As often as I hear expressions of anticipation about the holiday season, I hear complaints: so much work, too many heavy meals, the pressure of buying gifts.
Some years ago, I set out to reduce such stressors. Some ideas listed are common sense, but others turned traditional behaviours on their stocking-capped heads.
1. Stop giving material gifts to those over twelve
For local friends and family, take them out (later) for lunch, tea, a performance, skating—whatever you two would enjoy. Cost: $10 to the sky, and no one has to make houseroom for an object. (You could treat distant recipients when you see them.) There may be a few family members for whom you wish to box up a well-chosen object, but getting rid of most shopping gives energy to choose more pleasurably for the few that remain.
Many readers donate to charities in their friends' names, as my girlfriends and I now do.
For a delightful hostess gift, a recipe from the much-loved Canadian food writer Bonnie Stern for a decadent white chocolate-peppermint bark takes minutes to make and accommodates many variations. (You can also make it with 70% dark chocolate, and add 1/4 cup each of two of the following: candied ginger, candied orange peel, or dried cranberries.)
2. Postpone your party
The season is designed to create overload; in December, parties pile up like a heap of coats on a bed. Wait till February and throw a Beat the Blues party, where you play old blues records, serve blue corn chips and dip, blue cheese mac-and-cheese, blueberry tart, and drink blue champagne or Labatt Blue.
People will have more fun when your event is not the fourth of the week. If you must host a holiday party, invite guests for a cinq-à-sept (or six-à-huit) or afternoon open house instead of a full dinner.
3. Retire traditions, selectively
Always bake twenty types of cookies? Decorate every room in the house? Carol till you're hoarse? Ask yourself, "What do I most enjoy?" and let the rest go.
A family may reflexively follow traditions that they no
longer cherish. Chez nous, for example, we stopped buying a tree, reduced decorating, and cut out cards —but I love to put on Christmas jazz and bake, so continue to romance the yeast and butter.
On December 1, one son's roommate, in a munchie-induced fugue, ate all the chocolates out of his Advent calendar in one sitting; I think it's time to 86 that tradition!
4. Give a heartfelt hand
I often wonder why stores are so crammed and nursing homes so quiet. Pay a visit, volunteer to cook or serve a community meal, wrap gifts for a social service agency, shovel someone's walk, take a neighbour's child for the day so she can finish her own tasks. You know what needs doing.
5. Go elsewhere for once
Some ideas from friends and acquaintances:
- A single mother is taking her two children to a resort as the sole Christmas gift for everyone. (Travel costs can be horrendously high just before Christmas, but travel on the 25th is often deeply discounted.)
- A woman bartered her work for a Thursday-to-Sunday stay at an acquaintance's chalet
- A recently-widowed woman will spend Christmas visiting a friend since childhood, now widowed too, and living in France
- A couple have registered for a retreat at a local Buddhist center
- A family of four will help build a school in a developing country, a project led by their congregation
- A friend is returning to her childhood home to care for her elderly father while her sister and brother-in-law, who are the live-in caregivers, take a break.
By "going somewhere else" I'd also include fellowship events outside your usual sphere. At such a service this month, I learned about other traditions by joining the congregants' service and sharing a meal. It's not necessary to hold any faith or affiliation to attend the many services, lectures, concerts or community meals open to the public.
We are very flexible about when our children visit us, and host a leisurely gathering a day or two after Christmas so that our young adults do not race over icy roads to be sure each set of parents is seen on Christmas Day.
6. Decline, occasionally
Invitations are like emotional peanuts: can't stop at one. It's so easy to keep saying yes to another soirée or, for that matter, cup of eggnog.
But permitting ones' self to say no-thank-you makes the yeses more enjoyable. Don't feel you must accept every invitation you receive (unless you really want to attend). If your presence is non-negotiable, it is often enough to drop in for an apéritif, then wish the endurance revelers good evening.
I remember Dorothy M., our friend Don's mom. Don visited us around 9 p.m. every Christmas, which is when Dorothy, caving under the tension of producing yet another mammoth family dinner, would collapse in tears. He and his siblings would do the dishes and then clear out so Dottie could decompress in her bath with a large sherry.
She's gone now, but she represents women who think we have to do it all, and double down for the holidays. There's nothing wrong with a nice restorative sherry, but why not lighten the load so the season engenders joy rather than tension?