just DOING it, if you have smallish members of your family. They will remember it.
As your family departs the nest, the options widen. You can decide to have a traditional tree, buy a plant-after live tree, have an artificial tree, buy fragrant greens for just some of the rooms in your house (bathrooms are good), or just skip a Christmas or two and NOT do it. It’s OK not to have a tree.
Poinsettias are dirt cheap—You can get some really nice ones at Home Depot or WalMart. Buy several and put them by the front door. Be careful with these inside, as they are toxic to pets. But out on the patio where you can see them through the window is great.
One of the best wreaths I ever had was built from findings on a family picnic. Another was after I’d just visited Williamsburg, VA. I dehydrated citrus slices and attached to a pre-made wreath. I think the key is to realistically estimate how much time do you have. If this is a time-crunch year, consider taking off an afternoon and just doing it. Or not.
Outside lights can be a big pain. They consume a lot of time to put up, but are the most visible decorations from the street. You are bringing joy not only to your family, but everyone who drives by. While you are at it, if you place some of those lights to shine where YOU can see them inside, you get a two-fer.
But think simple. Can you put up some hooks that can be used year after year? Is there a way to drape lights simply? The key is the overall effect, and that doesn’t mean the Santa on the roof with a helicopter whose roters turn in time to Jingle Bells. Unless you are into that sort of thing. I’m not.
Outside lights are also a time when four hands are better than two. It gets a little lonely out there! If you aren’t helping, consider checking every 20 minutes or so with a compliment (NEVER a suggestion of how to do it better!) Bring out a cup of hot apple cider. Rub someone’s neck or cold feet when they come in. Say how much you appreciate the effort. You’ll get more willing help next year!
If you pack all of these in the same box, they really don’t take that much time to spread around. Pick items that aren’t too breakable. Your pets will thank you. These decorations take a less time than a tree, and still give the festive spirit. Buy maybe one new one a year? You’ll find some great buys at Hallmark, etc. after Christmas but before you pack everything away. They will be a surprise when you unpack next year!
Top of the holiday communication list (almost) has got to be Christmas cards. If you are like me, one of the big reasons to give Christmas cards is to GET Christmas cards. It is fun for two weeks or so to actually get hand addressed mail in the box. If this is one of your objectives, send early. You’ll get a lot more cards in return. No, I’m NOT going to call them guilt cards. A card is a card.
What kind of cards to send? Something that appeals to you. It doesn’t have to be expensive. But the sentiment—and the design—has to mean something to you. If you are into photography, by all means send a casual shot of you or the pets or snow or whatever suits your fancy.
Even OfficeMax and Staples have gotten into the act. They will all make cards for you-just given them a disk! If it is too late this year, still consider taking pictures that you can upload to Shutterfly or CafePress for next year?
You always have cards left over—right? DATE the outside of the box. If you skip a year or two, people won’t know the difference if the same cards are sent again. Or send them to a different group of friends. Or switch and send the ‘company’ cards to family and vice versa. I never throw out a good card.
If you like to make cards, you can. I don’t have this talent, but I treasure the ones that I get, and I save them. They are truly works of art—gifts in their own right.
Large holiday get-togethers
These include extended family meals, company parties, those buffets you are invited to. First, some etiquette. If you are invited, RSVP. Then call and ask what you can bring. If they say, ‘oh, nothing’, bring a bottle of wine or some other food item anyway. Flowers are not as welcome, because then your hosts have to stop what they are doing, find a vase, arrange the blooms…you get the idea.
If you take a casserole dish, put your name on the bottom with masking tape. Yes, I know think you’ll remember, but, in the flurry of leave-takings you might not. And then the poor hostess is stuck with the inevitable question, WHO brought this?
I have some dishes that I ‘inherited’ five Christmases ago. I keep putting them out with food in them thinking someone will claim them. So far nobody has. Maybe the elves brought them?
DON’T show up on time. I once arrived exactly on the dot and was greeted by the hostess in curlers. I hung out with the family retriever until the family and other guests assembled. But don’t be too late. If you are really concerned, just drive up and park and wait for another party-goer to arrive and go in together. Works for me.
If you are hosting the affair, always do a mental check for acquaintances that are single, widowed, alone, who may not be going home for the holidays. Be generous and invite them, too.
Likewise, once I get to a really big shindig, I always check the corners of the room. There I find the shy ones, the ones that really don’t want to be there, the older family members or sometimes a person in a wheelchair. And that’s who I talk to first. Everyone wants to be wanted. And I have had some really good conversations that way. Sit down and start listening. They’ll provide the words for you.
Inter-family visit conflicts
Here I am talking about ‘whose house to do we go to for Christmas this year?’ This is one situation where you need to be firm, fair, and EARLY. It’s easiest if you do the two major fall holidays together: decide where you are going for Thanksgiving and Christmas before the season gets underway.
Consult with your significant other to present a united front. Be fair with your time, but firm. Ignore the manipulations and coercion messages that may fly. This is YOUR decision, not that of your family-of-origin.
At the same time, if you are sleeping with someone, but are not married, check with your host family first to see what their preferred sleeping arrangement plans might be. They may be old-fashioned, but it is their house. Be flexible!
‘I can’t believe I ate the whole thing.’ I know that has never happened to you, but I’ve had some mornings-after that I’d rather forget. Eggnog has a way of slipping up on you. What works for me is a slowing down of the process. Whether it’s booze or Christmas cookies, I go by the ‘look, smell, savor’ rule.
Your taste sensation numbs out after the first three bites anyway, so what I try to do is: for drinks, have a tall glass of water between. For treats, one cookie, then a vegetable plate, then another goodie. I notice and enjoy more what I am consuming that way.
Holiday dinnerware. I don’t know about you, but I do think it is special if the dishes and napkins and mugs reflect the holidays. To make a meaningful Christmas, you might consider affixing some of the kids’ holiday drawings to plates or mugs. CafePress will be glad to do it for you!
What gave me the most anguish in Christmases Past was really wanting to do the best I could for my family, to make this the best Christmas ever. But I still had to go to work each day and keep up with my regular household chores, and they already took all of my time.
I haven’t estimated, but to do Christmas in a traditional fashion has got to add at least another 50 hours of work and preparation that last month or so. That’s like acquiring another full time job!
So if you can, cut yourself some slack. Maybe by checking in with your family and asking them to tell you what they remembered and liked about LAST Christmas. Or delegating. Or skipping years with special projects. Or taking off an hour for a long soaking bath. Or inviting family members for an evening walk through the neighborhood to enjoy the lights.
Although we traditionally delegate Thanksgiving as our ‘grateful’ holiday, I think that designation might also apply to Christmas. It is good to be grateful for the people still in our lives, and grateful for the memories of those who are not. Grateful for the pieces of Christmases past that really did come together.
Stop a moment to be grateful for the love that we share with each other.