Make the holidays your own

Do you look forward to or dread the holidays? I’ve been in both frames of mind — depends on what you have to look ‘forward’ to, doesn’t it?

This time of year, with longer darkness and — at least in my part of the world — an ever-present chill in the air, bears considerable emotional impact.

With all of the season’s challenges, it’s really important to take care of ourselves and our loved ones. Have some quiet times, soften the lighting, play a board game or watch a gentle movie.

One of the nicest Christmas breaks my hubby & I ever had was the year he got a bad cold. He wasn’t dreadfully ill, but tired and bedraggled enough that we had to bow out of all invitations.

We spent our days snuggled up inside by our Christmas tree, with a fire crackling, mugs of hot tea and our favourite movies on the television. I made chicken soup and other comfort foods that didn’t tax my hubby’s tummy. When my hubby snoozed in his favourite chair, I read or indulged in some retro paint-by-number artistry (which is not as low-demand as you might think, and remarkably engrossing).

It was probably the most relaxing Christmas we’ve ever had.

One Christmas a few years ago, we, with our nieces and nephews, decided to take over Christmas dinner at my hubby’s sister’s place and have soup and grilled cheese. She was slightly appalled at not putting on a big meal, but she was outnumbered. Several of us brought tabletop grill pans, and everyone contributed something interesting — my hubby and I brought the perfect grilling bread (golden and crispy on the surface, but soft and chewy underneath), our niece made two pots of soup, people brought their favourite kinds of cheese and some delicious add-ins. We banished my sister-in-law from the kitchen and created easy, delicious melted masterpieces in very short order. Then we all sat casually around the dining table and shared the goodies.

My family’s holiday celebrations centred on Christmas Eve. One year, after several busy weeks at work, I decided to keep things simple. I made a huge pot of chicken, sausage and shrimp gumbo a couple of days ahead. All I had to do to serve it was reheat, put out a basket of fresh crusty bread and a big salad. My parents were no longer alive, but my brother came with his kids, partner and her kids, and my mother-in-law wasn’t going anywhere else so we invited her as well. The recipe turned out to be delicious, granted, but I think the cozy and simple meal struck a chord, because that enormous cast-iron pot of soup got cleaned out, even with a big bowl of delicious English trifle waiting on the sideboard.

There was a Christmas when we had both families over and expanded our meal to invite our neighbours from across the street, who had lost both their son and daughter-in-law that year and were now raising their grandsons. We weren’t sure they’d feel comfortable enough to join us, but they did, and our families welcomed them, and it made for a really special Christmas.

The point of holidays, whichever you celebrate, isn’t to drive yourself crazy tracking down gifts, or make everything look like a Hallmark moment, or grit your teeth while relatives behave badly.

Warmth and fellowship are the point. Spend quality time with people who matter to you, and include people who or hurting or would otherwise be alone. Have easy, good food and easy laughter. Put aside differences, because lost time can never be recaptured. Be kind to each other.

I wish for you whatever brings you peace and contentment this holiday season.

The holiday spirit

Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya - photo by E Jurus
Poinsettias at the Mara Sopa Lodge, Kenya – photo by E Jurus

The Christmas season can be challenging. Visions of dysfunctional family get-togethers, guilt-laden commercials asking for donations, neighbours who don’t know what Christmas-light overkill is, shopping mall craziness and sad songs that make me cry dance through my head.

I think anyone who gets giddy over the holiday season hasn’t yet experienced it after a deeply personal loss, or suffered through years of tense family occasions, and I envy them. For the rest of us though, there are strategies to cope.

Losing a loved one, whether human or pet, can wipe out whatever Christmas spirit you might have had. For those of you who may be scoffing at being so sad after losing a pet, get over it! Pets become an integral part of a family, and are loved and taken care of just like any other family member, so losing a pet is devastating.

For our first Christmas without our male dog, who’d been with us since he was a puppy, I couldn’t stomach anything glittery in the house – it seemed like too much of a celebratory atmosphere, and we certainly weren’t celebrating anything that year. We also dispensed with a standard Christmas tree; I just put a few white branches in a pot and a minimal amount of ornaments. Keeping everything low-key helped, and we got through it. The following year we lost our female dog as well, but in recent years we’ve been able to return to a fairly normal Christmas. It’s never been quite the same, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.

Sometimes we’re in a position to help others through a similar crisis.

One November, after many years of Christmas meals where the interpersonal tensions among some family members were thick enough to cut with a knife, if they even showed up, Mike and I decided we were tired of it.

We were on the same wavelength that year. I’d been watching a great old Hepburn and Tracy movie called Desk Set, and the scenes of Christmas merriment at Hepburn’s office really struck me – I hadn’t experienced that kind of celebration for years. When I mentioned it to Mike, he said he’d been feeling the same way, and he suggested that we do something revolutionary: hold Christmas dinner and invite everyone, regardless of who was speaking to whom. Everyone would be welcome!

I agreed, and we started planning. After some thought, we decided to have a brunch, which tends to be a more relaxed occasion than any other type of meal, in an open-house format to allow everyone with extended families a good window of time to drop in. Hot food would be out on the buffet table from noon to 4pm, and people could come and go as they needed.

We were just going to start making phone calls to everyone when the unthinkable happened – at the beginning of December one of our uncles died riding in the car with his wife. He’d had heart issues for years, but no one knew that anything was imminent. We debated what to do, and decided that we would go ahead with our meal, and that because time was short we needed to extend the invitations while we could catch everyone during the funeral weekend. It was a difficult choice to make, but it worked out – the idea seemed to be a bright spot in everyone’s mind.

We didn’t ask people to rsvp, just to come if they could, even if it would only be to share a holiday beverage. The only comment I made to Mike ahead of time was that if anyone brought trouble into the house I’d throw them out, and I meant it. This was to be a Christmas of harmony, even if only for a day.

Several days ahead of the big day I began cooking a selection of dishes I thought would sit well in warming pans for four hours, and then I kept cooking and cooking. My brother, who stayed with us on Christmas Eve and offered to help, asked me what the heck I was going, and I remember replying that I couldn’t seem to stop making food!

Christmas Day arrived bright and sunny. By 11:30am everything was on the buffet table and we waited with baited breath to see if anyone would actually show up to help us eat the huge amount of food I’d made!

We must have struck a chord with people that year, because people began to show up with smiles and much more good cheer than we expected. The warming pans worked brilliantly and I didn’t have to do anything other than relax and enjoy myself for the rest of the day.

It turned out that the buffet concept was a great idea – people who weren’t on good terms could just politely wish each other a Merry Christmas and then sit anywhere in the house (no room for big tables, so all the food was manageable on a lap plate).

Everyone was intrigued by the food and kept returning to the table to try out something else – turkey tenderloin in a cider cream gravy, cheese blintzes with cherry sauce, honey-mustard sausage bites, sour cream & onion bread are a few of the dishes I recall now.

There was a very benevolent and peaceful atmosphere that day, and we saw people who hadn’t really spoken in years having actual conversations together. Perhaps the best part was that it turned out to be a decent Christmas even for our newly-widowed aunt: she spent it with all her sisters together for the first time in quite a while, and without a formal table seating I think it wasn’t so painfully obvious that her husband wasn’t there.

No one came and went – everyone stayed for the entire afternoon and into the evening, eventually trickling out in good spirits. It felt like a Christmas miracle, and although I can’t tell you that everyone made up and lived happily ever after with each other, for that one Christmas (and a few afterward) everyone genuinely had the holiday spirit.

When you’re planning your holiday meals, remember that the spirit of Christmas is generosity – a genuine welcome for everyone. Forget putting on a grand show or trying to make everything perfect – what really means something to your guests is how welcome you make them feel. Without that, you may as well not bother.