The title got you, didn’t it? Everyone wants to find the secret to “A Perfect Christmas”. Do you know that if you Google that particular phrase, you’ll get nearly 57 MILLION results? We’re obsessed. We all want to reach that pinnacle of holiday transcendence!
What does that even mean, and why are we so willing to sacrifice our finances, energy, mental and emotional health to achieve it? Why are there so many Clark Griswold’s among us?
What if you could have a wonderful Christmas without going broke? Without feeling like it’s never enough? Without your year end calendar looking like the Dave Matthews Band tour schedule? You can. The best Christmases are made up of one thing, and one thing only: Great memories. Let’s talk about making those, shall we?
Like most people in my generation (dear God, if you ever want to feel old, just say – or type – “my generation”), we didn’t have extravagant Christmases when I was growing up. Or extravagant anything. Forget extravagant…I don’t think we even had standard-vagant. But no matter….my Christmas memories are stunning and warm and wonderful.
We didn’t have much, but we had the important things. We had the Firestone Christmas Collection albums that played Vic Damone, Julie Andrews, and the Vienna Boys Choir on the console stereo. I would RUSH to turn the LPs over when one side finished, and my mother warned each time “don’t you scratch those records!” We had visits from my grandparents, and an Advent wreath, and red tapered candles that were only lit at Christmas. We had a real tree that made the house smell glorious all by itself, no pine sprays needed. (We didn’t worry about pine needles in the carpet then. We had this nifty thing called a vacuum, and if that didn’t work, the kids crawled around on the floor and picked up every last one of them.)
Oh, and with real tinsel. That had to be put on one strand at a time. ONE strand at a time. Or risk the wrath of my oldest sister. Then the cat would eat the tinsel off the tree. And you’d find tinsel in their poop. Raise your hand if you’ve ever cleaned a litter box with tinsel-poop in it!
My grandmother would bake pies that were simply perfect, and my mother would completely ruin a potentially scrumptious turkey by baking it for 12 hours. We used the real bone china, which was older than the hills and only removed for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter. The fancy cutlery also came out of its velvet lined box, and was painstakingly polished the week before.
There were Christmas specials on television, usually strung together on one or two nights, that meant staying up late and getting popcorn and Kool-Aid. There were parades, and festivals, and potlucks. Our teachers spent weeks preparing for chorale programs that filled the gymnasium with assorted relatives and neighbors, and ended with each of us getting our own candy cane.
Midnight Mass was never missed, which meant my Mother’s mandate of an afternoon nap so I could stay awake at church. A nap. On Christmas Eve. When every child in the world is so excited they can feel their hair growing. I’m sure I never dozed off, and I’m sure she knew I wouldn’t doze off, but it gave her some extra free time to get those last minute tasks done…or maybe just have a glass of wine in peace.
It. Was. Amazing.
But you know what I don’t remember? What gifts I received. With the exception of a stuffed snake that was bigger than I was from my sister the year I was almost 7, I only recall new handmade flannel gowns from my grandmother. That’s it.
Then I had my own family, and for a short while, lost my mind trying to have THE BEST CHRISTMASES EVER! I started the Toys R Us layaways around June or something equally ridiculous. I fussed over the latest hors d’oeuvres featured in Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest. I put up trees in the living room, the family room, the dining room…and table top trees in the kids’ rooms. I coordinated outfits, and made my daughters wear crushed velvet dresses in August to take advantage of the Olan Mills’ pre-holiday sales.
I digress. My revelation about what truly matters was hard earned, and for another post. In a nutshell: Got divorced, got really poor, and yada yada yada…learned that my kids didn’t care about all that stuff. I call it “The Miracle of the Paper Chain”, and I promise to write about it soon.
Now, about having that wonderful Christmas. Let’s apply the K.I.S.S. principal (Keep It Simple, Sweetie!):
Keep A Tradition (or Make a New One)
It doesn’t really matter what it is, but there is precious sentimentality in being able to say, “Every year, we…..” Took photos at the giant tree in front of City Hall? Had a movie/popcorn night on Christmas Eve? Went caroling? Made handmade cards? Not everyone is cut out to read “T’was The Night Before Christmas” in front of a roaring fireplace. Whether you want to carry on something significant from your past, or break the mold and go in a new direction, commit to a holiday tradition.
Are you artistic? I’m not. At all. No skills. I can’t sew, I can’t draw, I can’t sing, I can’t play an instrument. I can cook a bit, but I’m not a natural and I have a limited repertoire. OK, pretty much I’m the queen of chili and French silk pie….anything else is a crap shoot. The bottom line is that the effort matters more than the result. Whether you make a digital holiday card, whip up dozens of cookies, write an entertaining Christmas letter or poem, knit some mittens for your neighbor, or bedazzle your way to the 1st place award in the office Ugly Sweater Contest, use your creativity and share it with those around you.
Give of Yourself
Easy option: write a check to a local charity. I would never discourage anyone who has the means from supporting organizations that help others. If you want to genuinely fill your heart, though, cash won’t do it. Adopt a family for Christmas. Volunteer at a local animal shelter, homeless shelter, soup kitchen, or food pantry. Take a turn as a bell ringer for the Salvation Army. If you can play a piano, there are nursing homes everywhere that would welcome an hour of Christmas songs filling the halls. Short on funds, but have energy to offer? Clean a house for a neighbor, put up someone’s Christmas lights, offer to address Christmas cards for someone whose arthritis makes it hard for them to do, offer to babysit for a friend who needs some private time. I promise you, there is an abundance of need for things you can do. The “Season of Giving” was never meant to mean material things.
Eat, Play, Love
I will be the last person to advise you to throw caution to the wind on what you eat, because I know those who struggle with food choices (like myself) don’t need anyone telling them to just enjoy the holidays and eat whatever they want. I will tell you, though, that you should not feel guilty if your coworker makes the best cookies ever and you have one. The anxiety we create for ourselves by obsessing over what not to indulge in effects the scale more than that cookie does, I promise you.
Be silly. Play the Pie in the Face game or Twister. Yes, you’ll look ridiculous. It’s OK. Sing Karaoke. Get out the Monopoly game. When’s the last time you played a rousing game of War with a deck of cards? Do you have snow where you are? If you do, know that I’m jealous, and you practically owe it to me to either have a snowball fight or build a snowman or make snow ice cream. The critical thing is to put down your phone or tablet, and engage with people.
Love each other. While most aren’t comfortable with an abundance of emotional gushing, the holiday season offers a free pass for getting gushy without being branded a weirdo. Whether it’s the general vibe or the result of the eggnog, it’s ok to look someone in the eye and say “You mean the world to me”. And unless you’re saying that to someone you’ve been secretly stalking for six months, it will mean the world to them to hear it. So if you’re reminiscing about good times and someone’s name comes up that isn’t with you, pick up your phone and reach out. Be genuine.
Oh, and my final thought: If you want a happier life, don’t abandon these tips when January rolls around. If you live your life with appreciation, generosity, and love, it will come back to you.