Wednesday, November 30, 2011

What Are You Giving Up This Year for... Christmas?

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: The last day if November is a good time to take a look ahead and plan out your strategy for the upcoming holidays. Unless you're one of those women who already has all your presents bought and wrapped, several homemade fruit cakes soaking in rum in your pantry, and the decorations up. If you are, all I can say, in the true spirit of love and Christmas, is "drop dead."

For the rest of us, the month of December is a cross between a scavenger hunt, a family counseling session, and a marathon of The Martha Stewart Show episodes. And we all know who's responsible. All of us here at Jungle Red Writers have remarkable husbands, but when it comes to Christmas, or Hanukkah, or Solstice or Diwali, it's up to women to make it work. If you could go back in time two thousand years, you'd find a Roman housewife frantically pickling fish, setting out candles, and making little Saturnalia gift baskets for the neighbors.

I myself was one of those women who feels she has to do everything for everybody (and it all better be by hand instead of store bought.) Then one year I found myself alone in the kitchen at 2a.m., baking and decorating ten different types of cookies, sobbing from frustration and fatigue. "Why," I thought, "am I doing this to myself?" My kids didn't care if the cookies they brought in to the school parties were homemade or not. My husband didn't care if we sent out 300 personalized Christmas cards, or none. The guests who came for Christmas dinner didn't care if my house was immaculate. And I didn't care if we all had coordinating outfits for a seasonal family photograph. (Okay, I cared a little.)

That was the year I started to give up things for Christmas. I gave up baking (except for the occasional Toll House cookies, which we make year-round anyway.) I gave up cards. I gave up gingerbread houses (oh, my God, what a nightmare those used to be.) I gave up homemade presents. (Wouldn't you really have a nice gift card from Target instead?) And you know what? I have much more relaxed holidays than I used to. Not entirely - I still stress over presents and spend too much time running from the school concert to the Christmas pageant to the Yankee swap, but I can guarantee I'm not breaking down in the kitchen anymore. How about you, Reds? What have you given up for the holidays?

LUCY BURDETTE: We're going to be traveling to see relatives most of the last two weeks of December so I'm giving up--gulp--decorating! Why put up a tree if we won't be here to enjoy? It's just about killing me, but having a book due TODAY and another launching January 3 is helping rein those feelings in. I like having Christmas cookies around, so I hope to squeeze in some time for making those...

HALLIE EPHRON: We've never done the holidays up big so there's not much to cut back from. And no, I don't care how unhealthy they are, I'm not giving up potato latkes. And they've GOT to be homemade because there's just no substitute that tastes remotely as good. We eat them standing up in the kitchen, right out of the fryer with (whole fat) sour cream to dip them in.

JULIA: It's okay, Hallie. I have it on good authority that holiday food has no cumulative fat or calories.

ROSEMARY HARRIS: We didn't have a tree last year - okay we were away for most of the holiday - but I missed it. And we haven't had a holiday party since my first book came out (rewrites in December.)Yes, it's days out of my life, the cleaning, the decorating, the baking, but I totally miss them. I worry that every year I'll cut another thing, and another thing until it's just the two of us with a pine scented pillow. So back and forth on this year. We still have a large hole in the roof from the Halloween snowstorm - right in the kitchen where I usually put my tree - maybe I can drape it with garland. Do you think people would mind?

RHYS BOWEN: This year I'll be doing the opposite of cutting back. I'll be hosting the biggest Christmas I've ever attempted. It started when my brother and wife announced that he was coming from Australia to spend Christmas with us. That made all our kids decide they had to be there. And daughter Anne asked to bring a friend... which means 16 people for almost a week. That's a lot of cooking and present wrapping. I'm trying to be organized and have a roster of who is doing what for which meal but I'm also going to have a lot of casseroles and soups cooked in advance. It should be fun (at least this is what I'm telling myself now.)

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Yeah, I don't know. It's a tough call. If I say--I'm just not doing it, then something is missing. I tear up on Chanukah, and Christmas morning, if he traditions aren't there. But then--you can't do everything. You can't be--perfect. Whatever that is. SO we do what works, depending on where we are and what's important at the time. But no one is keeping track, right? So we realize we're lucky, and we count blessings, and a champagne toast goes a long way. And, dear Julia, let's see that photograph!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Rhys, just the thought of what you're doing would send me to the funny farm. Hats off to you, and a glass or few of champagne!

We've cut back over the last few years, as you do when your kids are grown. For years, we made our own Christmas cards, at first by hand, then from photos that we spent ages composing and getting just right. But last year we sent e-cards, and this year... we'll see.

And we have always had a real tree. That has been my one absolutely non-negotiable Christmas MUST. But I somehow hurt my back over Thanksgiving, and right now the idea of carrying an eight-foot tree into the house, decorating it (after carrying all the loads of boxes down from the attic) is unthinkable. As is putting up Christmas lights, and all the other decorations (while writing 2000 words a day.) And cooking? After Thanksgiving, I'd settle for Taco Bell.

So we'll reassess in a week or so. But at the moment a cup of hot cocoa and Christmas movies sound just the ticket.

JAN BROGAN: The nice thing about having grown up children? My daughter, who loves Christmas, comes home to do the decorating. As is our custom, we always pick out the tree (AND YES, it has to be FRESH and I have to have a tree) on her birthday, December 12th And because I started this insane custom of making candy and giving it the neighbors, I'm stuck with it. I tried to give it up one year, but then as everyone dropped off their homemade Greek cookies, etc., I got terrible pangs of guilt. Besides, my daughter comes home and helps me make the candies, so it's sort of worth it. And last year I made Hallie's awesome orange/chocolate twisty things and now they are a part of my annual repertoire.

The sad thing is that I gave up Christmas cards, and they were actually my favorite part of Christmas. I AM determined this year to cut down on the number of presents under the tree. Some years, it's actually been embarrassing. What happens is that I go out and shop for everyone and then, at the last minute, my husband decides he needs to personally go out and get things for everyone, and with my daughter (are you catching on to a theme here?) in tow, they buy TOO MUCH STUFF and too much of it is for me.

And don't for a minute, think I'm being unselfish. We put our house on the market earlier this year and there is nothing like cleaning out your basement (and all the juicers, mini vacuums, and knicknacks) to make you NEVER WANT ANOTHER CHRISTMAS present in your life.

JULIA: I'm still laughing over Ro's eventual Christmas: "the two of us and a pine scented pillow." How about you, dear readers? Have you given up any holiday traditions to save your sanity?


  1. It is scary, isn't it Ro. And no one would care about the hole! I once gave a big birthday party for John with holes in the ceiling and scaffolding covering the front of the house.

    But I agree, this year we'll all coast on Rhys's laurels. And Hallie, let me know when the latkes are coming because I want to be standing there next to the sour cream.

  2. My partner and I are backing away from the holiday card thing, or at least changing its form. Just last night I was handed a list to annotate -- paper card or e-card? I'll let you know if sending e-cards truly is less time-consuming.

    We also are setting a limit on gifts this year and have made a pact with the rest of our family to do the same. Jan, you are so right about the hangover of too much stuff!

    This isn't in the cutting back category, but I'm also being right out front with people who buy gifts for me. If it's a book (and most of my list is books) I'm saying part of the gift would be to know they bought it locally from an indie bookseller.


  3. Cards went by the wayside a few years ago. This year, since neither (adult) son is around to help decorate, I invited my two little friends (5 and 3) over to help put up decorations and then make cookies. I always make my four or five kinds of cookies, but often make the dough in advance and chill it until I have time to get messy in the kitchen. And I still put candle lights in all the windows and the tiny white lights drape over the front door. The pagan urge to light up the dark is strong.

    But I'm pretty sure that if the time comes when neither son is home for the holiday, I won't put up a tree. I love the smell, but it's a lot of work. (I live with a holiday curmudgeon who does NOT get into decorating.)

    Edith (can I come for latkes, too?)

  4. Well, I just bought Christmas cars.I can never resist. Bur actually SENDING them? We shall see.

    Jan, you make that caramel candy, right? That takes hours and is so hot it's actually dangerous?

    And Hallie? You'll give us that recipe for orange peels again, right?

  5. I'm hoping the Rhys knows that all the food doesn't have be homemede... you can order it from the deli.... Recently I read where people were going to limit gifts to a specific number... We've pretty much eliminated all gifts, except for stocking stuffers, and donate money to local foodbanks, etc. We're all old enough to have what we need & can afford to buy what we want... works for us - but maybe not everyone else...

  6. Love that picture of the cocktail weenie feeding. Hilarious.

    As I used to tell my kids, I lied to them about Santa: she really is a woman.

    I also used to do EVERYTHING, to the point of utter exhaustion, and no one seemed to give a hoot. *I* thought our tradition for Christmas morning was the sour milk coffeecake I'd been making--from scratch--for 30 years. But my kids decided our tradition was Pillsbury cinnamon rolls. Okey, dokey. I quit sending Christmas cards years ago, after too many return cards with nothing but a scrawled signature. It just seemed like a waste of paper and energy.

    Since the kids have all grown up and moved away, Thanksgiving is when they all come home, and then they have Christmas (usually) with the "other side" of their respective families. And since my in-laws have passed on, there is almost no reason to rouse myself to fevered pitch any more.

    Halloween, now. Oh, baby, do I go crazy with the decorations. What do trees, garland, and tinsel have to do with the birth of Jesus, anyhow?

  7. Not giving anything up for Christmas, but thinking about stretching out the holiday this year. We take our daughter to the airport to go home early Jan 13th and pick up the grandsons early that afternoon to spend MLK weekend with us. They've never been here at Christmas so we might leave the trees up until they leave. We'll see...

  8. I gave up Christmas cards a while back. Seemed like a tremendous waste of paper. (Got to save those trees for books!)

    I wish I could convince my sister for us all to start giving charitable donations, like a Heifer International goat or something to help the local food bank, instead of presents. I don't know about you all, but my house is packed with *things*, and I'm trying to pare down.

    But my kids will all be home with my youngest's sweet girlfriend in from Germany (where she's teaching for a year)--I feel kind of bad that she's coming to us & then going back w/out seeing her folks in another part of the country. And my oldest, who's been turned off to relationships since a painful split years ago, has moved in with someone and we'll get to meet her for the first time!

    To me, that's what Christmas/Chanukah is all about--the people we love. Oh, and the latkes and sour cream.

  9. glad to see someone else is giving goats and bees this year!
    totally recommend
    Seriously apart from a few people who do we know that needs more stuff?
    Lucy - do you really think so? I'm thinking of saying that Santa missed the chimney and came through the skylight.
    Rhys, Bruce and i will be there too i hope you got our rsvp. Sounds like a blast

    And yes, yes, Jan's recipe and Hallie's.

  10. A few years back we gave up the tree for a rosemary (live) bush in tree shape for a mini tabletop area. Some tiny antique toy ornaments and a string or 2 of mini lights and it's set. The perfumed air is delicious.

    Last year I hauled out the large tree ornaments and started looking for ways to display them. So far they have hung by ribbons on the curtains. I'll be creating something new for them this year. Maybe mounted somehow on the bamboo room divider where the (paper) skeletons perched at Halloween.

    We've given up gift giving for the most part - persuaded by thin wallets. Handmade greetings are the new IT in our family.

    Holiday cards have not been sent for a decade. This year we will bring back a small scale (snail-)mailing to our family and adopted family, probably with an original design and home inkjet printing.

    What I really need to give up is straying so far from my diet, like Thanksgiving week! The real challenge is a holiday menu of heavy-on-the-wholesome with a light touch of traditional decadence. So maybe pass on the brandy pound cake. How can I afford the calories after eating Hallie's latkes and sour cream? (yum!)

    Brenda, I love your indie bookseller support message on your wish list. Great idea, I'll pass it around.

  11. Oh, dear. I jest reread my post--saying I'd bought "Christmas cars."

    Not cars. I meant--CARDS.

    Gotta cut back somewhere..

  12. I want Hallie's latkes. And my hot cocoa, and homemade popcorn, and Christmas movies to watch (just replaced my DVD of Love Actually, which had mysteriously disappeared.)

    We've had a lot of fun making the Christmas cards over the years. (One year, post-major-dental surgery and majorly doped up on Vicoden, I hand-stamped a hundred gold pears from a woodblock we'd made ourselves. That was insane, but I still have one of the cards.) Last year we used Paperless Post which was great if anyone wants to try e-cards.

    I will really miss a tree if we don't get one up, though ...

  13. Deb, If I were majorly doped up on Vicodin, I must say making holiday cards would not be in my top ten things to do. Yow! Impressive. I bet they're gorgeous, though.

  14. Oh, Karen in Ohio, I'm moving in with you! Sour milk coffee cake? I'm googling for a recipe now.

    One year I made a batch of sticky buns (maple syrup and pecan); left them in the pan to rise overnight and baked them Xmas morning. Oh, man, that was some Christmas morning!

    GUILTY ADMISSION: I love getting Xmas cards. It's all about putting them on the mantle. Can't line up an e-card.

    Next week I'm up so look for the chocolate orange rind and latke recipes.

  15. Hallie, me, too. I LOVE them. I love the cards, and I adore the family letters. Every one of them makes me tear up.

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  17. Hallie, the recipe comes from an oilcloth-covered, mimeographed booklet put together as a fundraiser at my Hamilton, Ohio gradeschool. The lunch ladies made it once a week, and it was always my favorite dessert. Here's the recipe:

    Hungarian Coffeecake
    Sour milk makes the cake moister. You can use buttermilk for this instead of the sour milk; it does the same thing. To make sour milk, if you don’t happen to have any, just add a tablespoon of lemon juice or cider vinegar to a one-cup measure. Add enough milk to make it a full cup. The acid will curdle the milk just enough to make it “sour”.

    2 ½ C all-purpose flour
    1 ½ C packed brown sugar
    ½ tsp salt
    2/3 C butter
    2 tsp baking power
    ½ tsp baking soda
    ½ tsp ground cinnamon
    ½ tsp ground nutmeg
    2 eggs, beaten
    1 1/3 C sour milk or buttermilk
    ½ C chopped pecans, walnuts, or almonds (optional-I never use nuts)

    Preheat oven to 350°. Grease the bottom and ½-inch up the sides of a 13 x 9 x 1 ½-inch pan; set aside. In a large bowl combine flour, brown sugar, and salt. Cut in butter until mixture resembles coarse crumbs; set aside ½ cup. Stir baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg into remaining crumb mixture.

    In a medium bowl combine eggs and milk. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Spoon batter into prepared pan. Stir together reserved crumb mixture and nuts; sprinkle over batter.

    Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until a wooden toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool slightly; serve warm.

    Makes 18 pieces, each 228 calories. You don’t really want to know the rest of the nutritional information, do you? :-)

  18. I enjoy sending cards, but one year I had some medical stuff going on and so many appts my calendar was color-coded, so I put the cards AND Christmas stamps in the town donation drive so some other woman could send them. Never reclaimed the tradition, except for cards to some elderly relatives. Alas, giving up sending cards means giving up getting as many. I hate to see such a lovely tradition disappear, or evolve, but isn't that nature of traditions?

    We gave up cutting a tree on our own property and cut one on the neglected acreage across the road that needs thinning. Does that count?

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  20. Karen,
    Thanks for the recipe, just last night my daughter was asking me how to avoid buying buttermilk for a recipe (because really, what can you do with leftover buttermilk?) And I said, I don't know there's something with vinegar and real milk you can do.....

    Hank, you are the first person I've ever known who likes Christmas letters. Although I have one friend, who is a poet, who sent a beautiful one one year, and one friend who used to do it in satire - that was pretty awesome.

  21. Oh, yeah, the satirical ones are HILARIOUS.

    But, sigh, I like the real ones, too.

  22. I particularly enjoyed the comment about giving up baking for Christmas. I'd like to give up cooking altogether, but there's this nutrional requirement for food, so I'm stuck. But man do I love carry out food.

  23. Karen, Thanks for the recipe! Printing it out now.

    And I *love* buttermilk. It's delicious and incredibly creamy and has ZERO fat. We used to go down to Yonah Schimmel's Knish Factory on Houston Street in NY and have their fabulous knishes (potato, kasha, and have I made up a memory of cherry?) with a glass of buttermilk. Yum. Then take a hike around the corner to the pickle man.

  24. You're welcome, everyone.

    Hallie, my mother used to love buttermilk, too. It's used in scratch German chocolate cake, and I remember her getting a quart of buttermilk for the cake, then having a glass with pepper in it! I should ask her the last time she had buttermilk. Bet it's been a long time.

    Hank, I like Christmas letters, too. So much better than a purchased card with nothing but a signature.

  25. Hallie, I love buttermilk, too. And I make fab gingerbread from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking, with buttermilk.

    And I want the latke recipe...

  26. Oh, Laurie Colwin - now there's someone to think about at Christmas time. Died MUCH too young and wrote my favorite food book (Home Cooking) and one of my favorite novels (Happy All the Time) which I devoured before I knew I wanted to be a writer.

  27. Hank, I love the family letters in the Christmas cards, especially the ones with family pictures. It helps me keep up with the lives of those who have moved away.

    I’ve had to give things up every Christmas for the past ten years and since the adult kids and their spouses have picked up the slack, we don’t really miss much. It’s just not me doing much of anything anymore.

    I did ask my oldest son to come over and get our little tree down from the attic this year. We haven’t had a tree for the past two or three years. We’ll see if he has the time. Not that a tree is critical, as we will spend most of the holidays with the kids at their homes instead of at ours.

    Hubby has taken up the shopping (most of it online) and will probably add something to the kids bake goods also.

    I’d love to the cut the gifts but my adult children would never stand for it. They turn in to grammar school kids this time of year. The boys’ wives have to hide gift off the premises. One year my younger son’s niece (She was about four at the time) told him it was a secret but that she knew where his gifts were hidden and immediately, at his request, she showed him all the packages. They are so bad! LOL

    Lucy, you have to use the Santa missed the chimney. That is too good to pass on.

    Hallie count me in for the latkes also. I’ll bring the applesauce.

  28. Hallie, Home Cooking and More Home Cooking stay out in my kitchen. I subscribed to Gourmet for years just to read Laurie's column, and cried like I'd lost a dear friend the day I learned she'd died. I loved the novels, too, but don't go back to them the way I do the memoirs.

    Nice to know she's remembered.

  29. My house is decorated, though the Gonzo Kittens keep trying to undecorate the tree. I decorate the day after Thanksgiving, then I settle in with a large bowl of buttered popcorn and a DVD of Miracle on 34th Street. My Christmas shopping is done, the packages are wrapped, the UPS box will be delivered to my mother today. Since I spend the holidays in Colorado with my family, I get my shopping done and my Christmas box on the way early.

    I will admit, however, that the Christmas cards and baking have yet to be done. I make pumpkin bread, a double-batch at a time. I love sending and getting the cards and letters. For some folks, it's the only time of the year I hear from them.

    In years past, my family and I have had a recycled Christmas, in which we gift each other with things we already have. We are all getting to that age of too much stuff. But I do enjoy finding things that people will love. My brother loves Peet's coffee, so every year he gets mail order. For his December birthday, not Christmas.

  30. When my parents were alive, we did Christmas in a BIG WAY at my mother's house. This included a huge tree, tons of delicious food, and way too many gifts. My mother didn't feel she was showing her love unless the gifts flowed from under the tree in the living room into the dining room.

    Now I don't decorate my house (maybe someday) but I do cook up a storm as I go to friends' houses for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

    I do miss those mimeographed Christmas letters, though! I can still smell the blue ink!