Simplifying Holiday Traditions

Simplifying Holiday Traditions

The kitchen clock approached 2 A.M. as I pulled my orange Williams Sonoma apron over my head and scrubbed flour and gingerbread remnants from my fingers. Cooling racks covered every surface with the walls and roofs of identical A-frame gingerbread houses, enough for each child to decorate his own at our party the following evening.

With the gingerbread finished, I ran through the remaining tasks. I skimmed a new recipe for the homemade gingerbread roll I’d attempt in the morning. I lined the candy bowls along our dining table. Soon I’d make the icing that would frame and set the gingerbread walls together. And I still needed to make sausage dip for the adults.

Five families came over to join the festivities with us that first year, each bringing their favorite candies for decorating and arriving in their favorite holiday pajamas. The Polar Express soundtrack welcomed them into our home. My then-two-year-old and eight-week-old wore matching organic cotton Christmas pajamas.

My husband ran out to grab peppermint coffee for me before the party and returned, musing, “Oh, they had those gingerbread roll things in the checkout line at the gas station,” pointing at my homemade effort, which had consumed literally my entire morning. Never one to enjoy baking, especially last-minute, I threw up my hands.

“Of course they did!”

Four years later, our gingerbread pajama party has evolved into one of my family’s most anticipated and treasured holiday traditions. But now that I’m a seasoned mom with three young boys underfoot, I set more-realistic expectations for myself, and I don’t feel guilty about it. I just can’t pull off the same dedication anymore, one that requires hours of focused planning, when I’m juggling so many other responsibilities in this season of my life.

I defined my expectations for throwing a party, and the subsequent parties got easier as I granted myself permission to simplify. That ridiculous homemade gingerbread roll was the first to go. What began as a last-minute touch had taken painstaking hours. 

I also took the pressure off myself to make the gingerbread from scratch. The next year, I purchased gingerbread train kits at our local craft store. The following year, I waited too far into the holiday season and sent my husband out for some kits, and he returned with pink Shopkins candy houses, the gingerbread section completely wiped out. Lesson learned: simplify, but don’t procrastinate.

Last year, we dropped the houses altogether and decorated homemade gingerbread people. In fact, a dear friend baked the gingerbread herself (from scratch!) and brought it over with her, because she enjoys baking. Other dear friends brought toppings and yummy Grinch fruit skewers. Sharing the responsibilities made the event more enjoyable. I even had time to do something I truly enjoyed – sewing tiny gingerbread man ornaments monogrammed with the date for each guest. My husband loves to make delicious wassail, another favorite from my hometown.

Jen Wilkin said, “Entertaining seeks to impress. Hospitality seeks to bless.” When I began to identify my purpose behind this tradition – the desire to get together with close friends – I left behind those elements of the party that were too stressful for me to undertake alone. Other people might let go of other tasks, depending on what they value and what they find to be stressful. Kendra Adachi of The Lazy Genius says it best with her wisdom: “Be a genius about the things that matter and lazy about the things that don’t.”

The gingerbread houses that first year were stunning, and that first party was so much fun, but I also remember the overwhelm that came with trying to curate the perfect holiday party. And the overwhelm is not what I want to remember. In such a busy holiday season, I wanted my party to be worthy of my friends’ time. 

As the holidays approach year after year, it’s still one of the first dates I block off on my calendar. The tradition matters. The friends matter. But for me, the presentation was never what it was all about for me. (It might be for some, and that’s totally fine — you do you!) Once I was able to identify the part of the tradition that I valued most, I was able to let go of the pressure to entertain in favor of bringing my friends together for a festive, cozy evening spent together.

And the sweet Christmas pajama group pictures we take? They long-outlast those perfect, made-from-scratch A-frame gingerbread houses, anyway.