Monday, December 2, 2013


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I'm just back from an almost-three-week book tour, followed by a lovely five day trip to Northern Virginia to share Thanksgiving with most of my family. The upside: happy memories of wonderful meals, great hospitality, interesting sights and fascinating conversations. The downside: it's December-freaking-second and my house is a mess, my decorations are still up in a box in the attic, I have no cards ordered and the only presents I've managed to store away are a couple of free-with-purchase gift cards. I have all those things to tackle, plus reserving tickets for The Magic of Christmas, planning dinner for thirty-five people (give or take a few strays) attending the school holiday concert... argh!

The holidays are always a challenge for me, because I am not a naturally organized person (those of you who know me in real life can stop laughing right now.) Over the years, I've developed several techniques for getting (most of) everything done:

1. Delegate. Ross and the kids do the tree. I've even stopped going to get the thing: they show up with a conifer strapped to the roof, Ross and The Boy wrangle it inside, and after it's set up and wired with lights, the kids decorate it. My job is to ooh and aah. That works well for me.
2. Power shop with lists. All three of our children must produce their wish lists by the first week in December, or else risk getting nothing but what middle-aged parents think is cool. Ross and I will pick a date (earlier is better) and take the kids' wish lists with us, leaving right after he gets home from school and staggering home after the stores have closed with a car trunk loaded with loot. I get almost anything else I need to fill in online.

3. Make it routine. The dinner for 35+ sounds daunting, but I've been doing it for at least ten years now, and I have a lot of it down to a routine. We always have the same menu. I have the holiday dishes, napkins and tablecloths stashed in a box; they come out for the season and then they go back in until next December. Everyone pitches in with pre-entertainment cleaning (see delegate, above) and everyone has hos or her own job on the day: Youngest makes the place cards, the Smithie sets the tables and The Boy selects and mixes the cocktails. Last year we used Deb's Christmas Cocktail recipe and it was a huge hit!

4. Just Give Up. Here are some of the things I don't do: bake cookies, bring anything homemade to school, make gingerbread houses, put "candles" and/or wreaths in every window, craft anything, entertain at any time other than Christmas Day, see The Nutcracker/A Christmas Carol/The Solstice Revels, send holiday letters, participate in gift swaps, write personal notes in cards, wrap presents in anything other than gift bags and read women's magazines in the months of October, November and December (seriously, those things will drive you nuts making you think you have to keep up with Martha Stewart.

How about you, Reds? What's your plan of attack for the holidays? Are you super-organized, scatter-shot or somewhere in between? And do you have any tips for the rest of us?

RHYS BOWEN: I am ready to crawl under the covers and hibernate for the rest of the winter. We've just had a week long holiday celebration for John's 80th birthday with 14
people, the whole family, and every minute of every day scheduled for fun activities. We've had go Karts, mini golf, museums, Native American sites, cowboy evening, banquets of all ethnic varieties. Lovely but I'm now pooped. So I'm thinking of keeping Christmas low key this year. Certainly no cookie baking. I'll put up the tree and decorations. I've got most of my overseas cards written. The others will be Jacquie Lawson e-cards. And I've some idea of what people want as presents--and they'll only get them if Amazon sells them.

I am taking all the California family to the Nutcracker in San Francisco--our yearly tradition. We'll probably have a party but I think I'll order food from the deli. And apart from that I'll try not to eat too much at all those holiday parties, sit back and enjoy myself.

DEBORAH CROMBIE: I can't believe it's December! How did this happen!!! I am now reminding myself that there is very little I actually HAVE to do, and that compared to most people's, my holidays are fairly low stress. We've made our own Christmas cards for most of the last twenty years, but a few years ago we started sending them as e-cards.  We try to come up with a cute and seasonal photo, I write the copy, and we send them off via Paperless Post.  I try to buy a few
cards for friends who don't do email, but will not necessarily get them sent. We don't give a Christmas party, and I don't cook on Christmas.  We go to my in-laws on Christmas Eve and my aunt's on Christmas Day.  I've already volunteered to bring wine and dips.  I don't bake.
We usually put our lights up the day after Thanksgiving but this year we haven't got around to it yet.  It's a very organized procedure that takes about an hour.

The tree, now, that is my big thing.  We get a real tree. And we do decorate the house.  There are loads of organized boxes in the attic.  But this year I've asked my interior designer friend if she will come help me decorate for "friend's rate."  That way we can get it done in a couple of hours instead of a weekend (which I can't spare) and I can still enjoy it feeling like Christmas.

HALLIE EPHRON: Each year, our house is the little dark hole on our street while our neighbors are seriously lit up, in the 
non-medicinal sense. Trees. Lights, At a minimum candle lights in all the windows. I might hang a sprig of green on the door and call it a day. No tree. No decorations. And I try not to set foot in the mall for the entire month of December. I do make cookies and candy for presents. Send cards to special friends we don't get to see often enough. And dear friends have us over Christmas day to share their Christmas spirit while they're packing to leave for Florida. Maybe this year I'll bring a Buche de Noel.

: Oh Hallie, I see you've got Buche de Noel on the brain ever since your friend Pam mentioned it at Crimebake! It sounds like you all have developed very reasonable strategies. The key really is don't get suckered into doing things that don't feel meaningful and important, right? We put together our holiday card using a Vistaprint template and 3 pix from the year--me eating French pastries,
John as mountain man in Montana, and the whole gang in Maine for my mother-in-law's 100th birthday. I'm thinking about skipping the holiday letter, because it's all really there in those photos. The thing that brings us to our knees every year is addressing the cards. We're a couple of smart people but we cannot master transferring a list to labels. Sigh.

We'll be in Key West for the holidays, so all the decorating and gifts will be cut back. We put lights on the balcony and on a little Norfolk Island pine last night--its branches won't support ornaments so that solves that problem. I do miss the real tree and the loads of ornaments we've collected over the years, but we've made this trade-off for holidays in paradise.

The one thing I will not give up is making cookies:).

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: We celebrate everything, but with no plans and chaotic traditions. As a TV reporter,I've often had to work on Christmas, so my tradition is to come home and flop down on the couch.  We usually make prime rib and have champagne...YUM.  And oysters Rockefeller. Yum.

But down to brass tacks. I anyone can tell me how to take a mailing list and make it into labels, I will be grateful forever. Ting is--you have to --at some point--actually type all those names and addresses somewhere, I fear. I cannot face that. SO addressing Christmas cards--well, admittedly, usually Happy New Year cards--will be once again done by hand. (Does anyone think labels are unacceptable? I know they're easy--eventually-but it seems impersonal. Or am I rationalizing?)

I always whine (pine?) for a  tree. But so far, no trees around here. We'll have our amaryllis (amaryllises?), though!

SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: Hallie's might be the only dark house on the block, but ours is the only lit apartment on our floor. Everyone else is Jewish, and in our apartment building we have more Jewish families, as well as Muslim, Sikh, and a practicing Wiccan. (We thought about adding in Kwaanza to our Christmas celebration when I was pregnant, but when my African-American husband looked it up with a "Q," we realized it wasn't really our thing.)

So not only do we send "holiday cards," we're sure to say, "Happy holidays!" Our kiddo always follows this up with, "And what do YOU celebrate?"

Personally, I LOVE this and I'm so happy my kid is growing up in a neighborhood where there are lots of different people, celebrating all sorts of different things. We generally have some Jewish and Muslim friends over on Christmas day (as well as a couple who is Jewish-Muslim ? talk about the season of peace) and it's always 1) pork-free and 2) lots of fun.

In our house it's pretty simple. We decorate a tree and have a wreath, but not much else. We usually attend a kid-friendly "Lessons and Carols" at a nearby church. And I love the Nutcracker and the Messiah sing-alongs.

For me, it's a time to contemplate rebirth and renewal. So many of our "Christmas" traditions are actually Pagan. I read a fascinating book called Advent and Psychic Birth by Marianne Burke (out-of-print but worth tracking down), which highlights the universal longing for transformation.

JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Any tips, tricks or traditions you want to share?


  1. Oh, I wish I could say I was organized and efficient about all of this, but . . . the sad truth of the matter is that organization and I don’t even live on the same planet. We have candles in the front bedroom windows, but they are there all year, so I’m guessing that doesn’t really count. There are enough cards still in their boxes from years past that I know I’ll have no problem covering everyone on the Christmas card list, if I actually get them sent out. [But no labels since that would require actually getting the Christmas card list into the computer in the first place.] The tree will get done [mostly without my participation], some haphazard decorating will indeed turn the house into something that looks vaguely festive, the stockings will get hung in front of the fireplace, and since cooking is my thing, no one will starve. There will be cookies and lots of food [and there is a tradition for that: turkey and all the trimmings at Thanksgiving; prime rib roast at Christmas; lamb [and Easter egg bread made from scratch] at Easter.]

    The things that count the most always manage to get done: whatever is necessary for the children in the family to have a wonderful Christmas always happens and we always make it to midnight candlelight service . . . .
    The shopping is done, but Christmas Eve [actually Christmas morning after we get home from midnight candlelight service] I’m likely to still be wrapping because . . . well, it’s that organization thing that, even after a gazillion years, I still haven’t gotten figured out . . . .

  2. Joan, you sound more organized than I am!

  3. I like the simplify and delegate theme! I love the look of electric window candles and I must bake cookies. But otherwise the (locally cut) tree has been getting more simple every year and so are the gifts. We go to friends for Christmas Eve every year and make sushi on Christmas Day. I must say that I feel more relaxed about the holidays this year, which might have to do with my not commuting to a day job for the first time in decades. And the fact that my new kitchen was done in time (just!) for Thanksgiving.

  4. Over the years I've let things go, a little at a time. Partly because the kids grew up and went their separate ways, starting in college. The year that my middle daughter stayed in Thailand over Christmas, and then went trekking to the base camp of Mt. Everest between then and New Year's was the year I realized we might never all be together for Christmas again. Now we have been, but it's not a given, since that time period makes a dandy chunk of vacation for someone who works for an employer.

    I used to send out hundreds of Christmas cards, both to friends and family and to business contacts. My husband also sends out hundreds of calendars that feature his photographs. A few years ago we consolidated our lists, and he sends them all out now. If I didn't keep up with close friends and family on Facebook I might not like this as much, but it's great.

    This year I'll put up a tree and decorate, but we have not been bothering for several years. My oldest daughter wanted her grandson to have Christmas in his own home, so we have traveled to their home in Michigan. They're coming here this year, which will be wonderful. We already had our Christmas with the other two girls and their guys, week before last, so nothing more to do with their gifts.

    It's almost TOO simple, isn't it?

    By the way, I say Happy Holidays this time of year, unless it's actually the week before Christmas. There ARE other holidays, and it is so irritating to be corrected by some well-meaning but not inclusive greeter.

  5. Ten years ago when I was so very sick, I was forced to pare down my holiday responsibilities. No more big tree but a tabletop tree. (Allergies in da house, so no real greenery for a long time.) One of the simplest is a fiber optic poinsettia Christmas tree from the Norm Thompson catalog. We just add colored fiber optic lights when we're in the mood for more of a Glitter Gulch tree. (This is one of those years.)I keep it up until Three Kings Day, otherwise I still don't have time to sit with tea in the dark and adore it.

    Another great tool came from Weight Watchers: a computer printout of a blank two-month calendar with both November and December on one page. All my fixed point dates go on in ink: events, doctor appointments, deadlines, and even workout classes. In the borders, I write the to-do list. That way, I see the spread of available time.

  6. Christmas? It's coming? Holy cow, maybe that's why all those movies started up…and the decorations…okay, time to get my head out of the computer and smell the season. Drat, now I have to go decorate.

  7. Since the year we sold the house where the four girls grew up, each Christmas has been newly invented. This year I will be on the road after December 13th. On Saturday, I decorated a part of the first floor, and that will be that.
    I am looking forward to seeing friends and family, to church and concerts and theater.
    On Christmas Eve, I will be in Brooklyn with oldest and youngest daughters and youngest's fiance -- we are planning a buffet supper of things we can buy within two blocks of their apartment (smoked fish, pork, cookies) & a ten p.m. church service nearby.
    More travel on Christmas Day, and then all of our family together for lunch on the 26th!
    Before the 13th, I will be busy!
    Look for me as "Mrs. Santa" on the Carousel of Light float in the Falmouth Christmas Parade!

  8. I love Christmas and enjoy decorating the house. I know I do less and less each year, though once it is done, I tend to leave it up too long. Something about all that work for just a few weeks. I used to really clean every room as I decorated, now just a light dusting and sweeping seems fine.
    The things I don't get done anymore are the baking and fancy gift wrapping. I love gift bags ! And there is a wonderful bakery in my little town. They have great, melt in your mouth decorated sugar cookies.
    I do fix lunch and have the "company" holiday party at my house. There are only six of us and everyone brings food and we have a gift exchange. I wish I could say we always keep in simple but this year they thought something fancy would be fun. I seemed to have volunteered to do Chicken Cordon Bleu !

  9. With the "Christmas" rush starting around Halloween nowadays, it's good to remember that, technically, we are in Advent, awaiting Christmas. What happened to the Twelve days of Christmas ending in Epiphany? My husband crafts the holiday letter and it goes out when it's ready. I figure if we beat twelfth night, we're good!

  10. Love hearing about all your traditions--this is a pretty laid back group! wish we could all see you on that float Denise:)

  11. I LOVE the posters, Julia!

    Vicki, chicken cordon bleu is EASY--its one of my standbys! Let me know if you need a recipe..

  12. Hank, yes please, I would love an easy Chicken Cordon Bleu recipe !!

    Thank you.