Tasha Schlake Festel
By this time every year, I usually have a Christmas hangover. All of the previous weeks' hurrying, scurrying, eating and spending leave me feeling beaten down and exhausted. Come December 26th, I am all done with Christmas, looking forward to getting past New Years' Eve, and wishing for the quick arrival of the usual routine.
But for some reason, this year is different. I am not hung over! Sure, I'm tired, but I'm still feeling energized and ready to party on for the holidays, sad to say goodbye to Christmas but excitedly looking forward to New Year's Eve, even dreading the return to the grind come January 2nd.
I honestly don't know why things are different this year. I did at least as much hurrying, scurrying, eating and spending as in years past - probably even more eating - but I enjoyed it. All of it. Even the things I have absolutely hated in previous years, like Peppermint, our Elf on the Shelf, didn't seem so bad. I tried to live in the moment and enjoy it all, even when those moments included the stomach bug and 3 cases of the flu just a week before Christmas.
We have a tradition of opening the bulk of our presents on Christmas Eve, leaving one "big" gift to find under the tree on Christmas morning. I grew up in a German home doing the whole shebang on 12/24, but my husband grew up in the traditional Christmas-morning-kind-of-household. We combined our traditions and the kids seem to really like it. I don't mean to brag, but I really knocked it out of the park this year when it came to presents for my difficult-to-please 9-year-old daughter. It was one of those years where the stars aligned and everything I got for her was a hit. Normally conservative on the praise, she actually said, and I quote, "I love everything! FINALLY! Somebody gets me!" For just that one moment, I was a Christmas rock star.
And it was awesome.
Like a lot of people, we also have the cute/creepy Elf on the Shelf. Some people get really into it and enjoy it, while others, like me, drudge through the Elf Season trying to remember to move the little bastard every night after bedtime. The elf-over-achievers have elaborately creative hiding places for the little guy and post photos of it on Facebook. Last year, these demonstrations of uber-motherhood left me feeling inadequate. This year, I tried to see those photos as an example of someone embracing the magic of the holiday season. I didn't want to run them down after having a few too many egg nogs. I hid our elf every night and posted my own photos on Facebook. I tried not to disparage him too much this year, and was able to keep my f-bombs to a minimum when describing him. Granted, his hiding spots were not all that impressive, but I did it with a little less bile than I have before. I'm even thinking about next year already, considering writing some rhyming clues for a Peppermint scavenger hunt every night.
Another tradition is our "Christmas House." It's an advent calendar in the shape of a cute red and green Victorian home with the doors and windows numbered one through 25. In previous years, each night I would stuff two matching pieces of leftover Halloween candy in the door and watch the kids fight over who got to open the door and who got to take the candy out. This year, we came up with a better system. I still used leftover Halloween candy (that stuff has a shelf-life of about 16 years), but I had the kids agree to a system for opening and retrieving. They decided that one would open the even numbered doors and the other would open the odd numbered ones. Who ever didn't open the door that day got to remove the candy. After I instituted the rule that the "candy getter" was not allowed to run off with both pieces of candy, causing the "door opener" to chase after, often resulting in a quick beat-down, Christmas House has been a joy.
We have also taken to going to the real-live Christmas House in Saugus. You know the one. It's right by the Target and Kelly's Roast Beef. Yes, that one. Well, a few years ago, we stopped in to view the lights, walking around in the designated areas to enjoy its brightly lit splendor. Before stopping to admire it, I used to mock it, laughing at its gaudiness. However, I changed my tune once I saw it up close. Hundreds of people go to visit and it's really quite spectacular. The joy on the faces of the kids in the yard made me realize I was being awfully Grinchy for passing judgment. This really was a gift to all of us, and kicks the Stone Zoo's Zoo Lights' ass, by the way. I urge you to drop in and take a peek. It really is fun. And as a special treat this year, I was heckled by some woman driving by who screamed out her window at me, "Get back in yeh caaaahhhh!" Apparently, the Christmas spirit shines brightly for some but not others.
All in all, this year was different. It wasn't just the colored lights and retro silver garland we put on our Dr. Seuss-ish tall and skinny tree. It wasn't just that I was the only one in my house to escape illness. It wasn't just the two fabulous new holiday cocktail recipes I enjoyed. For this one season of this one year, I had my head on straight. I knew my priorities. I didn't sweat the small stuff. I have no idea what the hell happened to me - perhaps it was the nightly egg nogs - but I sure hope it happens again! It really was fabulous.
I like Christmas. I really do. Unfortunately, it is also a holiday that the reality can never quite live up to the hype, even in my own mind. Christmas time is supposed to be filled with cheer and joy and fun and gift-giving, but as you all know, for the parents, all the Christmas magic is really a crapload of work. It is also a lot of top-secret work, mostly orchestrated by little old me. I do get quite a bit of help from my husband, which is awesome, but since he works full time and travels a lot for his job, most of the planning and shopping and baking and wrapping for the Big Event falls on me.
I also complicated matters this year by getting an Advent calendar, after being inspired by this blog. I wanted to make Christmas less about getting things and more about doing things. I had all kinds of grand plans of little good deeds that the kids could do each day, or fun little scavenger hunts around the house to find a new ornament for the tree. On the first of December they opened the first little door and found a note explaining the exciting countdown that would take them all the way to Christmas Eve. Hurray! New prizes and activities for each day! They also had three little Hershey kisses. On day 2, they found a note telling them to clean the playroom and find old toys and books to donate to charity. And no chocolate. They were less enthusiastic about this. For the rest of the month, most of the activities and little prizes were well received, but it was hardly the “spirit of kindness and giving” that I had envisioned.
My kids get very excited about Christmas and they love all the secret plans and decorating and cookie baking that come with the holiday. Unfortunately, for my children, anticipation and excitement are often expressed as hostility and short temperedness. The last few weeks have been a little rough around here. I threatened more than once to come downstairs on Christmas morning make my kids watch whilst I box up all their gifts and pack them in the attic until they deserve to have presents. Mother of the year, right here.
Luckily, I didn’t have to make good on my threats, and despite being visited by my son every 15 minutes for what seemed like the entire night, we managed to hold the kids off until 7am and Christmas morning was a huge success. However, my middle daughter fell victim to the inevitable Christmas Letdown— that vague feeling of disappointment that comes from it all being over. Christmas can never live up to the hype. Poor thing cried into her French toast.
Now the excitement is over and all anyone wants to do is lie around and watch movies and play games, which is mostly fine, except that the house looks like some kind of wrapping paper/board game/ lego /snack bomb went off and I’m the only one who seems to think this is a problem. The rest are content to wade through it all, moving cheerfully from one new activity to another. Sigh. On one hand, I love the time between Christmas and new years. We can all lounge around in our PJs, picking at cookies and leftovers, and playing with all our new stuff. On the other hand, part of me wants Christmas (or at least all the cluttery stuff that goes with Christmas) to be over. I love the cozy togetherness, I hate that every single surface in my house is covered in cookie tins and lego boxes and half-played games. Soon it will all be packed away, and I will have another year to try to figure out how to have a Christmas with more joy and less stuff.
There is a great difference between what I hope to deliver for an Advent/Christmas season experience and what actually happens. More fatigue and chaos than usual this year made that difference between hopes and reality even greater. I’m tired, stressed and out of shape. Time is passing at warp speed. My children are doing well in school- academically and behaviorally- but are in full mutiny at home. Full. Mutiny. The house and its contents are eating us alive. By the time the kids are in bed, the last thing I want to do is catch up on housework. Does this resonate with anyone?
I start to understand why Christmastime can be a really depressing time of year for many people. Being so overwhelmed helped form my approach to Advent as a time of preparation before Christmas. I resigned myself to accomplishing the bare minimum and resolved to avert my eyes from those posts on Facebook by others who had their act way more together than I did. I tried to avert my mind from my Ghosts of Christmas Past who used to do things like crafts and send Christmas cards and bake for neighbors.
As for the religious aspects of Advent and Christmas for us, I fell far short here as well, but sticking to the basic script of action managed to keep us anchored: Advent wreath, weekly Mass, Almsgiving (giving to the needy). At my husband’s urging, I had stored the purple and pink Advent candles with the Advent wreath this time (duh…), so we were ready to go on the first Sunday of Advent. If you aren’t familiar with it, think of it as a time marker to draw you back to meaning each week as you light another of the four candles and say a short prayer. Most people do this at dinnertime, but my kids often loved having them lit at breakfast, too. Who doesn’t love a little candle light to dispel darkness?
We went to church on Sundays. This is what we do anyway during the year, but it was another good re-centering time. Well, sometimes, it was wrangling kids until donuts and juice time, but the effort was there. The same is true for our lurching efforts at helping the needy: I pictured us picking a charity, discussing it thoughtfully with our kids and really bringing the lesson home for them so they would not be bogged down by the consumerism of the season. Um, well, we bought a couple gift cards for requests on the Giving Tree at church. No discussion. No big revelations of gratitude for our abundance. Sigh.
I even tried to set some quiet time aside for reflection and prayer. While that spiritual housecleaning went about as well as the literal housecleaning this year, it was a start. Lastly, though I wasn’t able to banish guilt altogether, each time it reared its nasty, negative head to criticize my efforts or my failure to be more loving and patient with my kids, I tried to shrug it off and just carry on. I had to shrug a lot, but saying, “I’m sorry,” to your kids and “It is what it is,” to yourself and moving on is pretty good for one’s mental health.
I know this column is supposed to be about how we parent our kids, but since how we take care of ourselves affects how we take care of our kids, I thought it was okay to talk about personal preparations. As for making a season “merry and bright” for the kiddos, I have found that material indulgence makes for monsters that get harder and harder to feed.
Now, lest you think I went all crazy and made it all about the Baby Jesus, be assured that many presents were bought, stockings were hung, Santa was contacted, much wine and goodies were consumed and, for the first time, I gave in to my children’s pleas to decorate the outside of the house. It was a simple affair, but some fake garland, some fake wreaths and some little lights spruced up the house considerably. (Get it? Spruced?? Heh, heh)
We got a big tree and let the boys decorate it by themselves. I didn’t rearrange it afterwards, so the little birdies remained upside down on the branches and the pipe cleaner candy canes they launched to the top sometimes caught their mark. Only a few ornaments got broken. (*cringe*)
I took them to the Salvation Army so they could each pick out a Christmas mug to drink from during the season. This was a way bigger hit than I anticipated. I even let the three year old keep the decidedly non-Christmas-y, plain, brown mug he chose.
Re-reading over these last couple paragraphs, I realize I’m patting myself on the back for things that must make me look like a crazy control freak. No matter. Trying to control our neuroses is a way of showing our kids love. I’m satisfied with the way things turned out for Christmas this year. I think my kids and husband are, too. Not getting too hung up or stressed over what I couldn’t control helped keep a relaxed, happy atmosphere around here. It saved space for love to grow, and more than anything else, Christmas is about love. Right?