Making Meaningful Holidays

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

I meant to write more than just thoughts on teacher gifts for the holiday season, but an evil flu-like virus hit our home for over a week along with a last-minute assignment, so blogging time & motivation were scarce.

Here are some post-Christmas thoughts to ponder as you stare down those bits of gift wrap that seem to multiply each time you think you’ve retrieved the last of ‘em from the floor (or is that just me?)

Note: I’m covering secular Christmas celebrations because that’s what I know best, but please share your favorite winter seasonal traditions in the comments section.

Ditch Perfection

Tell perfection to take her perky backside somewhere else, because she’s not welcome at your place any longer. Look, I get it: we all fall prey to perfectionism because we care. We care about our family, friends, and community members, and we care about crafting celebrations that hold meaning for us. But the thing is, none of it has to be perfect. I get caught up in this, too, especially when I’m making photography- or food-related gifts. I think it’s easy to confuse what we give or how we otherwise present ourselves with who we are.

In the photo above, we were trying for that perfectly posed holiday photo, but as you can see, that didn’t quite work out. Our youngest son was fussing, so after we’d decided to call it quits, my husband decided to playfully flip him upside down and I happened to hit the shutter release as he did. The resulting photo not only felt more real to us, but it netted several phone calls and positive comments because it made the recipients laugh.

The truth is, nobody’s going to remember that you forgot to vacuum the living room carpet or that your mini pumpkin loaves weren’t expertly wrapped. What people remember about the holidays is time spent with friends and loved ones. People aren’t perfect, so stop expecting your holiday presentation to be perfect, too.

Make Meaningful Traditions

It’s not the Bears-themed magnet you grabbed from the shelf at Walgreens (or, if you’re my dad, perfume or a cat calendar) that people will remember of Christmases past. What makes a meaningful tradition? Hint: if� you’re feeling stressed and/or simply going through the motions, you’re probably doing it wrong.

This year, my parents switched from a heavy, Italian-style Christmas Eve dinner fit to feed a subdivision to lighter appetizers served earlier in the day, and we all enjoyed it–and felt better afterward. My favorite part of this year’s visit was listening to my parents laughing about their different versions of a story about my Chicago-raised mom supposedly craving farm fresh eggs, which led to a drive in the country where they found their first dog, a collie shepherd named Sloopy. She vehemently denies ever wanting farm fresh eggs, but my dad swears it’s true and their arguing and laughing over it is funny every time it comes up.

I fully realize that watching your parents argue might not make for holiday entertainment in every household. The definition of “meaningful” will vary from family to family, but to me the key is it should be simple, fun, affordable, and make everyone feel good. Notice I don’t mention “perfect” or “ideal” or “obligatory” anywhere in there.

Some of our traditions include:

Kicking off the season on the day after Thanksgiving with the Lighting of the Square, one of my very favorite days of the year.

Watching as many of our favorite movies and specials, including: A Christmas Story, Elf, The Year Without a Santa Claus, The Polar Express, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, It’s a Wonderful Life, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman as we can.

Buying at least one new holiday CD each year.

Baking together. This is the year I’ve decided to say good bye to cutout cookies; the taste payoff simply doesn’t match the effort required, even though I found my best recipes yet this year. This year’s mini pumpkin loaves turned out great, but the kids ate all of them, since our last day of school was a snow day and we couldn’t deliver them to our teachers!

Christmas Eve noshing at my parents’ house. Yum.

Putting cookies and carrots out for Santa and his reindeer on Christmas Eve, then reading A Night Before Christmas.

The annual New Year’s Day open house party at my friend’s home.

This year, we added sledding and snowboarding to our Christmas Day traditions! That’s my six-year-old heading down our driveway, one of my favorite Christmas Day moments.

People First, Then Money, Then Things

Financial expert Suze Orman’s advice rings truest during the holidays. And while I think having a cadre of crazy relatives who drive people to drink makes great fiction writing fodder, my family makes me feel blessed, because I actually enjoy spending the holidays with them.

Take my kid brother Stephen, who gave me two photos of him in holiday frames, one labeled “then” circa 1973 and one labeled “now” from the 80s (love the imperfection!), along with a handmade card with a family photo from our childhood on the cover. He didn’t even tell my mom he was making these gifts, and they were my favorites because of the planning and thought that went into them.

Give Back

Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois
Cars line up to deliver food and gifts to local residents for the annual Rotary Club-sponsored Christmas Clearing House, Woodstock, Illinois

Taking time to volunteer at or donate to charitable organizations is a wonderful way to celebrate the holidays while also teaching our kids the importance of thinking beyond those Christmas lists. Of course we should all pitch in year-round and I’m sure most, if not all of you already do, but I think it’s important to give to others during a time of year that can be very lonely and difficult for so many. Consider starting with local charities; they often need warm bodies and cash more than larger organizations.

Don’t Do Debt

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When I was growing up, even during hard times, my dad wasn’t happy unless there was a mound of gifts piled all around the Christmas tree. I know where this comes from; one Christmas during his humble rural childhood, all he got was a shirt and some oranges. So when he had kids of his own, he made sure the house was overflowing with gifts and food.

Just this year, I looked under our tree and fretted that it wasn’t enough, only to hear the boys declare this “the best Christmas ever!” the next day. I still struggle with my urge to overspend and I try not to mistake price tags for emotional connection. One of the smartest financial moves my husband and I have made (and believe me, not all of our choices have been brilliant), is not using credit cards for Christmas purchases. We set a budget and work with it. Do I feel bad that I can’t give more elaborate gifts? Sure. But when January rolls around and our budget looks healthy, with bills the same size they were last month, I get over it.

Share your holiday traditions and thoughts on how to make holidays meaningful in the comments section.

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The Gift of Saying “Thank You”

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My family is fortunate to have a small-town school district with a forward-thinking superintendent and caring, professional educators and support staff. Our district’s budget is not only consistently in the black, but is known statewide as one of the finest in terms of accommodating children on the autism spectrum (including one of our boys). And while there are many families hovering near the poverty line in our little town, I’ve seen administrators and staff members take their own personal time and money to ensure that their students have boots in winter or can attend a field trip with the rest of the class.

My kids are getting a fine education and I am deeply grateful for this. During the holidays, I express that gratitude with handwritten notes or cards telling the teachers how much our family values their hard work and dedication to our kids.

In recent years I’ve noticed a trend toward giving gift cards, cash, or extravagant holiday gifts to offset what teachers spend on their classrooms throughout the year. However, many parents I know donate time, classroom and party supplies, and support fundraisers throughout the year, and many teachers earn decent (though seldom extravagant) salaries with great benefits and pensions. Some districts have even banned parents from giving gifts to teachers to prevent undue influence and/or to spare families on tight budgets from feeling bad for not being able to contribute.

Truthfully, our family would love nothing more than to shower everyone in our world with gift cards from our awesome indie book store or some handmade loveliness from the talented peeps on Etsy.com. But for various reasons, including our family’s annual cash-only holiday budget, we don’t.

Instead, we say thank you.

This year, my plan is to bake some mini pumpkin loaves and make photo cards with personal notes to my kids’ teachers and some other staffers.

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Wait! Come back!

Don’t panic about the handmade gift ideas; this is not about being the parent who can out-Martha all the others, just as it’s not about being the parent who can spread the most gift cards around. Holiday giving shouldn’t be about running yourself ragged, stretching your family’s budget, or worse–going into debt in order to keep up with those spendy Joneses. The bottom line: don’t make obligatory or competitive gifting part your holiday grab bag. If you have the means to shower everyone with gift cards, great. But if you don’t, know that it’s possible to honor the spirit of this season with a heartfelt thanks.

I mentioned the “to gift or not to gift” issue to my friend, Kelly, who teaches third grade. She wrote:

I know that a note of appreciation for the job they are doing and the impact they are having on your kid means SO much more than ANY gift. I have a drawer filled with notes I have saved. When I am having a rough day in the class … nothing is better than pulling one of them out and reminding myself why I do what I do. I have no idea what gift was given to me by what family last year. Don’t spend your money… take the time and write a note!

What do you think? Share your thoughts and ideas for meaningful ways to give thanks to our educators and others in our communities.

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Meaningful Holidays

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This is the first of a series of entries I’ll be writing this month about celebrating the holidays with your family, whether that family was born, chosen, or a little of both.

There’s tremendous pressure on everyone during this time of year, and the essence of the various December holidays gets lost in a jumble of lists, receipts, and a steady parade of obligations. Is it even possible to push back against the forces crying, “Spend! Compete! Consume! Please Everyone!”? I’ll admit that I get caught up in that stuff, too; we are social creatures and following societal standards is normal, but it can also be a hindrance because it can be tough to swim against the tides of peer influence.

Over the next week or two, I’m going to post some ideas to get you thinking about some simple ideas for feeling connected to our families, friends, and communities in meaningful ways, with an eye toward cutting out the B.S. (can I say that on a family-friendly blog? I hope so).

I look forward to hearing your thoughts on some of these topics and I hope to learn from you readers as well. If there’s anything you’d like to see me cover, please chime in and I’ll see what sort of conversations I can start. More soon . . .

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Photo Friday: Halloween in Woodstock, Illinois

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For the Photo Friday shindig over at Delicious Baby.com.

Every year on Halloween, the boys and I head over with friends to the Woodstock Square, located a few blocks from our home. There’s a Halloween costume contest and all the merchants on the Square hand out candy to trick or treaters. Also, as pictured here, there’s often great ghoulish fun at our Opera House on the Square. It’s a great time, though every year as our town’s population increases, it seems to get a little more crowded and chaotic. My guys are so excited about this year; I’m really savoring their enthusiasm about Halloween while I can, because I know soon enough they’ll outgrow it.

At night, we get tons of trick or treaters at our house. My oldest is going to hide on our enclosed front porch dressed as a ghost to scare visitors. My favorite part of the night is making kids who show up without costumes do tricks for their treats. It’s all good-natured, and I end up giving kids who do a treat extra candy.

What’s your favorite part about Halloween? What are your kids going to be? And, most important, how early is too early to start dipping into the candy stash?

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Seasonal Traditions

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I have a confession: I grew up hating fall, because in true Calvin & Hobbes form, it meant the return to school (yuck!). Also, it got dark too early and that meant less time playing outdoors, and I was an outdoorsy kind of kid. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had watched enough seasons come and go that I learned to appreciate autumn. I feel really lucky to live somewhere with four distinct seasons; there’s something to love about each one (though I could do without our summer humidity and mosquitoes!).

The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.
The boys call these “Ghost Pumpkins.

Since becoming a mom, I’ve grown to appreciate seasonal shifts even more, since we’ve built family traditions around them, from trips to sledding hills to spring hikes to maple syrup festivals to visits to the local pumpkin patch in search of Jack O’ Lantern pumpkins and to take our annual “kids squinting into the harsh autumn sun” photo.

Here’s one of our early attempts, taken in 2002, when my middle son was just a tiny longshoreman:

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Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look
Apparently baby bro was not feelin’ the “grunge baby” look

Things settled down a bit after the arrival of our third son, which coincided nicely with the arrival of our only frame-worthy pumpkin patch photo so far.

That’s the great thing about family photos; you never know what you’re going to get, and often the silly or accidental results make the best memories.

Some years, the weather doesn’t cooperate:

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Or maybe your kid stubbornly prefers pumpkins of a different shade:

I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!
I’m getting da gween one, and dat’s dat!

Or perhaps there’s slim pickins in your neck of the woods:

That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy
That’s what I call a straight-up marketing strategy

No matter what the weather or your kids’ temperaments bring, there’s always something fun or funny to capture as your family heads out to enjoy seasonal fun. In fact, this year I ordered school photos of my offbeat middle child making a purposefully silly face. Why? Because every time he looked at the proof, he’d giggle to himself for minutes at a time. How could I not order a print that would fill the house with that much laughter?

Speaking of laughter, here’s this year’s outtake from the pumpkin patch photo session:

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And here are the two I’d consider “framers,” despite a certain recalcitrant middle son’s tendency to snarl when I press the shutter release

I can never decide which to choose–the one that makes me smile, or laugh. What do you think? I think they’re all framers.

Do you have a hard time capturing those “perfect” family memories? How does your family enjoy celebrating autumn? Share your thoughts, opinions, and links to photos in the comments section.

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