Wednesday, January 1, 2014

A Simple Christmas

Am I the only one who often finds Christmas Day to be vastly different from the peaceful, joyful celebration of Christ and family promulgated by heartwarming family movies and rosy Facebook posts? As a child, my family’s annual celebration felt like what I saw on those movies. It had the feel of a Norman Rockwell painting—lots of gifts, a huge meal with the family gathered around the table, smiling faces. Maybe there was stress for my parents, but I never saw it. Christmas was perfect and full of magic.

As an adult, my experience with Christmas Day has been different. The first year that I did not go home to my parents’ (and later, after the divorce, my mother’s) house was the year that we moved to Egypt. It was just Jeff and me. It was a good Christmas, with lots of church activities, time with friends, and relaxation, but it was different from what I grew up experiencing. Jeff and I had bought gifts for each other, and we had gifts that we received by mail from family, but the morning gift tradition felt sparse after a history of bounty—my parents went a bit (a lot) overboard in gifts for us kids, and it was the first year in my memory that the tree had gifts for fewer than five people under it; in later years, it had been gifts for eight or nine people. The tree just didn’t look right to me with so few gifts under it, and the feel of a sparse Christmas was even greater since we’d only put decorations on the top half of the tree due to our two new kittens having entirely too much fun with the lower branches and any ornaments within their reach.

Our first Christmas tree in Egypt

 The meal that first Christmas on our own also was very different from what I’d experienced in the past. For the first time, I was responsible for preparing Christmas dinner. I had started learning to cook only after our move, so I had a scant six months’ experience, and the thought of preparing a full, traditional Christmas dinner was overwhelming. Jeff and I had talked about it and agreed that our Christmas dinner would be his favorite meal, one that was at about the limits of my cooking abilities at that time: meatloaf (using his mother’s recipe), baked macaroni and cheese (again using his mother’s recipe), green beans, carrots, and mashed potatoes. Even that meal was a stretch for me, though it turned out that we didn't eat it on Christmas day at all; we'd eaten a big breakfast and weren't that hungry, so we just ate pizza for Christmas dinner! It was a good Christmas, but I couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't as perfect as it should have been ... even though I had no idea what a perfect Christmas would look like without a big family, a huge pile of presents, and enough food to feed an army.

The years went by. My cooking skills improved. Our family grew to include Alexa. Our cats became slightly less interested in the ornaments on the tree. By the time we had our first Christmas in Cambodia, I was ready to recreate my childhood Christmases for Alexa.

Or so I thought.

I carefully combed through Amazon’s website, looking for perfect gifts for my one-year-old. We put up and decorated the tree—again, only the top half of it, though, after the first lower-placed ornament was batted around the tile floor by one of the cats. I planned a full Christmas dinner, consisting of those traditional staples that graced the tables in all the movies and television shows, none of which I'd ever cooked before. I carefully planned out my cooking schedule, based on what time we wanted to eat dinner so that we could make it to a dessert party later that day. I was confident in my cooking skills and my planning ability. I hadn’t counted on the stress of cooking several new dishes in one day with the goal of having them all done, hot, perfect, and ready to eat at a specific time.

That day ended up being incredibly stressful, as I tried to enjoy watching Alexa open and play with her gifts (which still felt like not enough to me) while keeping one eye on the clock so I could start cooking on time. Then I spent the rest of the day in the kitchen, hurrying because I’d underestimated how long it would take to do certain tasks or stressing because the brand new recipe wasn’t turning out quite like I thought it should. By the time we sat down to eat, I was exhausted, grumpy, and all around not in a pleasant mood. And dinner didn’t even look or taste as impressive as I’d hoped. (Note, though, that my blog post from that year put a positive spin on everything! Christmas must be perfect, after all.)

Christmas dinner in Cambodia
Jeff told me later that he’d prefer we eat sandwiches and have me be relaxed and happy rather than attempt to have the Norman Rockwell Christmas dinner with me stressed out and grumpy. I had to agree.

The next year, we went to the States for Christmas. It was less stressful in some ways and more stressful in others—I didn’t have to cook, and I had my big family Christmas with the fully-trimmed tree and lots of presents under it, but we also had to juggle “doing Christmas” with several branches of the family, none of whom wanted to celebrate together. Our typical R&R stress of trying to coordinate with all the people we want to see, all the things we want to do, all the shopping we need to do, all the logistics of returning to post with everything we brought with us plus all the things we bought or were given—all of that stress was magnified because it was Christmas. Plus a reckless driver caused a car accident and broke my mother’s arm, resulting in a great deal of pain and an unexpected surgery for her. So it was good to be home for Christmas, but it was stressful, even aside from my mom’s accident and surgery. Not the joyful and relaxed holiday for which I longed.

This year, we decided to go simple. We bought a real tree—my first one ever. Alexa excitedly helped decorate it, which meant that it had ornaments all the way down to the bottom, and somehow the cats didn’t bother it this year … maybe because of the motion-detector-activated cans of compressed air Jeff set up around its base J . Most of the other Christmas decorations stayed in their storage bins. We bought Alexa one big gift—a dollhouse—and one small gift—a family to live in the dollhouse. (It came mostly furnished, and Alexa’s grandmothers finished filling it as part of their Christmas gifts to her.) We bought small gifts for each other. I planned a traditional, but simplified, Christmas dinner, which consisted only of dishes that I’ve cooked before: pre-cooked honey baked ham, candied carrots, green beans, Irish soda bread (as the commissary was out of crescent rolls, which Jeff prefers over any other bread in the world), pumpkin pie, and birthday cake for Jesus. We agreed that the whole day would be played by ear.

This year's tree and Alexa's dollhouse

We woke up when Alexa woke us. We had her wait for just a minute while Daddy got the camera ready, then went downstairs with her and allowed her to open her gifts. We had a surprise video call from Jeff’s mom at what turned out to be the perfect time, so she was able to see her granddaughter open the gifts she had sent … as well as the gift she’d sent for Jeff, since I wasn’t paying close enough attention and Lexa opened it before I noticed. We made sure to take pictures of Alexa opening her gifts so we could put them on Facebook for the givers to see. Other than one gift—a Play Doh set that would have been messy—we allowed her to open her toys completely (box and all) and play with them before moving on to the next. We made sure she knew who had given her each gift, as an exercise in gratitude.

After all the gifts had been opened, I made breakfast while Jeff and Alexa played with her new toys. We ate a leisurely meal, and then I started preparations for Christmas dinner. We had no set time when we wanted to eat, no place to go, no one coming over. I’d planned out in what order I’d cook everything so that things would be ready and at the right temperature at the same time, but it didn’t matter what time that turned out to be. There were no surprises and very little stress. When dinner was ready, we ate it, all of us content and relaxed and happy to be together. It was by far the most joyful, relaxed Christmas I’ve experienced as an adult.

Are there things that we “should” have done differently for Christmas Day this year? Yep, no doubt. Are there things that I’d like to do differently next year? Absolutely. For one, I want to incorporate the real meaning of Christmas into our family traditions in more ways than just having a birthday cake for Jesus. And I’d love to follow the more traditional church calendar with a season dedicated to Advent (which I did to some degree this year, but not as deeply as I’d like) and a 12-day season dedicated to Christmas, rather than just one day. These are things I’ll think about and discuss with Jeff and plan for next year. But overall, I’m very happy with the way things went this year.

We found the Christmas playbook that works for our family: Keep it simple and relaxed. Don’t try to make it television- or Pinterest- or even Facebook-worthy. Recognize that my family now is different from my family of origin, and it is not necessary or even desirable to recreate my childhood Christmases. Allow for flexibility throughout the day, and remember the most important thing—Christmas is about love, not perfection.

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