Saturday, December 19, 2009

Make the Most of the Holidays?

The Question:
What advice do you have about making this time of year magical for your family without going crazy or going overboard? How do you keep things simple? How do you balance the spiritual and the commercial? What traditions can you not do without? If you could go back, what would you change about how you've celebrated Christmas over the years? (feel free to share a few of your favorite treat recipes too=)

The Answer:
How Christmas can be Perfect

For many years, I read every article I could find about Christmas traditions. I wanted to know what everyone out there was doing. What if there was a vital ritual that I was missing? Mostly, I wasn't all that impressed by what I read. What? Open presents on Christmas Eve? Pizza for Christmas dinner because it simpler? I finally made my peace with the fact that my own traditions--the ones I inherited from my mother and her mother and the ones I invented through trial and error--are not only fun and enjoyable, but they form a recurring pattern that bonds us together year after year. These are some of my favorites:

I made a Christmas book of stories and carols many years ago. It includes one story and a song for each night of December. We light a long taper candle with 24 dots painted on it and while we sing and read, the candle burns to the next dot. Over the years, I've replaced a few of the stories with new ones I've found. I like them to be true but some are classics. No matter how many times we've read them, they never grow old. We end by reading a passage about Jesus and we talk about how we can be more like him in our lives.

I keep an eye out for a service project or two for our family to do in December. Through the years, these have been some of the highlights of our Christmas. Once we challenged our children to donate some of their money to families in Bolivia where our son was a missionary. They gave almost all they had. Another time, we took a big basket of food and presents to a woman we knew who was going through some severe financial struggles. We delivered them and stayed to visit. We never forgot her gratitude. This year we spent several hours helping an elderly friend to decorate her house so she'd be ready for her grandchildren to come. Every year I pray to find something we can do and every year, these opportunities fall right in our lap.

I make Christmas pajamas. I started making them when I had one child and this year I made 22 pairs of pajama pants! One for each of my children, their spouses and all the nine grandchildren. If anyone is interested I can teach you how. They are very easy. I don't even have patterns. I buy matching t-shirts for 2 or 3 dollars. I love this tradition. On Christmas eve, I hand them out and everyone scatters to change into them. A few minutes later, everyone is dressed alike. It's so fun! And....dressed in our Christmas pajamas...we're ready for another great tradition....

The Christmas Eve Buffet! The table is loaded with all sorts of wonderful foods. We always have a ham and rolls and some salads, dips, finger foods, desserts--new recipes, old ones. I get out the punch bowl and decorate the table and make it truly special. After that...

We act out the Nativity. I have a bin full of costumes and props I've collected over the years and everyone dresses up. The costumes are very simple--just rectangles of fabric with a hole in the center for a head to come through, and a sash. Another rectangle for the scarf and another sash to tie around. Dad narrates from Luke 2 and I direct the actors. We sprinkle a few songs throughout and end with Silent Night. No matter how chaotic it becomes, I love this ritual as well. It tells our children clearly that this is the culmination, the reason for Christmas.

We hang our stockings and go to bed and then on Christmas Day, we stay in our pajamas til noon or all day and play our new games and eat leftovers from the buffet.

These are our traditions. I've done most of these things since I was a little girl. You should have seen my mother's lovely Christmas buffet. I think of her every time I decorate the table and make the slush. And I won't lie. It's a lot of work to keep these things going. But I think that's ok. And I hope my children feel my love through my efforts.

The point I want to make,though, is that my traditions are not for everyone. They make my Christmas satisfying because I have repeated them for so many years. Families develop bonds and identities by the things that happen again and again in their lives. So it doesn't really matter what you do, as long is you keep doing it. Maybe every year on Christmas eve, you decorate sugar cookies and take them to your neighbors. Maybe you have a formal sit-down dinner on Christmas day. Whatever it is, keep it up--especially if it's something you loved doing as a child. Then the bond becomes generational.

When it comes to Christmas presents, our big family has made extravagance impossible. Each child gets one pretty nice gift and a few small ones. I like to get a new game or two that we can all enjoy. We do more for birthdays when we can really honor the child (and it isn't such a financial hit).

Now, if you've stayed with me through this long narrative, here is your reward. The best English Toffee recipe on earth. I've tried a bunch. This beats all.

1 lb. butter
2 Cups sugar
1/2 Cup Karo Syrup
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 Cups Slice Almonds
1 bag Milk Chocolate Chips

Use a heavy pan and a wooden spoon for this recipe. Melt the butter, sugar, salt and syrup together til they start to boil. Add 1 cup of almonds. Continue to cook, stirring constantly til a deep tan color. You'll actually see little puffs of smoke when it's almost done. Drop a little bit in some ice water and if it cracks and falls apart when you taste it, it's done. It shouldn't be even a tiny bit chewy. Pour it onto a well-greased cookie sheet and spread out. Immediately pour the chocolate chips on top and cover with another cookie sheet so they melt. After a few minutes, spread them around and sprinkle with the rest of the almonds that have been chopped very fine. When it's completely cool, break it into bite-size pieces.

I wish you the merriest Christmas ever--your own Christmas. Take the best things from your childhood and add your signature. Whatever you do, it's perfect.


  1. I too have been on a tradition hunt this past year, and yours are the most "suiting" to our family I have seen by far. I am also encouraged to maintain some of the things I grew up doing...I felt like I needed to make totally new traditions for my new little family, but love the idea of a generational bond...thanks jane!

  2. I love this. It is something I have been thinking about a lot lately. We spent the holiday with my mom, and my dad and step-mom. They are not LDS and I found the weeks adding up to Christmas feeling void of the Spirit - not to mention my husband had to work back at home. I could have done more, of course can't we always, but I for sure want to make next year more... involved. What a great time it can be, Christmas, as long as we put Christ in the center. I am grateful for your ideas that I can think about as I plan for next year. And YES I MUST learn how to sew pj pants. I wanted to this year, but felt I needed a pattern and by the time you buy that and fabric... I am sure it isn't rocket science. I just hate to waste fabric on mistakes. So I would love to know your non-pattern pattern secret


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