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This Christmas, Chill with the Family!

7 Tips for Making It Special and Keeping It Sane

Each year, as the holidays approach, I am overwhelmed with the countless articles, infinite ideas, and gazillion social media posts about ways to simplify, cookies to bake, crafts to make for your kids’ teachers, 101 events to hit in town, ways to watch the budget, gourmet meals to make for your guests, parties you should host (sledding party! craft party! cocktail party!), and the things to buy or DIY for perfect holiday decorating.

For all of these resources – or perhaps more accurately, because of all these resources – I struggle with the balance. Families are not singularly focused. It’s not all about food alone, or the décor, or the activities. It’s about all of it together. And therein lies the challenge.

Everyone finds a different balance, but I think finding that balance is hard. Since the moment we announced we were having a baby, we discovered lots of people like to share advice! So, this is not advice, it’s just the story of where we’ve landed – in list form – while trying to achieve that elusive balance during the most magical time of the year.

1. Make a list of activities. 

Each year, right around Thanksgiving, each family member picks one holiday-themed activity around town for us to do together. I write it in a little notebook (because for me, writing it down makes it real!). Over the years, I’ve chosen Maymont, a Christmas concert, and the like; my husband tends to schedule us for cocktails and Shirley Temples at the Jefferson Hotel; and the kids (who are nine and eleven) change theirs from year to year (Christmas Town at Busch Gardens to movie night out to a holiday craft-making extravaganza). The great thing about this is that it cuts down on feeling like you have to go everywhere and do everything, and each of us gets to feel a little special knowing the whole family is honoring one of our individual wishes.

2. Read books every night. 

This tradition started pretty early for us, and I found that unlike anything else, it keeps us centered during the holiday season. We have a big green
bin that sits by the fireplace and holds all of our Christmas books. From picture books the kids have long outgrown to chapter books we’re reading now, we sit together and read a book or two each night. The rest of the year, the kids read separately in their rooms, but during the holiday season, we come together to read the same books. It’s a great time to reminisce over favorites (Martin Waddell’s Room for a Little One), and also start new ones. Just last year we started The Autobiography of Santa Claus by Jeff Guinn. We didn’t quite finish, and I can’t wait to pick it up again this year.

3. Ask the kids. 

As parents of young kids, we’re so used to driving the activities. And sometimes, it’s hard to disengage from that habit. Looking back, I wish I would have started asking my kids earlier what they wanted to do. Too often, my Type A personality dictated that we do such-and-such just because we ought to, and not because it was truly important to anyone in the family. Case in point: visiting Santa Claus at the mall. I assumed we had to, and the kids admitted they actually preferred seeing him from afar. Now, I try to ask the kids specifically if they really want to do something, and if it wouldn’t break any hearts to miss it, we opt for a little bit of quiet time at home instead.

4. Cut back on the décor. 

Christmas decorations are like bunnies. Somehow, they multiply and each year I seem to have more and more. So, about five years ago – probably about the time I was crying tears of frustration that putting away Christmas decorations wasted an entire January day! – I decided to only pull out half of what we had accumulated. Note, I didn’t throw anything away, since I wasn’t confident about what might bring future nostalgic joy to the kids, but for now, it’s only the things we truly like, are truly meaningful, or are truly beautiful that dress our house. However, each year, it’s not the same things. Remember #3? Ask the kids what’s important to them. Some years, my daughter sets up a huge Nordic scene of Snowbabies penguins on the foyer table, and other years, my son arranges all the nutcrackers at attention.

5. Don’t underdo. 

Hmmm … in a list of what to do to keep things sane, this seems out of place. However, this is part of the keep-it-special category. In this day and age of learning how to say “no” and cutting back, I think it’s also important that we remember to say “yes.” By their very nature, the holidays are packed with traditions. And for the most part, these are wonderful experiences our kids will hold in their hearts for the rest of their lives that might shape the way they celebrate the holidays as adults. So, don’t cut back too much. Indeed, it’s easier and simpler to pass on making cookies for the neighbors this year, but what if delivering your treats really brightens someone’s day? Yep, it’s easier not to send Christmas cards (ugh – the nights of addressing, stuffing, stamping – oh, and don’t even think about the hours, tears, and yelling that go into getting a family picture where we are all looking at the camera!), but how nice is it to receive real mail? My mom does an amazing advent calendar for the kids every year, and they get to open a little gift each morning of December. What a happy way to start each day! The gifts are tiny little things, but the kids are so appreciative and take such joy in them. As I evaluate all there is to do during the holidays, I try to assess whether I’m cutting out anything that impacts someone else. And if the answer is “yes,” then I look to the next item on my list.

6. Strategize and take short cuts. 

This one sounds obvious, I know, but I’m not sure how many of us really think it through. I sure didn’t. Guess what? These kids – they can help stamp, stuff, and seal the aforementioned holiday cards; it doesn’t have to be me alone at eleven o’clock at night. The cookies for the neighbors? I stopped making a variety a few years ago; now, I choose one treat (seasoned nuts, homemade granola, biscotti, etc.) and make the biggest batch ever, so I have plenty to go around to everyone on my annual list, plus the last-minute extras. One friend of mine gathers on a Sunday with lots of her friends and has a big cookie baking party – two birds with one stone! And the advent calendar my mom does for the kids? Admittedly, it’s time-consuming to create, so a few years back, she stopped doing one for each of them – now, they alternate days of opening the little gifts. They barely noticed that change, but to eliminate it all together? That would have been impactful.

7. Take notes for next year. 

In that same notebook where I write down our family’s annual activity wish list, I also take a few quick notes about what I learned this year, gift ideas I should have thought of earlier, and activities we didn’t get around to, but want to do next year. Did you hear about something really neat that friends are doing, but you can’t work it in this year? Put it on next year’s reminder list. I am not kidding: You think you’ll remember, but you won’t! Without last year’s reminder list, I wouldn’t have remembered Court End Christmas, the activities at Henricus Park, the cool melting snowman cookies the kids want to bake, or the old window shutter I want to paint and turn into a Christmas card display for my mom.

If this sounds like I have it all figured out, well please go right ahead and think that. Truth be told, it’s a work in progress. Some years, I hit #1 and #2 out of the park. Another year, I remember going a bit overboard on #4 and #6, and let me tell you, I heard about it as my family wondered if we had lost the Christmas spirit! I try to keep in mind that each year is slightly different, since as a family, we’re changing and growing. Sometimes we’re ready to try new things and change it up, and some years, we just need to hold on even tighter to our family traditions. It’s all part of striving for your own brand of family peace and balance at Christmastime.

Photo:  Loren Rosado

Andrea Siebentritt lives in Northside Richmond with her husband, two kids (ages 9 and 11), and a big boxer-doodle. She has managed communications for large and small non-profit organizations, and currently works for SOAR365. Outside of work, she enjoys painting furniture, reading, and trying to keep up with her busy kids.
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