When my son was three, I fell down the rabbit hole of Martha-land. I'm not exactly sure how that happened, but in my newness to motherhood and desire to get things right, I allowed myself to be lulled into thinking that if he had everything just so, his childhood memories of Christmas would be perfect. A beautiful tree, a wooden train set meticulously picked out and set up in the wee hours of Christmas Eve, handmade stockings, homemade cookies, and of course, a gingerbread house. It was perfect.
At least, I thought it was perfect until, in a fit of frustration and being completely overwhelmed, I threw the gingerbread house across the room because it wouldn't stick together.
Christmas is a mine field of pressure for mothers. Hallmark specials depict perfect moments with estranged families coming together, dreams fulfilled, and happy children. The reality often is far from the sugary media depiction, but we still can't seem to help ourselves and strive for those perfect moments. What is perfect, anyway, and why do we need to achieve it? Are we a failure if we don't?
Years passed after the gingerbread incident and I began to realize that I had been trying, however subconsciously; to reproduce the Christmases I had as a child, which was impossible. Despite the obvious fact that we lived where it barely ever snowed, I'm not my mother. There were new traditions to embrace, and others to let go. In short, I needed to find Christmas for my own family, and it couldn't be a mirror of what media seemed to pressure me to produce.
In other words, we needed to claim the holiday for our own-starting by paring down and simplifying it from the trappings that we found ourselves caught up in. Let's face it, moms orchestrate much of the holidays-but if Mom can't enjoy the holiday, then what fun is that? Year by year, bit by bit, we took back Christmas-and you can too.
Make a plan - Firstly, and most importantly, sit down as a family and discuss Christmas. What tradition can you absolutely not do without? If you had to narrow down the list, could you do it? What do you loathe the most? Can you get rid of it, or at least pare it to something less stressful? I found that I really hated sending Christmas cards, and so I simply quit. Sure, I occasionally send a card to specific people, but to everyone I know? Not anymore. Instead focus on the traditions that you truly love.
Learn to say no - I'm really very bad at this, but once we decided what traditions we couldn't live without, the rest was a no brainer. One rule we've made is that we don't travel at Christmas. A few years we tried it, only to find that we are all most happy at home over the holidays. People are welcome to visit us, but we are not going anywhere. You would be amazed at how freeing it is to say no. While at first it may be a bit painful, you'll find that over time it becomes easier and easier.
Schedule in family quiet time - Over the years we have become more and more protective of our time together as a family. Really, you only get a handful of years with your kids to make those amazing memories, so we embraced it whole heartedly. An advent calendar hung in the kitchen with tickets devoting various days to movie and popcorn nights, skating at a local rink, going to special events, and getting the Christmas tree. Now that Kevin is a teenager we don't use the advent calendar, but we still fiercely guard those traditions just as much as we did when he was little. Many of them have become our most loved, and best remembered, holiday moments.
Make the holiday more about love and less about stuff - It's easy to be drawn into the sales, hype and the sparkly new objects and must haves of the season. Shopping is a huge stressor for many people, be it financially or emotionally by trying to find the 'perfect' gift. When we discovered that most of our Christmas arguments centered around stuff (my wanting to buy a gift for my husband and his not wanting one), we came up with a creative, and albeit unusual, solution. On a day weeks before Christmas, we'd travel to the city and shop for our son together. After a nice lunch, we'd then hand over some cash to each other and buy our gifts for each other together, as well. Once home, they'd be wrapped and put under the tree. Do I miss the surprise? Not at all. Everyone gets what they want, there's no wrong sizes or returns, and there is no longer any pressure to find the right gift because it's right there, under the tree. Stockings, however, are completely fair game. Now that Kevin is an older teen, we've even given him the option of having us pick out his presents, or we can give him cash and he can shop for his own with us. So far, he has taken the route of a little cash, and some gifts.
Don't look at shortcuts as a failure, but survival - For many years after the gingerbread incident, I bought pre-fab gingerbread house kits at the store. Nobody cared, I had far less stress, and it got the job done. You are not required to go into full on Martha land every holiday. Class party and you need to bring cupcakes? Buy some. For a few years when Kevin was small, we took it even a step farther and went to a local hotel for a beautiful buffet dinner every Christmas Day. At the time it didn't make sense to spend all day cooking for only a tiny family of three, and I wanted to enjoy my holiday too. Many thought we were a bit crazy, but that one tradition was one of favourites and after we moved to a different town with nowhere else to go, it's one of our most missed.
When the lure of the music and malls begins to call you back to Martha land, just remember this. When I was nine, my big brother gave me a wooden toboggan for Christmas. At the time, it wasn't my most loved gift but that evening, when my aunts, uncles, and cousins visited, we went to a nearby ski resort. Under the lights of the cross country ski track, we flew down the hill on that toboggan, later heading indoors from the chill for big mugs of hot chocolate topped with whipping cream. I don't remember anything about the parties or gift wrap, Christmas tree, or even building a gingerbread house.
All I remember is the bite of winter air rushing past my face, squeals of laughter, and most of all, love.
Image Credits: Gingerbread house: Carrie Stephens, To Do List: Jon Curnow