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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Happy Holidays!

Pull up a chair, here's a cocktail. How've you been?

I've been absent for a bit due to some much needed time off to travel and spend time with family for Thanksgiving. If you're in the states or celebrating abroad, I hope your holiday was relaxing and filling (both spiritually and culinarily--don't think that's a word but I couldn't leave out the food).

I was happy to have time to reflect on what I am thankful for and enter the last month of the year with those people/things in mind. It has put me in a great and peaceful place. I'm ready to officially welcome in the hustle and bustle of the rest of the holiday season.



As I do so, my intention is to completely avoid the stress of the season. Last year was the first year I managed to do that. It was due in large part to my mom's idea to simplify Christmas. We were at her house a few days before (celebrating her birthday) and the topic of the Christmas dinner menu (and shopping for it) came up. After going back and forth and accommodating everyone's wants, we had a long list and hours of prep and cooking ahead of us. That was on top of a little last minute gift shopping and wrapping (since we couldn't fly with wrapped gifts) that I needed to do. It wasn't that this was atypical. It's a yearly saga but this time, we decided to scrap the menu and shake things up a bit. Here's how we did it.

1. Eat what you love. I. Love. Food. Over the years, I've done my share of recipe destruction and filled kitchens with smoke and trash cans with unsuccessful experiments. I used to start the menu by listing the soul food/southern staples (mac and cheese, candied yams, green bean casserole, deviled eggs, yeast rolls, collard greens, dressing/stuffing, honey baked ham and turkey) and then I'd peruse recipes and magazines to find new items to impress the masses. The results were mixed (some are now staples and some will never be made again) and I'd inevitably be in the kitchen with my mom and sister until the wee hours of the morning (and once right up until the food was on the table). At the end of it, we'd collapse into our chairs and crave a nap more than a plate of the food we'd cooked. Now, we pick favorites--whether they "belong" on the table or not and we lazily eat and chat. Last year, we had a mix of Superbowl food (chicken wings, meatballs) and soul food. We totally dropped the turkey from the menu. It. Was. Fabulous!

2. Shake up the gift exchange. When the economy went south, we decided to stop giving each other big ticket items (popular electronics, high value gift cards, fancy clothes/jewelry). Money was tight for me and Ash (but you know that story). My sister was student teaching. Mom was helping us out. The first year, we decided that we wouldn't exchange gifts at all. The next year, we started the 15 and 15 gift exchange. We had 15 minutes to run around Target and $15 to spend. We drew names before running around and engaged in covert activities in the store to avoid each other and preserve the surprise. It ended up being so much fun that we kept it in place even when finances got better. You'd be surprised what you can find. Hooray for clearance racks!

3. Laugh a LOT (even at yourself). I'm lucky to say that laughter is a huge part of every one of my family gatherings. We crack jokes, recount funny memories, play games, dance...we make memories. It's a good time and if you can't find the humour in the fallen souffle or the slightly askew wig of a family friend, you'll never get through. Don't take the minutia of the day so seriously. Find the real importance of the season (whatever it may be to you) and stay focused on that.

4. Be creative. In coming up with fun things to do over the week my family tries to spend together at Christmas, my mom came up with the idea to do a "gingerbread" house competition. You notice gingerbread is in quotes. There was never a romantic notion that we'd be baking slabs of carefully cut gingerbread and making homes worthy of a Food Network Challenge or the White House Christmas special. We use graham crackers and stock up on icing, sprinkles, candies, etc. Garbage bags are spread out over the work surface, all supplies are placed in the middle and each person has 30 minutes (my mom is into the time thing) to create a masterpiece. My sister always has a story with her creation that will pull on your heartstrings and get her some votes (she builds group homes and children's hospitals), Ash always has some out of the box creation (last year he had a plane and a landing strip) and I'm always too optimistic for my own good (I tried to build a high rise apartment building one year--it collapsed during judging). It is ridiculously fun and a total outlet for the crafty girl in me. I also totally get into decorating my house. It's always been a fun thing for me. This year, I am changing my theme. So excited!

5. Chill. Be on your own schedule. This is the most important part. Over the Christmas week, we celebrate my mom's birthday, have a Christmas Eve game night, Christmas day breakfast and the big Christmas dinner. Last year, we had a super late game night--that was filled with margaritas and junk food. We slept in and Christmas breakfast became Christmas brunch, which knocked dinner back a bit. No one minded. Take the extra time you need to relax. Throw on some carols and unwind.

Ultimately, what we did may not work for you but I thought I'd share my secret to a stress free Christmas (or any celebration that requires feeding lots of people and giving gifts). The most important thing is to do what makes you happy...even if that involves sticking with tradition. Be merry. That's the point, right? Cheers!

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