real simple holidays.
realism in a world where simplicity gets complicated.
This year, as in all recent years, I’m planning to fill my children’s advent calendar with chocolate. Chocolate is delicious. It’s a sweet treat when my kids get home at the end of the day. They gobble it before even removing their winter coats and they do not spoil their dinner and everyone is generally pleased unless, of course, someone is overheating in said coat or can’t get their shoe untied or has a knot in the back of their hair caused by TOO MANY WINTER LAYERS. It’s hard work, being a human.
I’ve written a version of an essay like this for the past three years running, but I think it bears repeating: I like holiday magic. I like making it, I like witnessing it, I like sharing ideas with others about how to make it, but I don’t want myself—or anyone—to be stressed out about it.
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A few weeks ago I had an idea for making (and sharing) a different kind of advent calendar. I had found an old cork board left on a stoop by a neighbor. It was a nice smallish size and I had a length of black swatch tartan that I thought might be nice to cover it with. Envelopes pinned to a subtly festive pinboard? Twenty-four of them for each of the days leading up to Christmas, filled with twenty-four affirmations for a peaceful, festive holiday season? Lovely! Simple! Real simple? Using the same advent calendar we’ve used before and adding chocolate.
In the years since making and sharing my first advent calendar, I’ve found that sometimes even the most well-intentioned planning for magic can have the opposite effect. That’s kind of the way with magic, isn’t it? Now, I generally let spontaneity be my guide. I add chocolate to the advent calendar, and almost everything else I leave up to happenstance. If it’s feeling like a good night for walking around the block in our pajamas to look at Christmas lights, we’ll do it. If a neighbor invites us to a Christmas-tree lighting, we’ll go. If I remember to stick a piece of paper in a small canvas pocket saying as much, well, terrific.
For things that do require advance planning, I think it’s a good rule of thumb to do for my kids and loved ones what I actually want to do myself. If baking with my children makes me want to scream and results in a mess that’s exhausting to clean and kids that get distracted and I’m left with egg yolk dripping from my fingers, I make the dough by myself ahead of time. I might also make zero dough and buy some from the store. I might skip the cookies altogether! If the local holiday train ride/pajama party/other vaguely commercialized Christmas enterprise concocted for parents and kids to feel some small amount of holiday joy, brings me no small expenditure and no small stress, I opt out. If going to a Christmas tree farm makes everyone grumpy and cold, I go to a lot.
I always have to remind myself: Make magic, but skip the magical thinking. On holidays, like all days, everyone remains themselves. A child who has a hard time sitting still is not going to suddenly have the restraint and patience of a Christmas angel and sit through an evening choral concert at the local church. A mother who hates being in a messy kitchen with lots of people crowding around her, might well have a panic attack while decorating gingerbread cookies. A dad who has a low tolerance for his feet getting cold is gonna be a real bummer at the annual outdoor menorah lighting.
Yes, there might well be moments where, like Marmie and her girls, everyone is gathered around a piano singing carols. And there will be a follow-up moment when someone’s temper flares and a tantrum erupts and a small person refuses to wear the “special” holiday outfit that will look nice in photos. There will be whole holiday movies watched while snug under blankets and they might well be prefaced by a pouting match between siblings about which one to choose.
On this day, of all days, you’re acting like a human being with needs and moods and feelings?
Well, yes. We’re human, three hundred and sixty-five days of the year.
In the world we live in, where we’ve been given the tools to make miniature cinematic renderings of our daily lives—and of our holidays, especially—it’s tempting to imagine that everyone’s festivities include nothing but grateful children lit by the glow of beeswax candles. We watch reels of beatific mothers pressing their cherubic children’s palms into snowflake cookie cutters. There are twinkle lights and evergreen boughs and snowball fights where nary a soul ends up in tears. These aren’t only scenes from feature-length movies where we briefly delude ourselves into thinking that Jude Law might soon burst through the door in all his turtle-necked glory, these are scenes featuring our own friends and family and our favorite influencer next door. Like Hollywood directors, we’re all cutting the spilled hot chocolate from the reel. We’re skipping over the fact that the car ride to the Christmas tree farm included hours of traffic and leaking transmission fluid. Spousal spats? (Dads in general?) Never heard of them.
The truth is that holiday magic doesn’t exist apart from holiday realism. They’re a package deal and just because some of it gets cut from the highlight reel, doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.
In case you need more realism, here are similar thoughts from years past: