Simplifying Christmas

Christmas is one of my favorite times of the year. I love being warm and cozy inside under an afghan with a cup of tea while the snow is falling outside. And I love any holiday that brings family together to eat. But Christmas time brings with it it’s own set of frustrations and stress, especially in light of my journey into simplicity. There’s the stress of finding a gift for everyone on your list. There’s the stress of dividing your time between families. There’s the financial stress of everything that goes into Christmas: the gifts, the decorations, the tree, charity, etc. There’s some stress in juggling the traditions you grew up with as a child with the ones your spouse did, and the new ones you want to institute in your young family. All of this works together to make a joyful holiday somewhat complex, and that’s the opposite of what I’m striving for.

We are not a religious family, and as such we do not celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday. This in itself both simplifies some things and complicates others. Most of my family celebrates Christmas as the Christian holiday and birth of Jesus, and when we celebrate with our family we join in their traditions. Although my children are still young, this does open up the door for some deep conversations on why we believe what we believe, and why it’s different than what Grandma and Grandpa believe. The flip side of that coin is the secular, industry driven consumption fest that masquerades as a holiday for much of America. This is something I strive to avoid at all costs as it goes against everything I believe in and am trying to accomplish in my family.

So how does one keep Christmas meaningful without religion or buying into the consumer driven holiday? Brad and I have talked a lot about how we want to handle Christmas in our family, what it means to us, and what we want it to mean to our children. We’re working hard to instill some traditions that are in line with our beliefs both spiritually and environmentally. We stress Christmas as a time to celebrate family, be thankful for what the previous year has been, give back where you can and to cherish the people you love. We’re having fun creating our own family traditions. Brad is learning Christmas carols on his guitar to sing as a family. Every year we’ve gone as a family to pick out a live tree and wreath for our door, and decorate it as a family. This year Owen had a blast “helping” me make a gingerbread house. (If you’ve seen that post, I admit I didn’t let him help very much. Maybe next year.) And as the kids get older we would like to start volunteering over the Christmas holiday. My first thought goes to a soup kitchen, but it would be fun to let the kids choose a charity to give their time to also.

We’ve gone the fairly simple route with decorations this year. We do always get a live tree and wreath. I love the energy of having live plants indoors. I love the scent of pine every time we walk in or out of the house, or come down the stairs. We do minimal holiday lights. We do have lights on the tree, but even when we own a house I don’t think we’ll do a whole lot of landscape lights. They require electricity to run, many of them contain led, and they’re expensive to maintain as they often need to be at least partially replaced each year. Also we don’t buy themed ornaments for the tree. Our tree is very eclectic, with ornaments from my childhood, our first married Christmas, and gifts from friends and family over the years. I like that you can tell the story of past Christmas’s at our home by the ornaments on our tree. Every one is special, and I know where each one came from. I remember as a child how much fun it was to unwrap the ornaments at Christmas and we would talk about when we got them as we put them on the tree. That’s something I want for my children. This year I had my heart set on a rosemary tree for the kitchen table. I was going to decorate it with popcorn and cranberry strands and tiny salt dough snowflakes. But I’ve had the hardest time finding one, all the nurseries I’ve checked (well OK the one nursery I checked) and both Whole Foods here in town are sold out. I’ve decided it’s not something to stress about. I’ll start earlier next year and get one before they’re gone. Then provided I don’t manage to kill it, we’ll have fresh rosemary all year, and a little tree to decorate the following Christmas too.

Another way we’re trying to simplify this year is with gifts. Brad and I got each other one large thing apiece that we’ve been wanting. We’ve gotten a few small things for each of the boys, and one larger gift for them to share. I got many of their gifts used. They’re young and won’t care yet, and buying used keeps things out of the landfills as well as decreases the demand for new production and all of the environmental hazards that go along with it. I’ve also made a lot of my gifts for family, either on my sewing machine or in my kitchen. This year my dad, who is an accomplished carpenter, has undertaken to make gifts for everyone. I have never been more excited for a Christmas gift. I’ve been given a hint as to what the boys are getting, and it’s everything I want for toys for them. Hand made, quality, open ended, imaginative play. Now there are so many people that love my boys, and you can never have too many people who love your children, that it stands to reason they will probably receive some gifts that I would not have purchased for them. We have a small apartment, and really don’t have a lot of room for extra “stuff”. So what to do when well meaning people bestow upon you the gift of clutter? If it’s something for the boys and they truly love it, it stays regardless of whether I would have chosen it or not. For anything else that just doesn’t work for our family, I feel fine donating it to a charity like Good Will. I believe that the people in our lives truly give out of love, and would be sad if I allowed a gift that we couldn’t use to remain in the house causing stress just to make them feel good. I know that if I give a gift that didn’t work for the recipient I would rather they pass it on to someone who could use it than to keep it and wish they hadn’t.

I’d love to hear more ideas. What have you done this year to keep Christmas simple? What are your favorite traditions?

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Gingerbread!

When I decided I wanted to make a real gingerbread house this year, this is what I had in mind. Something beautifully elaborate and detailed, down to the little candy candles in the windows and a snowy landscape that Santa himself would be jealous of. Well I looked a pictures and got ideas and recipes. I went to the grocery and got decorators icing, toothpicks, and more different kinds of candy than anyone could actually put on one gingerbread house. You should have seen Owen’s eyes as I loaded up that shopping cart. I don’t think he’s seen that much candy in one place in his three years on this earth. I’m sure he thought mom was off her rocker, but who was he to question his good fortune?

Ever frugal, I cut my templates from empty cereal boxes. I mixed my ginger bread, rolled and cut all of my pieces. They looked surprisingly good. Here is the recipe I used for the gingerbread:

1 C butter, softened
1 3/4 C packed brown sugar
2 Tbsp dark molasses
1 1/4 C granulated sugar
6 eggs
6 C all purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp each ground ginger, ground cinnamon, and ground allspice

1)Cream butter and sugars. Stir in eggs and molasses
2)Sift all dry ingredients together separately
3)Mix dry ingredients into wet until just combined, don’t over mix
4)Knead dough on floured surface until completely combined
5)Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in fridge for at least 1 hour
6)Roll out to 1/4 inch thickness and cut template pieces
7)Bake on greased cookie sheet for 15 min at 325*, cool completely

I cut windows into the gingerbread when it was hot out of the oven. When all the pieces were cool, I put crushed butterscotch into the window pieces and baked them at 350* for about another 5 minutes on a foil lined baking sheet. Here’s the window pieces with the crushed butterscotch candy:

And the windows once they were melted:
When everything was completely cool and ready to assemble I mixed up a batch of royal icing. I wanted most of the house to be edible, so I just used this for the construction, and used a butter cream for the rest of the decorating. Here’s the royal icing recipe, and be warned, this stuff dries like cement, so work quickly and clean up as you go.

1 lb powdered sugar
1/4 tsp cream of tarter
3 egg whites

Beat slowly until stiff peaks form

And the butter cream recipe:

1/2 C white shortening*
3 1/2 C powdered sugar
1 tsp clear vanilla*
1/4 tsp almond extract*
3-4 Tbsp milk or hot water

Beat shortening and flavoring for a minute, then slowly add half of the sugar, mixing well. Add half of the milk or water and mix well. Add the rest of the sugar and just enough water for the desired consistency, either spreading or piping.

*I used butter and regular vanilla, so my butter cream came out off white. I don’t mind, I think it’s pretty, and I hate Crisco, so there you go. I also left out the almond extract as I didn’t have any, and I still think my icing tasted pretty good.

So after assembly and decoration (and barely making a dent in all the candy I bought to make this thing) Here is the final product!


Not quite magazine cover worthy, but not bad for my first try.