Christmas

Mistakes I Made this Christmas

“I feel like it’s taken me my entire adult life to fully appreciate why my father dreaded Christmas.” I said this to my friend Dee who had dropped by bearing gifts late Christmas morning. She had noted the glazed look in my eye and asked me how I was. Moments earlier, Stump had pushed a box of blocks across the kitchen table, causing a bowl of oatmeal to tumble to the floor. We now had oatmeal splattered on the wall. Kellie and I had different views about to what extent the spill was intentional. She was pretty sure he meant it. I was pretty sure he just didn’t care one way or another. But it didn’t matter who was right: the situation was the same. There was oatmeal everywhere and still no one had eaten breakfast.

When I was a child, the adults in my life spoke openly about their mixed feelings about Christmas—the stress of crowds and holiday shopping, the endless lists and expectations. I didn’t get it then, nor did I want to. But I get it now. I keep thinking that with each passing year, I’ll master the art of Christmas. I’ll get all of my shopping done early. I will perfectly match each person in my life with the gifts they deserve. I’ll find a way of doing this without activating my scarcity meter—I’ll just spend what I need to spend without batting an eye. But somehow, it seems, each year I bungle it. Sometimes I feel like Christmas is a test of my ability to be an adult in the real world. Every year I think that I will finally pass and yet, every year I fail. Here is the rundown of this year’s mistakes:

  1. I started my Christmas shopping too late. This is a perennial problem. Every year I remind myself how easy Christmas would be if I started my shopping in August. I’d have time to carefully consider each person in my life. I wouldn’t have to spend a bunch of money all at once. In spite of these intentions, each year around Thanksgiving I realize that it’s already the Christmas season and I think, Oh well. I still have plenty of time. But I don’t start actively thinking of Christmas until December 15 when I submit my final grades. By that time there’s no avoiding the crowds. I wait in long lines of traffic to get to the mall and then feel like a chump as I vie for a parking spot. I don’t finish my shopping so much as I give up on the process.
  1. I bought too much. Because all of my shopping was done in a frenzy, I made bad decisions. I bought gummy bears and candy canes for my kids’ stockings when I knew that extra sugar on Christmas was a bad idea. I bought board games at TJ Maxx, not because my kids had asked for them, but simply because they were there, and I wanted more boxes to wrap and put under the tree. Though I begin each Christmas season by declaring I’m only doing stockings for my kids, I always chicken out.
  1. I bought too little. When I shop for extended family members, I have a different problem: I don’t want to buy trash. I mean, I don’t want to buy something that will likely be tucked away in a drawer and ignored until it is eventually thrown out or donated to Goodwill. I worry that even a gift card is likely to be stashed and never redeemed. I suspect that I may be missing the point entirely, that if I were a sincere and generous gift-giver I’d let go of this fear and just happily shop for others. But because I’m not that evolved, I play it safe and buy everyone socks. This does not make for a very exciting gift exchange session.
  1. I thought we could skip breakfast. This was really the defining mistake of this year. I went to bed with dreams of baking blueberry muffins. I imagined my kids would wake up and we’d watch them unpack their stockings and then everyone would happily take a break from gift giving. But then the day arrived and my children were so giddy. They danced over the $2 bowls I had bought them at Target. They ate pieces of their candy canes, and slurped down the applesauce packets that Santa had tucked in their stockings. And then they wanted to keep opening boxes, so I let them. I figured: They had applesauce. What’s the worst that can happen? And then I found out.

There’s a Christmas magic that happens with stockings, which tend to be full of small everyday pleasures. But I think that something frightening sets in when the ceremony moves to the packages beneath the tree and the living room fills with all kinds of gift detritus—paper and cardboard and plastic—and we know that at some point the gifts will end. The gifts will end and we will still be ourselves in the real world, untransported, and in this case hungry. Stump in particular was so hungry that he would not agree to eat anything except gummy bears and candy canes (see mistake #2) and he spent the next two hours resisting food, pushing over bowls of oatmeal, throwing Legos across the room, demanding I assemble a puzzle, and then angrily disassembling the puzzle as I built it.

Next year I will do better. I will start my Christmas shopping in August. I will buy the perfect gift for every human in my life. I will not waste money, but I also won’t be stingy. I will lovingly assemble a healthful breakfast first thing on Christmas morning. My children will gather around the table and clean their plates. They will be wearing festive sweaters and their hair will be combed. Next year, I swear, I will win at Christmas.

Christmas Eve: All the Things I Haven’t Done

It’s 9:33 pm on Christmas Eve, and as I wait for Smoke to fall asleep, I take stock of all the things I haven’t done.

1. I haven’t finished wrapping presents.

2. I haven’t filled stockings because Smoke is still awake, nor have I put any presents under the tree because Stump would have immediately unwrapped them and thrown them across the room.

3. I haven’t bought my partner any kind of gift that would indicate that she’s special to me in any way. I’m hopeful that I’ve chosen enough items to fill her stocking, but it’s going to be filled with underwear, socks, and beef jerky. No fun surprises. (Kellie, if you are reading this: spoiler alert.)

4. I have only mailed one third of my Christmas cards. This is typical, and why I always choose cards that don’t directly mention Christmas. That way, I figure I have until New Years to send my “Season’s Greetings.”

5. I haven’t mailed packages to family members who live far away. I don’t remember making a decision about this. It just kind of occurred to me this morning that tomorrow is Christmas and I haven’t done that.

6. I haven’t assembled thoughtful gifts for my closest friends, even though I have received them. I didn’t make jams, or soaps, or buy a case of expensive wine to dole out to those I love the most, although I fully intended to back in November.

It seems that many of the seasonal things I’ve done, I’ve done haphazardly. I did my Christmas shopping, frantically, in two days. I made cookie dough last week, but didn’t bake or frost the cookies until this morning. It feels like this year Christmas is something that simply happened to me, like a tornado or the flu.

I dream of a future holiday season, one in which I decide which holiday activities are meaningful to me and follow through. Perhaps that would entail beginning in November, not just with intentions but with action. Perhaps it wouldn’t mean doing more or buying more, but it would mean engaging with the season, with the notions of giving and receiving, and breathing my way through rather than closing my eyes and hoping for the best.

Smoke and neighbor Kathy's Christmas cookie art. Please note Smoke's psychedelic Santa, on offering tonight.

Smoke and neighbor Kathy’s Christmas cookie art. Please note Smoke’s psychedelic Santa, on offering tonight.

I am Santa. Santa is me.

As I write this, Smoke is sitting in the bed next to me looking at comic books, claiming he wants to stay up all night. He has Christmas Fever. When I told him it wouldn’t be possible for him to stay awake from now until Christmas, he responded “It’s only seven days away.”

I’m humoring him, just a little, by letting him stay up late with me tonight. It’s better than turning out the light and hollering at him every five minutes because he won’t settle down.

Two nights ago I helped him write this Christmas list for Santa.

 list

I will transcribe it here for you.

Santa- I! want for Christ[mas]

A Science Kit!

Angry Birds Transformers Teleporters!

The! Minerals Mommy Kellie uses in the Bath

A Whole Box Of Candy Canes (every kind)

Dumbledore’s Castle (Lego Set)

The Dark Fortress (Lego Set)

Jay’s Thunderator (Lego Set) [I later learned that the product is actually called Jay’s Thunder Raider]

Double-sided Tape

Bat-coptor (Lego set)

I’ve got to say, I’m finding it hard to juggle my duties as mom and Santa, and I find it hard to know where one of us ends and the other begins.

When I was a child, Santa’s role was clearly defined. He came down our chimney, filled our stockings and ate our cookies. All of the presents under the tree came from Mom and Dad.

We haven’t drawn such clean lines in our family. We don’t have a chimney, so I don’t know how to explain how he enters our house. Santa fills stockings, but Smoke is under the impression that he’s in charge of all the gift-giving too.

I let him believe this since this is what his friends all think, and I don’t want to muddy the waters. But the waters are muddy. How will I explain that Santa looked into it and decided that (s)he really didn’t want to spend fifty dollars on a video game accessory (see the second item on the list), or hundreds of dollars on a Lego fortress?

Santa has already come through with a science kit, bath minerals, and double-sided tape. The box of candy canes (every kind!) seemed like a no-brainer but is turning out to be hard to find. Sadly, I notice socks aren’t on the list…

To be sure, Santa will bring some of Smoke’s friends more, and some of them less. I’ve no doubt that Santa will bring someone Dumbledore’s Castle, or extravagances Smoke hasn’t even dared to dream of yet, and I’ve no idea how I’ll explain why Santa seems to play favorites.

Holiday-Grumpy-Cat-Internet-Meme

Meanwhile, I’ve already purchased more than I intended to. I find my eyes glazing over in the Target or in our local toy store, hopelessly torn between wanting to keep things simple and imagining Smoke’s disappointment when he opens the last gift and begins to enumerate all of the missing items on the list.

“You realize these are just suggestions?” I asked as we were writing. “Santa’s not going to get you everything you ask for.”

Smoke gave me a confused look. “It’s not suggestions,” he told me. “It’s a list.”

The Most Excruciating Time of the Year

When it comes to Christmas, there are two kinds of people I’ve never really understood.

The Would-Be Elves: people who think it’s the most wonderful time of the year.

The Sullen Humbugs: the people who constantly refer to the holidays as being “hard” or something to “get through.”

For most of my adult life, I would have categorized Christmas mostly along the lines of minor pain in the ass with a few bright spots. I like other people’s light displays, but I don’t feel like going to the trouble of putting up my own. I like giving gifts, but I never feel like I’ve given enough. I like sweets, but I’d prefer a nice batch of oatmeal chocolate chip cookies to an endless array of shortbreads and fudges. Still, I can almost bring myself to understand that for the Would-Be Elves, a season of lights and crafting and gift-giving is just what they need to make it through the dark season.

elfspaghetti4

The Sullen Humbugs I had a harder time with. Sure, I’ve felt a fleeting sense of malaise on every Christmas morning I remember, a fear that nothing is as special as it’s supposed to be, but it struck me that the humbugs attributed more power to the holiday than it really had. What exactly was so “hard” about a month where people hung up lights and shopped a lot?

This year I’m starting to get it.

Smoke is six this year, which makes him Christmas’s target audience. He’s no longer afraid of Santa like he once was. (Several years ago, we had to leave Santa a note requesting that he not come in the house.) Smoke is old enough to understand that he’ll be getting presents, but he can’t quite measure time the way an older child can, which means that, I imagine, it feels to him like Christmas could arrive at any moment. It could be tomorrow, or it could be three months from now. And so, he’s living in a state of suspended anticipation. That’s intense.

To amp it up even further, he’s around twenty-five other kids all day who feel the same way and are feeding off of each other. I witnessed the pure synergy of this earlier this week when I dropped Smoke off in the kindergarten line and one of his classmates, a gentle boy who I’m fond of, was wearing a Santa cap. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said, and all the kindergarteners screamed in delight. “Ho, ho, ho!” he said again and again and again. This was a joke that would never grow old.

On Sunday Kellie bought a Christmas tree, but by the time she got it home it was dark and she was tired. The ornaments were still in boxes stored in the shed. When explained to Smoke that they wouldn’t be decorating the tree that night, he was genuinely dismayed. I had assumed it was pretty much impossible for a six-year-old to hold onto disappointment continuously for longer than an hour, but at bedtime he still looked glum; his lower lip had never returned to its usual spot.

The next morning, after eating an iced gingerbread cookie, he was the most distracted squirrely version of himself I’d seen in weeks and it took everything I had to get him ready for school and out the door. As I buckled him into his car seat, I hissed “We are NOT doing any more sugar in the mornings!” Smoke, barely registering my anger, replied, “I’m just so excited to decorate the tree tonight, I can’t think of anything else!” “Really?” I said, amazed that this tree could hold so much power for him.

Deer Show

Add to the chaos that Stump, who will be two next month, is fascinated with a) the concept of a tree indoors, b) lights, and c) shiny round balls (e.g. ornaments). In short, it’s as if Christmas trees were specifically designed as a decoy for him to systematically dismantle. So far he has pulled on the cords, leaned forward to suck on the lights, tried to hug the tree, pulled on branches, shaken branches, detached ornaments from their casing and hurled them at the floor.

To cope with all of the above, I’ve got a single strategy, a video that Kellie picked up at Costco for seventeen dollars, a purchase that I was initially critical of and which Stump now refers to as “Deer Show.” To distract Smoke from his perpetual anticipation, to keep Stump from tearing apart the Christmas tree, I am hosting daily screenings of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. So far the audience consists only of a towheaded baby in a diaper and a six-year-old in PJs hopping all over the couch, but if you ever find yourself needing a break from the holidays, feel free to drop in for the Deer Show. It will be playing and we’ll clear a spot for you.

Like Christmas in January: Four Day Enchiladas

When I was a pre-teen, my mother once suggested that we should celebrate Christmas in early January. We could grab a tree from someone’s trash and buy all of our gifts on sale. At the time I must have given her a look like she was deranged, but as an adult, I think she was onto something.

One of my favorite things in the world is when I am rewarded for my own laziness, like when a friend returns my favorite scarf a week after I left it at her house. I may have had vague notions that it was missing but hadn’t taken the trouble to look for it yet, and now here it is, returned before I’ve bothered to worry. This is so much better than the alternative, which is also possible in my world: tearing apart my entire house looking for the scarf, driving myself crazy and checking every place multiple times.

My laziness was again rewarded this week when I planned to make enchiladas but wound up, due to my own lack of motivation, with a series of dinners that progressively led to enchiladas and fed my family for three nights, with enchiladas to spare for future lunches.

Day 1: Soaked beans. Went shopping for chicken thighs, tortillas, and canned enchilada sauce. Ate sandwiches for dinner.

Day 2: Put beans in slow cooker in the morning. By afternoon, decided I was too tired to deal with chicken—all that rinsing and dealing with a wet and stinky package. Resorted to standby meal: beans wrapped in a flour tortilla with sour cream. Bonus: the five-year-old was willing to eat that.

Day 3: Put off dealing with chicken until the end of the day. At 5:30 pm, realized that we could just eat chicken for dinner. Threw a few pre-cut veggies in the pan for good measure and made some white rice.

Day 4: Finally, enchiladas. Assembly took twenty minutes because all ingredients were ready. Remembered a lazy and useful trick: layer tortillas with the other ingredients rather than rolling them into individual enchiladas. Voila: enchilada casserole.

ImageIf I were ever to write a cookbook, I would title it “Put an Egg on it” because that’s pretty much my cooking philosophy. Most dishes are improved when topped with a fried egg.

Image

In the case of this enchilada casserole, once it comes out of the oven you’ve got ten minutes to kill and if you’re like me you’re antsy, so you might as well fry an egg.

ImageTo be honest, these weren’t the best enchiladas ever. But consider how disappointing that would have been if I had slaved away on them for an entire day. By now, the enchilada casserole had become a fancy way of serving leftovers, and on those terms it was a success.