I love Christmas. But sometimes I loathe the axillary stuff that goes along with it. A lot of joy and memory-making goes along with many of the traditions, true. But there's so much PRESSURE once you have kids to give them an idyllic experience that I end up feeling inadequate even if I do bake four dozen sugar cookies and hand-knit the tree skirt (neither of which I've actually attempted).
Sitting here listening to Hanson's Christmas album, I'm realizing that many of my favorite Christmas traditions are the childlike ones that I can achieve organically, with little effort. Here they are, in list form, because people make lists at the end of the year. My faves are miles from any cookie exchange, gingerbread house or handmade salt-dough gift tag. Ugh, Pinterest, you abuse me.
In the words of the toe-headed '90s trio, "Christmas means to me, my love …"
1. Seeing the lights. Any lights, really. Growing up, my family and I would drive around our small town, traversing every street, judging who had the best lights. Here, the Plaza lights are great, but more my style is Longview Lake's Christmas in the Park. The latter has gazillions of twinklers and dozens of animated figures. My parents always strung lights outside, so I have a little Clark Griswold in me. I also have a fear of ladders, so I've been hoarding day-after-Christmas discounted lights for years -- all of which remain in their packaging. Next year, honey?
2. Thinking about buying an Elf on the Shelf, then not doing it. I'm in my third year for this one, so it's officially a tradition.
3. Posing with Santa. Yes, me. My children so far have refused to sit with any bearded stranger alone, and someone is always crying. Let's hope it's not me this year. Bass Pro Santa, we're coming for you, so have plenty of candy canes ready. My kids are used to being bribed.
4. Drinking Shatto Noggy milk. I have to live vicariously through the kids on this one, because I haven't added dairy back into my elimination diet. And the hubs is lactose intolerant. Convincing 3-year-old Quinn that he needed milk with the word "egg" in the description was a hard sell, but he and brother both downed a glass in good time. They must've enjoyed it.
5. Dominating my family in board games. No matter the game, it seems as if there's always lopsided competition. Will and I versus the toddlers at Candyland. Or me, an editor and word person, versus my husband, a computer genius, at Scrabble. I get giddy when we play, but Will would rather spoon his eyes out. I feel the same way about playing him, a lifelong movie buff, at Scene It. We battled once, and he clobbered me in 97 percent of the questions. Now that game has a quarter-inch blanket of dust.
6. Complaining that my mother goes overboard on gifts. She says it's because her family growing up didn't have much, so she always wanted to provide for us. But when you have so many gifts under the tree that you hide some when guests stop by, you know you have a problem. We love you, Mom. But fair warning, big brother and I are staging an intervention for next year. We all have more than enough flashlights -- a perennial favorite under the family tree.
7. Christmas Eve service at the Danish Lutheran Church, a one-room prairie church with no plumbing or electricity in the center of the cemetery where my ancestors are buried. The pastor gives only one sermon there each year. All the neighbors cram in around the wood-fired stove, coerce their children into performing an awkward talent show and hunker down for the recitation of Jesus' birth story. My earliest memories of Christmas are intertwined with the overwhelming scent of pine from a pasture tree, smashed peanut shells on a wood floor and the tinny sounds of a 100-year-old pump organ.
8. Browsing online for gifts that no one in my family would like except me. This is an activity best done when I've finished my shopping for the season. I just spent an hour doing this, because imagining the people who would actually buy a $237 whiskey advent calendar or a "wood-fired hot tub boat" is just as fun as imagining the gifts. This activity helps me to procrastinate other, more tedious tasks, such as writing a blog, wrapping gifts or addressing Christmas cards that may or may not go out by New Year's.
9. Setting up emails for the kids from Santa's Portable North Pole. This is another fun way to procrastinate. I sent each of my kids a personalized video from Santa today, then willed the rosy-cheeked philanthropist to tell my adult brother that he's "got great legs." Someone else in my life may get a video with Santa congratulating him for "trying to hold in your farts more." The production value is impeccable, and the personalization options are numerous. This is a dangerous tool.
10. Shooing the cats out of the tree. This one recalls all the Christmases Will and I have spent together. The first year we bought our artificial tree, at Kmart, our cats, then kittens, took up residence in the center of the tree, halfway up. A day or two in, all the ornaments on the lower half were gone, and the bottom portion sagged and bowed, with the upper part full and bright. Pretty sure we skipped the tree the next year. After that, we went live. The cats ignored those. But after we waited so long to dispose of them, hauling off two years' worth of trees one March, we're back to the artificial tannenbaum. And our cats, now in their silver years, still climb the darn tree.
Bless them anyway. And bless our family and our nontraditional traditions. Quinn and I reread "The Grinch That Stole Christmas" tonight. To paraphrase: It doesn't take contrived traditions and unneeded stress to create a magical holiday. Christmas will happen no matter what.