The Carlisle Mosquito Online

Friday, December 19, 2003


Serenity, simplicity and the longest timeout ever One mother's attempt to create a perfect holiday

The idea seemed like a good one. "A simpler, more meaningful, less hectic holiday season" isn't that at the top of nearly everyone's Christmas list? Upon receiving the assignment to write an article on ways to imbue Christmas with more meaning and less commercialism, I put out a request in the Mosquito: "If you've found a way to do this, please contact me for an upcoming article."

The response was deafening silence. Well, not complete silence. One person contacted me and said she had seen my solicitation for suggestions. I pulled out my pen and notepad, ready to start itemizing her suggestions and insights. "I'd love to be able to make the holidays more meaningful," she said. "I can't wait to read your article and find out what you learn."

What I've learned is that when research fails, a journalist had always better be ready to fall back on personal experience. Lacking guidance from any of my fellow townspeople, I was left to write about simplified holidays on my own.

Making the holidays simpler

Let's be clear about one thing: making the holiday season more authentic and meaningful is not synonymous with making it simpler. I can espouse the purest of intentions no shopping mall excursions; handmade presents for anyone over the age of twelve but an hour with would surely be easier than trying to press my toddler's footprints into plaster of Paris for a memorable gift for the grandparents. My own favorite holiday traditions from years past include making approximately 300 chocolate truffles, writing a 16-stanza verse in iambic pentameter to be mailed out as a family Christmas card, and helping my five-year-old to handcraft cookie-cutter ornaments made out of a sparkling white salt dough that leaves a dusting of cornstarch all over the kitchen and glitter imbedded in the rugs. An authentic, anti-commercial Christmas includes an awful lot of work, I've discovered.

This year, I upped the creativity ante by making gingerbread houses for the children to decorate, as well. Eschewing the pre-made versions at the crafts store, I mixed dough, baked, trimmed, and prayed for the egg-white icing to do its glue-like job. Roofs collapsed; chimneys crumbled; walls caved in and then caved out. My chances of success would probably be better at building a real house than a gingerbread house. When it came time for the children to start decorating, I had just one instruction for them: "Do it however you want, but make sure you don't actually touch any of the gingerbread."

The right values

As parents, we all want to make Christmas perfect for our children: not just exciting and magical, but meaningful, a demonstration of all the right values. I struggle every day from Thanksgiving to December 24th to make it clear to my children that there's much more to Christmas than new toys, but I'm also honest enough to know the futility of my own idealism. Everywhere we go, we see Santa, and Santa always likes to talk about toys. So it falls on me to make sure our holiday discussions include elements other than toys.

" What else is nice about Christmas?" I asked my son Tim during one of our frequent

Santa and Mrs. Claus (Photo by Ellen Huber)

bedtime discussions about the holidays. "Spending time with our relatives," he responded promptly, and I'm fairly sure based on the obvious delight that I got from his answer that it will become a standard one something he'll trot out every time anyone asks him a question like that this year. Similarly, last month he discovered that saying "I'm thankful for my sister" whenever adults asked him about his Thanksgiving outlook was a real crowd-pleaser, so it became a stock response. As his mother, I listened to him say it with a small degree of cynicism not that he isn't grateful for his sister; he is, but he had also discovered it got a much more favorable response than when he said he was thankful for his Clifford video and his remote-control sports car.

Fortunately, five years of parenting have taught me to have realistic expectations. More specifically, last year's Nightmare on December 24th taught me to have realistic expectations. I'd set everything in place for the perfect Christmas Eve. The plan was to do exactly what we'd done the year before: we would attend 3 o'clock Mass at St. Irene (my husband is the kind of Catholic who insists on church once a year, the most crowded day of the year), have an early pizza dinner, head up to the town center for caroling, and then take the children on a short, peaceful walk in the woods. It seemed the epitome of Christmas serenity, an evening of simple rituals and quiet beauty.

And then everything fell apart, the way it can only when the entire success or failure of an event depends on a four-year-old's mood. I did a final Christmas-related errand in the early afternoon and got caught in a traffic jam; we missed the 3 o'clock Mass and had to go at 5:00 instead; Tim kicked the pew in front of us throughout the entire service and in doing so lost the privilege of caroling; and so on. After Tim's bedtime, Rick and I went out for a walk ourselves, leaving my parents to keep an ear on the two sleeping children. Rather than the romantic, starlit Christmas Eve walks of our earlier years, we slumped along, discouraged and exhausted. Finally Rick took my hand and spoke the words I'd just been thinking: "What if he acts like that again tomorrow?"

The best intentions

The happy ending of the story is that he didn't. A good night's sleep on Christmas Eve seemed to exorcise Tim's demons, and he was a model of beautiful behavior all day on Christmas. But for me, it was a lesson not easily forgotten. Plans made with the best of intentions can so easily fail. I wanted to introduce my children to the perfect holiday celebration: religious observances, community rituals, a quiet communion with nature on a starlit night. Instead, I introduced myself to the realities of parenting: rather than "Silent Night," we had "The Longest Timeout Ever."

So this year we'll try again. I'll make sure I don't have any errands left to do on the 24th, even if it means giving one less gift. I'll leave enough time for everything we plan to do and everywhere we need to be. Other than that, I'll just try to avoid having any preconceived notions about The Perfect Christmas Eve. Like all parents, I'll do my best and I'll hope for the best. My goal is serenity, not perfection. And if all else fails, there's an extra box of homemade dark chocolate truffles in the freezer that I've pre-labeled. It's to me, from Santa Claus.

2003 The Carlisle Mosquito