Coping with Christmas

Most people have less than perfect holiday gatherings — they have family tension, melancholy, and dry turkey too.” — WebMD article

IMG_1854Update: A slightly edited version of this piece is currently featured on David Crumm’s Read the Spirit. I’m honored by David’s lovely introduction to the column on his site.

Christmas is my least favorite holiday, and I’m no longer ashamed to admit it. In newspapers across the country and in blogs throughout cyberspace, scores of fellow grinches are expressing their Yuletide angst. And you know there’s something to it when health and medical Web sites like WebMD publish serious articles on how to survive this stressful season.

My annual winter holiday dread has little to do with religion. In fact, at this point in time, Christmas itself has little to do with religion. Christmas has become a performance art; a commercially manufactured event designed to benefit our nation’s retailers. Even worse, it’s a form of emotional blackmail — cleverly repackaged with Martha Stewart trimmings.

Originally a pre-Christian Roman celebration known as Saturnalia, December 25th was converted to Jesus’s birthday celebration by the Roman Catholic Church. What started out as a rowdy solstice festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness has slowly evolved into a rowdy Christian festival involving the lighting of torches, drinking to excess, and doing all manner of wild things to chase away winter’s darkness.

And while I’m on a rant, why do we insist on keeping Christmas in the winter, risking our lives by traveling in god-awful snow and ice storms to eat ham with relatives? If celebrating Christmas is non-negotiable, why not pretend that Jesus’s birthday is in July, and throw a barbecue?

So there you have it. Just don’t accuse people like me of being sacrilegious for wishing the holiday would melt away quietly with the weekend snowfall. Regardless, as Garrison Keillor once said, Christmas is “compulsory, like a thunderstorm, and we all get through it together.”

We feel steamrolled by the sheer force of family tradition. The key is to take some control over the holidays, instead of letting them control you.” — WebMD

Meanwhile, here’s what I’ve come to believe about Christmas — plus how I’ve learned to cope with it and (sort of) enjoy it:

*Giving to a favorite charity always restores my drooping holiday spirit. When the bah-humbugs start biting, there are two antidotes: (1) Roll up my sleeves and help someone who needs me. (2) Pull out the checkbook and make a donation to a good cause.

*I remind myself that it’s not my job as a woman (or a family member) to make Christmas merry for everyone. Seriously, we all must STOP relying on women — usually the elderly — to keep cranking the Christmas Machine for us. Either we all contribute to the festivities — in any way we can — or settle for the holiday we get. Unless you’re still in college, you’re too old to hold your mom, your grandma, or your aunts totally responsible for your holiday happiness.

*I resist the pressure to bake and I’ve stopped feeling guilty about it. I love to cook, but I’m not a baker. This is the secret to holiday weight loss. I even purchase pre-made pie crust for our Christmas morning quiche, and nobody seems to mind. My lack of participation in the annual cookie exchange doesn’t mean I don’t admire everyone’s Yuletide talents. Just not my thing.

IMG_1854 2*When Christmas makes me sad or angry, I remember I’m not alone. I’ve grown more sensitive to the fact that many people are grieving losses (including death, health crises, and divorce) during the holidays. With its glaring focus on family unity, Christmas illuminates all the vacancies at the holiday table as well as any emotional distance that separates us from extended family. Talking with my friends, I’ve learned that almost everyone is facing some sort of holiday change or challenge, and is trying to make the best of it. Nobody’s having loads more fun than anyone else.

*I can decorate the way I want, and stuff the rest in the attic. Every year, Doug banks our fireplace mantel with evergreens, pheasant feathers, twigs, and twinkle lights. It’s a set-designer’s fantasy that delights everyone who sees it — especially me. That tradition is a keeper. But over the years I’ve pared down to a few sentimental treasures, including a sterling silver bell (dated 1985) that was given to us by a dear friend when our son Nate was born. In recent years, Doug and I have lost interest in putting up a Christmas tree — which baffles some holiday visitors.  We reserve the right to change our minds in the future.

*I do something ordinary, with people I know and love. Forced merriment is not my idea of a good time. Even with people I like. So I have to question the need to cram our calendars with “special events” between December and January. Why not spread the love throughout the year? Likewise, I enjoy giving gifts — but not under pressure and not all at once. What touches me more are the simple, reliable, consistent efforts made all year ’round by my nearest and dearest. I’m nourished by un-fussy gatherings with both friends and relatives who don’t expect me to turn myself into a pretzel just because it’s Christmas. 

*I’ve lowered my expectations and welcomed the new. Nobody will ever throw a Christmas party like my Scottish immigrant grandparents did when I was a kid. But I usually encounter a dash of their old-country energy and gregarious spirit at the Christmas Eve open house hosted by my son’s Croatian mother-in-law every year.  Following my grandparents’ example, I try to bring some Celtic cheer (and a bottle of Bailey’s) to every party I attend. That said, I also privately acknowledge the times I feel mournful or alone — even in a big roomful of partying people.

*I’ve accepted the fact that I’ve finally grown up. I cannot return to the home of my childhood Christmases (the house was sold years ago). My beloved father has been dead for more than 20 years, and my mother’s dementia has progressed to the point where she doesn’t know it’s Christmas. My son Nate is 28 years old now, and married to a woman we all adore. As much as I love to recall the memory of Nate’s first train set chugging around the tree when he was small, our family’s early traditions and special moments cannot be recreated or reenacted. And that’s the way life is supposed to work — every month, every day, of each beautiful year we’re given. We grow, we change, we endure, we mature, we move on … Glory be.

— Photography and artwork by Cindy La Ferle — 

 

Stress-free Holiday Parties?

A smiling face is half the meal” – Latvian proverb

Now that November’s here, shelter magazines are already featuring stories on holiday entertaining. Here’s a favorite essay from Writing Home — reprinted with the hope that it will set the tone for a more relaxed holiday season at your house ….   


The Secret of Stress-free Dinner Parties

My friend Pam knows the real secret of successful entertaining, and I wish I could be more like her.

Pam doesn’t spend weeks obsessing over what she’ll serve for dinner, nor does she turn her life inside-out when a carload of company arrives from Cincinnati for the weekend.  And it’s not that she doesn’t care. Pam and her husband, Steve, genuinely enjoy hosting friends and family, which partly explains how they make it look so effortless.

I like to remember the winter evening my husband and I were invited to their home for an impromptu dinner with another couple.

“Wear something comfy, and don’t expect anything fancy,” Pam warned us. “We’re just having a casual meal before the holiday rush.”  But that didn’t mean beer and pizza on paper plates. This was a real celebration of friendship.

Pam had dressed her table with a navy blue cloth and a simple homemade centerpiece of apples, tangerines, and pears. Around the fruit she lit a few votive candles. Before lifting a fork or a wine glass, Pam asked that we all join hands and give thanks for our years of friendship and the chance to slow down long enough to eat a meal together.

As promised, for dinner she served comfort food, including roast pork, a vegetable casserole, and spicy baked apples for dessert. The whole evening, in fact, was cozy and relaxed and nourishing — and Pam insisted she enjoyed it all as much as we did.

“We wouldn’t entertain as often if we felt we had to make a big deal out of it,” she told me.

I’m still trying to break the habit of making “a big deal” out of hosting company. The folks we typically entertain, after all, don’t expect a major production. But like many women I know, I was brainwashed into thinking that making dinner for company is synonymous with staging a photo shoot for a shelter magazine. I worry that my guests will scrutinize my housekeeping and discover my inner slob. And while I love to cook, I still worry that anything I serve, whether it’s meatloaf or Lobster Newberg, won’t turn out like the photos in the cookbook.

Of course, my feelings of culinary insecurity always rise like bread dough at holiday time.

Come fall, even before I’ve folded up the Halloween ghosts, I’m already fretting about Christmas decorations and turkey recipes. By mid-November, everything on my to-do list starts leaping around in my head like a chorus of nervous elves. And by the time the holidays are over, I’m thanking heaven that they are OVER.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. Fussy entertaining puts everyone on edge and creates just as much pressure for guests as it does for the host. The quickest way back to sanity is to remind ourselves that most people are easily pleased with home cooking and real conversation. We don’t have to own Waterford crystal or serve meals worthy of a four-star chef. And the ones who truly enjoy our company aren’t judging us by our napkin rings.

Sharing an evening with good friends is a gift in itself when the occasion is heartfelt, the presentation simple. Pam and Steve figured this out a long time ago, and that’s why it’s always such a pleasure to gather at their table. — Cindy La Ferle