The best holiday tradition: Simplicity

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The word “tradition” flies around as frequently as falling leaves this time of year, with more than half the universe assuming that “traditions” are the norm. They are for some, but there are plenty of people out there who never really grew up with holiday rituals. It’s a great excuse for adults to poke fun at their own parents, but also causes a bit of anxiety when years later, they’re put in charge of bringing special occasions and holidays to life.

Here’s the thing: traditions don’t have to be a big deal. And, they can be updated each year to fit in with your family’s changing size, ages, marital, financial or health situations. (Sorry to sound bleak, but hey, life happens.) And if you haven’t yet started a family (or don’t want to ,) ), you can still do all the things mentioned here, just with half the mess and half the noise.

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Your family’s tradition can be as simple as everyone piling into Mom and Dad’s bed with crayons and colored pencils, books, magazines, even tablets, and engaging in conversation about what’s happening in the world that morning, what kinds of foods the kids would rather eat than turkey and cranberries—and drawing a picture of said preferred meal; reading stories or poems aloud, or looking up new words (hence, the tablet); playing Go Fish, cribbage, gin rummy or backgammon; drafting a letter to Santa, making place cards for the table, or just snuggling and tickling and watching the Macy’s parade (or better yet, Sponge Bob) with breakfast popcorn (a mix of cereal and popcorn) and hot cocoa with marshmallows. This is especially wonderful when you’re not hosting or rushing out the door to get anywhere.

Other cheap, easy and fun ways to get in the holiday spirit, is to write a thank you letter to another family member (everyone can pull a name out of a cup and then big sisters/brothers and moms and dads can help the younger ones write to their drawn recipient). The letters can also be used as place cards, dressed up with a doodle or drawing of a turkey. (Thumbprints are perfect for making a turkey’s body.)

If you’re cool with getting a little messy, having the kids find rocks outside (they do need to run around a bit or they’ll drive you bonkers), and set out some washable paint so they can create colorful place markers that can be saved and used all year long.

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Older kids can design an official menu, then incorporate that into the festive tablescape you’ll put them in charge of laying out. While they’re looking for rocks, they can pick up twigs, feathers, acorns, leaves and anything else they fancy. With your help, they can decorate the table making them feel a part of the special celebration. If you’re bringing out any family heirlooms, now is the time to share stories about their history (the objects and the person who gave it to you).

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Jazz up each place setting with mini pumpkins, bundles of twigs and feathers (you can buy these at the craft store) tied with twine or raffia, clementines embellished with whole cloves (it’s a Martha Stewart rip-off that I can’t take credit for, but do every year because they make the house smell amazing). My kids also

always loved making baked apples or apple rings, and this is something they can do while your working on the turkey and trimmings.

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Speaking of turkey, one of the most coveted to-dos for kids as they get older (after they turn 14/15, the magic ends), is timing the turkey. They get to watch the clock, set the timer, help you baste the bird and get a lot of the credit when it is pulled out of the oven in all its juicy, mahogany glory. Designating someone as “candle lighter” always went over big at our house as well.

Less original, but requisite, is writing down what we are each thankful for and putting into a bowl, then everyone picking a slip of paper and reading it, guessing who wrote it. (Handwriting is usually a giveaway, but that doesn’t take away the fun.) We’ve also been known to go around the table and talk about what we weren’t thankful for that year, which is actually a positive and subtle way to encourage behavior change, tolerance, empathy, forgiveness and compassion.

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click image for recipe; photo is from the recipe’s mastermind: Cooking with Chopin

Last but not least is family movie night—or afternoon, while the turkey roasts—everyone votes on what to watch, someone makes the admission tickets and someone grabs the blankets. After all, this isn’t just a movie; it’s snug time.

And when all hell breaks loose, and everyone starts fighting, there’s only one more tradition to uphold: outside with a basketball or off for a walk. Mom gets to stay in and get a few minutes peace.

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Home(made) for the Holidays: Teachers’ Gifts

This post is dedicated to my daughter Nicole, who as a teenager said to me, “Remember when you used to be crafty?” 

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Many moons ago, when social media wasn’t invented, and I was in full-on childbearing mode (aka the decade of pregnancy), and it actually snowed for consecutive days, I was into all kinds of creative activities. Whether for the home or a gift, my hands were always busy sewing, baking, cooking, painting, gluing, decoupaging, measuring, sketching, and occasionally, melting (chocolate, crayons).

During the holidays, especially, I would go slightly overboard, baking individual gingerbread shapes (with copper wire hooks embedded at the top), decorating with royal icing and silver dragées, and then stringing with twine to make garland. I only used Martha Stewart’s gingerbread house-making recipe (reliable for making sturdy, large houses) and painstakingly knotted each hook so the “ornaments” wouldn’t slide, before wrapping them in holiday gingham tissue paper and cellophane bags.

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At that time, three of my children were in nursery  school and Pre-K, and there were no rules about teachers’ gifts or any organized collections taking place. It seemed logical to have my kids help (that being a relative word back then) with the gift-making.

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Probably the easiest craft for them to tackle was pinecone bird feeders. And, since we live in the Northeast, with lots of trees—and birds—this fell into the “practical” gift category. And, low-budget; something to consider when giving out presents to several teachers and school administrators.

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Chocolate-covered pretzel sticks, rolled in Almond Roca crumbles, coconut, crushed chocolate-covered coffee beans and ultra-mini m&ms, were also easy for the kids to make. Just don’t have them do it on an empty stomach or before an activity where they’re supposed to sit quietly. I love this updated version.

Though it looks to be for Valentine’s Day, I can easily envision a Christmas or Hanukah version with mini dreidels or green and red m&ms, silver and gold spray-painted acorns or miniature pine cones or rocks to prop up the pretzels; and pretzels dipped in white chocolate as well as dark or milk, and rolled in appropriately colored ingredients. You can get small-sized cylindrical vases at the craft store, and keep the pretzel count to 3 or 5 to maximize your effort.

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Hand-painting one (or a trio) of terracotta pots, filled with potting soil sealed in a baggie, and glass vials of seeds also proved to be a successful endeavor that the kids enjoyed helping with and the teachers enjoyed receiving. While the kids painted the pots, I divvied up the seeds and soil. Had Pinterest been around then, I would have logged all of these ideas in step-by-step photos, but at that point, I am not even sure we had a computer in the house!

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One year, we made picture frames, using paper or wood frames purchased at AC Moore, a store I barely step into these days. The kids would draw patterns (or some semblance of) on the frames, paint them with tiny paintbrushes, then add glitter, rhinestones, scrapbooking icons or tiny flowers, depending upon who they were for. We did not put photos in them, because we figured that when the teachers were at home, they didn’t need to be reminded of their students—no matter how adorable they were.

Last but not least, and always a fan-favorite, were the homemade cookies, beautifully packaged in boxes layered with colored tissue paper (first wrapped as 2-3 cookie bundles in plastic baggies for freshness) or vintage cookie tins that I’d collect throughout the year. We’d do mini chocolate-chip sugar cookies cut into holiday shapes, regular sugar cookies adorned with red and green sprinkles, half-dipped in white or dark chocolate first… peanut butter cookies filled with mini m&ms and piped with dark chocolate zigzags, white chocolate-cranberry-almond oatmeal cookies diagonally dipped into white chocolate, and of course, old-fashioned gingerbread boys piped with royal icing.

No matter how much the teachers moaned and groaned each year that they’d gained 10 pounds during the holidays, each year they asked if we were making cookies again for the holidays.

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OS_RC_1143_WD(Cranberry cookie courtesy of ocean spray; p-nut butter courtesy of Crisco. Click through to recipes.)

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More than the taste, I think their heartfelt anticipation reflected an appreciation for the time and effort we, and other families, dedicated to making them feel special. I think this is something we all need to remember, especially when budgets are tight. Homemade gifts aren’t cheap or “junky,” and have the power to make a much more lasting and meaningful impression than something picked up thoughtlessly amidst the rest of your holiday shopping.

Eventually, the schools swayed the class moms to collect donations for a larger, more sophisticated non-teacheresque gift such as dinner out on the town or a gift certificate to a boutique, and our crafty days began to wane. (OK, I admit there were A LOT of reasons our zeal for crafty endeavors died down.) And now of course, there’s Pinterest, so I am all about DIY’ing it up. I may be short on time these days, but since I am down to two kids at home and one heading to college next fall, I think I’ll have no problem jumping back into the creative zone. No doubt there will a zillion Pinterest boards to keep me busy during those “where did my kids go?” days. Leave a comment if you want some actual instructions. I’m a pro at making gingerbread houses.

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