My childhood winter vacation from school was probably typical for those who were raised in suburbia in the 60s and 70s by parents who had lived through the depression. We were surrounded by commercialism, the ubiquitous TV, and zooming cars that were taking people away from home, but we still had natural inclinations toward the slow and the simple. I remember going to the malls (I grew up across the street from the world's first Target store) and of course I remember the Santa Clauses in whose laps I was supposed to like sitting, but my real joy each year was that we were off school, there was no homework, and dad was off work—so it was like an extra summertime. But with a big bonus: those luxurious hours were all ours for making Christmas together. No sports teams, scout clubs, or homework called us. We made cookies, books, cards, ornaments, snowmen, drawings, sculptures, inventions. In doing this, we came to know ourselves as people who create and do.
I don't mean to delude you, for if we could watch footage of the whole 2-week vacation, we would probably see that we only spent one or two hours a day doing all these wonderful things. I'm sure we watched TV a lot too. I know we spent days driving around the suburbs looking for the just-right gift for relatives. Sometimes we had to be dragged into making some of those cookies, not to mention the struggles over whose turn it was to clean the bathroom. We argued, certainly. That's not the point—or, perhaps that's exactly the point: it seems that if we can create an attitude and a setting for a free, creative, slow, and generous holiday, all the mistakes on the way will fade into their proper realm of unimportance. It's what we DO do well that will live on in our memories and inform our choices.
Even as distant corporations have attempted to turn every aspect of winter holidays into a way to consume, many people have gone about preserving old customs that have nothing to do with commercialism, and many have been creating new ways that are simple and accessible. Families and communities set aside a week or two at this time of year to make things and give them away, to take joy in giving and receiving kindnesses both random and ritual, and to settle into timeless being-together.
What does that look like? If you stepped into one of those homes you might at first notice only randomly dispersed people amidst degrees of disorder. You might not realize that there in the silence or the din ideas, gifts, and identities were being created. It would definitely not be YouTube-worthy, nothing that'll get into a book by what’s-her-name? MArtha Stewart?
My little family has gathered some simple winter holiday traditions that feel old and universal, even though we've only practiced them for 10-20 years. When we read or heard about a good idea then we adopted or adapted it, and within a year or two we couldn't imagine how we'd lived without it. That's how you know you've picked a good one: when you feel like it was always there even before you brought it into the light.
To begin, a family or household might like to talk about the reasons behind whatever traditions they are choosing to practice. The conversation will be interesting for sure, and from that you could collectively choose a few goals. You could even make up something like a mission statement—for example, “We choose to slow way down during the winter holiday, stay home as much as possible, and make things with our hands to share with others.” Or, “Our winter holiday is dedicated to serving the poor and to gathering with far away family.” You could even go farther and note practices that fit in with your mission, having to do with anything from technology use to food preparation to daily walks. As long as you don't set goals too specific or lofty, and as long as you are flexible and understanding with each other about how things don't always go as planned, this could be a great way to help get everyone on a shared path.
If you're wanting to settle down into a homemade winter holiday, there is one practice that can help a lot. It's just a mind-set, a reframing. It addresses the troubles that can arise over when to visit to which family, how to spend time at home too, and how to spend time with the friends who feel like family. Each of these things is wonderful, but if you're from the Christian tradition as we were, all those eggs are supposed to fit in the basket of two days: Dec. 24 and 25. That's crazy and impossible and causes a lot of stress.
My mom introduced me the idea of the 12 days of Christmas, in which as the story goes the child was born on Dec. 25 and then it took 12 days for the 3 kings to arrive with their fabulous gifts for the baby king. Mom insisted that all 12 of those days are actually Christmas, and no one could take them away from us. She tried to do something special on each of those days: invite guests over for breakfast or supper, go to a play or movie, open a gift that had been saved aside.
That's the thing about a story: if you believe it, it is true for you and then everything rearranges to support it. And so even if we had to go back to school on Jan. 3, it felt different and special to be in school when it was still Christmas, and odd that others didn't know it. (There was one Jewish girl in my white suburban midwestern middle-class Protestant school, and I laugh now to remember that when we returned to school and it was still officially Christmas at my house, I felt I could relate to her experience of having her religion be invisible and uninteresting to the rest.)
In the family I got to co-create here in Iowa, we easily solved the winter vacation scheduling problem by spreading out all the things we wanted to do among twelve days. We start our twelve on the winter solstice instead of the 25th, which of course we can do because it is our story and anyway we are sure Jesus wouldn't mind a bit, because Daniel and I were raised up with the story of how loving, kind, and accepting he was. When I was a little girl I got it firmly in my heart that Jesus was the best person a person could be, and that he loved and believed in me like a sister—and since I'm always doing the best I know how, I know he's cool with anything I do.
It's not as organized as it may sound—please don't think we've got a 24/7 Parade of Magnificent Happenings going on here. As I said, it's mostly about the mental space that is created by designating it as Vacation Time When We Do Lovely Things, even if someone has to go off to a job during part of it; about the spiritual space that's created by considering what nice thing we might do for a neighbor today, even if we don't pull that particular idea off; about the memories we make when we set out to play a game together, even if we have a small argument during the 3rd round.
I write these notes to add to the great body of resources that describe ideas for celebrating holidays in homemade and simple ways. Really this is just my contribution to the encouragement that we are all trying to offer each other, permission to call all this simple stuff not only legitimate but very special. In the end all that matters is that we take time to be together in way that is intentional, slow-paced, creative, and and generous.
Some Winter Holiday Ideas for People of Any Age
20 years ago I set out to create some traditions for our family, browsing many books and making many lists of ideas. At what point did I realize that I had too many ideas, that they were overwhelming me, and that the simplest ones were already good enough? A person really could just take one part of each otherwise normal day and make it sacred by noticing it, thanking it, and doing it in service to others and the whole. Try doing that for 12 days. Or, here are some other ideas that are not fancy or difficult.
- Make food. Bring some to neighbors as a surprise, and stay and visit with them.
- Make gifts. Use the season as inspiration to collect new ideas for simple gift making. There are so many resources for ideas, and anything that appeals to you is a perfect idea. Sound stressful? Then do the same kind of art they are making all the time these days. It feels different to make it as a gift, and it surely feels good to give it. Honestly, when these children are young you know that whatever they make will be treasured. It's all about the time they spend, short or long, with or without your help, that culminates in that moment of seeing their person open the present and be happy to have received it. When children are young, gift-giving is for the purpose of teaching them that they have something to give and it feels good to do it.
- Make small things for the animals and the fairies and leave them outside at night.
- Find some special things to do outside that you haven't often or ever done: go to a new park or forest, or make an annual snow person family. Make a bird feeder. Go sledding. Make a winter bouquet of dried plants. Visit favorite trees and sit with them.
- Make a secret window calendar each year—it could be an advent calendar, or it could be some other kind of countdown to a special day. This is one of our family's favorite activities, and we have such a great stash of them to admire from years gone by! We sit at the kitchen table for a whole evening, each with 6 variously-sized small pieces of white paper, in the realm of 2”x2”. Each person makes a barricade using books standing on their ends so that no one can see their work, and then they proceed to draw a picture on each slip of paper. Then, the whole family decorated a large piece thick piece of paper. Then their work is done, and the next part I did alone: cutting windows into the large piece and using tape to attach the artwork into each window. The last step is adding numbers for each of the calendar days in the countdown—ours went from Dec.1-25, thus 6 drawings from each of the 4 of us plus one more made by whoever wanted to. The final product is attached to a window or wall, and each morning someone opens the window of the day, and it is truly delightful to see what's behind that window. Even when it's your own art, it's such a surprise, that it's been hiding back there so patiently all this time, waiting to be seen again. Making a family window calendar is a really nice way to start getting into the mood for holiday creativity and slow-time.
- Choose some books that you'll only get out each year at this time.
- Decorate the house together. In our house we use the decorations of Christmas, which means that the first step is going to a neighbor's tree farm to cut a tree. We turned that into a celebration itself, going with another family and playing games in the field, choosing our trees together, and once we'd picked them, standing holding hands in a circle around the tree while we sang it some carols before we sacrificed it to our home.
- Make simple things that don't require the purchase of more stuff: string popcorn and cranberries to hang about the house or tree (and leave it outside for the birds later on), make paper chains out of colorful paper, cut snowflakes to hang from the ceiling or tape into windows, make gingerbread houses, shape bread dough or salt dough into ornaments.
- It's never too early to start walking around to houses at night singing songs on the doorsteps. They don't have to be from a particular religious tradition. They don't even have to be winter-related. They don't have to be in harmony. Singing songs as a surprise gift is just plain fun, and if you do it at this time of year the people inside the houses are more likely to get it (and open the door). Go back to the same places each year and you'll see what anticipation looks like!
- Light candles together around the house each night. Speak your reasons out loud, whatever they may be: having to do with your spiritual tradition, or as a symbol of the coming light after the solstice, or to remind us that we are each a shining light.
- Dance in the house. Turn off most lights, add music recorded or homemade, and boogie down. At the solstice we do candle-dancing, which we learned from watching some Asian students perform at an ethnic arts festival. Each person holds in each palm a votive candle holder with a lit candle, moving them around gracefully and carefully. The need to keep the candles upright, the dark room, the quiet music all help to create a sacred dance of light. The children understand that this is a rare and special time of using candles and fire in this way, to celebrate the returning of the sun's light.
- Switch up where you sit at the kitchen table. Switch around your sleeping arrangements—both which beds, and with whom. This is the darkest time of year just before turning toward the light, and you can turn things around to symbolize that. The main thing is, it's fun.
- You want to give a great gift to your family and friends? Plan a variety show. It doesn't take much, and every occasion is a good one for a variety show. People lack opportunities these days to offer their gifts in a safe and nurturing environment to people who are sure to love what ever they do no matter how rough. In Daniel's family the kids always presented something on Christmas eve before present opening; it was expected and they had fun preparing their simple songs or skits. It's amazing what people come up with, pulled out of their childhood or their imagination, when offered this chance. Try it a second year and you'll see the offerings multiply because once having seen an old-fashioned variety show, people can't help but want to be in it.
- Go caroling door-to-door. We hand-pick homes that we know to house people who we think especially love our coming: old people, people living alone, people who have been ill. If you truly just go door-to-door, know that some people will not open their doors to you, because they don't understand what's going on and don't know how to welcome you.
- When children are wee ones it is already time to start keeping them out of shopping malls, Santa's lap (because he will only ask what they want to HAVE), and multiple car trips that break up their days into small pieces and turn the landscape of these days into billboards, freeways, and bright lights that obscure the night sky. And perhaps above all, don't let anyone allow commercial TV to pour all those images of buying and having things into their psyches. Maybe these are places and ways that for you are currently unavoidable; then use the special slow-time of winter holidays to protect them from all of that speed and commercialism. Maybe it can't be eliminated altogether, but if you start with an awareness about the value of protecting your child from all the images that tell them to want things, you've already come a long way.
- I sure like the idea of 'Secret Pals.' Each person in a group is secretly assigned someone to do something sweet for each day (or each week, whatever you choose) for a certain number of days. At the end, the identity of the secret pals are revealed and gladness is everywhere. The only risk is that, lacking ideas, people would buy unnecessary things for each other and thus it could just add to consumption of our earth. Instead perhaps an agreement could be made about not purchasing things, and an idea list could be generated, including simple things such as poems, passed-along treasures, and food. What fun, to make and to expect kind and creative surprises every day!
The Problem of Gifts at Holidays
Gift-giving can be very challenging for the loving grandparents of kids whose parents are choosing intentional simplicity. As the parents of the children you need to address this right away, before something is purchased that you don't want to have in your home, because it's not very nice to 'disappear' it after it's been gifted. Maybe you can have the first conversation even before the child is born or adopted. Begin with an attitude of gratitude for the kindness of these relatives, and with the belief that they want to do right by the child as well as you. How can they know what your ideals are unless you tell them? You may need to be specific: 'we are keeping all newly-purchased toys out of our home—how about taking Jenny on an outing to the second-hand store to pick out a toy?' Or, 'We are choosing to have only wooden toys—would you like to see a catalog that sells Fair Trade natural toys?' Or, 'We won't need clothing because we have so many hand-me-downs, but maybe you and Jonny could have a sewing project together and make kitchen towels out of old bath towels.'
In our family this went pretty well. Mostly the grandparents choose toys the girls had identified out of a catalog. We did not succumb to the pressure to have many presents for the kids. Daniel and I gave our gifts to the girls, very simple and small by comparison, at home during our family Yule (see below). And instead of gathering as many presents as possible to put under the tree at the grandparents', we urged the aunts and uncles and cousins to open some of their presents at home. Even still there were years when we watched as young Sophie and Ida with their one present sat for hours watching as others opened many in a row (sent by other relatives from another family), and I wondered if there might be another way...but I knew the way for us wasn't to be found by buying them more presents, nor even adding the pressure and stress of making more. I also knew I couldn't make choices for my dear extended family. Ours was only one way, and the only thing that complicated it was this having to place it aside the others. We trusted that our children would learn to accept the different ways of others and still uphold our own.
I have known people whose parents insisted on giving their grandchildren gifts that were not in keeping with the choices of their grandkids' homes. The parents of those children have a difficult job then, for the children need to see their parents uphold their respect for the generosity and different world view of the older generation. I did not have to deal with this, but if I were in that situation I hope that I would talk with the child about how nice it was of their grandparent to give this, and also talk about how since it was (name it for yourself: electronic, loud, plastic, sexist, etc), we would only enjoy it for a few days before we let it go elsewhere. In that way it seems we could help the child hold both truths at once: kindness and gratitude, and earthloving ideals. It's honest, and kids surely can hold those two birds in one hand. I suppose some families might need to keep that certain item in the closet to pull out next time grandma comes to visit...
My family of origin, with whom we gather each year at Christmastime, has gone through many iterations of present-giving agreements. Everyone authentically loves to give, but in my opinion that instinct is tampered with by the expectation of giving. We have experimented with the ideas of name exchanges, where each person only gives to and gets from one; but all the adults still chose to give to all the children, so we still had a multiple-hour gift opening session with lots and lots of stuff around afterwards. We tried only giving to the kids—same deal. We tried giving to charities instead—and that is great but people still gave gifts to each other. We tried letting everyone choose whether or not to give, no guilt attached...but it's hard to be the only one who brings just one or two gifts to the tree when others are bringing boxes full. We've talked about trying to have all presents gifted 'on the side'--in the hallway or in the kitchen, one-on-one, rather than all at once sitting at the tree for 2 hours. Not enough people liked that idea.
My wish would be to make a clean slate by holding a few years of gift-free gatherings. Then we could each re-enter the realm of gift-giving to our family with a new perspective. We would have seen Christmas flourish without the gift time, and we would believe each other that gifts are not expected, and we could each ease back into giving just what felt authentic to us.
Our Family Yule Tradition
Daniel, Sophie, Ida, and I choose the winter solstice, near December 21, as the beginning and the most special night of this holiday. The four of us have a lovely tradition of spending a long evening together practicing some simple rituals to mark the season, and as long as we have that night together, no matter what happens or doesn't happen during the next 12 days we still feel that all is well.
In the preceding days the house has been decorated with pine boughs, tiny lights, a bedecked tree (not yet lit), hanging paper snowflakes, and the like. On this night the kitchen table is decorated too, most importantly with placemats made of a piece of square black construction paper and on top of that a yellow sun-shaped colored paper. Lots of candles to light, and nice smells in the air from the aromatherapy lamp. Our place
This holiday is about the balance between dark and light and the turning of the wheel of the year as the sun begins to come back to us. Our food and rituals are symbolic of the sun and the turning. We all shift our places for sitting at the table one to the right, and it's amazing how that shifts and freshens our perspective. It is the only time of the year when we eat breakfast foods at suppertime: sunny-side up eggs (the sun right there in front of us) and hash browns, oranges sliced into rounds just like the sun, carrots sliced into rounds and steamed, and cinnamon rolls (my notes say: don't forget to frost them!). For dessert we make yellow sunshine custard in round cups. We thank the sun!
We eat by candle light, the house dark all around us. We share toasts to the dark and the light, we read some favorite poems about the sun and about balance. We are jolly and not over-serious. We are easing into our night of ritual.
After supper the plates are cleared and we have before us the black and yellow placemats. Some pens and a small bowl of honey are placed on the cleared table and we begin in silence to write our fears on the yellow sun. Some write in code, some in drawings, some in English words. Sometimes there is a lot to write, sometimes very little. It is all private and anything is perfect. (I admit that one year I sneaked my gaze across the table to Ida's paper. I was so very worried about her because she had been ill with Lyme disease for a few years and had grown weary of reporting to be about it, and I thought I might learn something important from her paper. What I saw was 'fear of mom dying.') It is easy and liberating to write these things down because we know what's coming next: we will use our fingers to smear honey on the paper, adding sweetness to our fears and then using that sweetness to feed the fire that will help show their temporal nature by consuming them. Once everyone is ready, usually 5-10 minutes, we fold or roll our papers and walk over to the woodstove where the door sits open waiting for each paper to be offered to her flames. We watch each paper burn and smile to think of how fears come and go, how they may or may not be connected to real things.
Then it's back to the kitchen table, where our black place mats await us. Now comes the other part, the balance for our fears: we set out our dreams for the new year that this wheel is turning toward. Again it is private, and this time we only think them silently as we reach into a common bowl and pinch some salt between our fingers. Then we direct that salt as we release it so that it makes a spiral shape on our black paper, as we are thinking over our dreams. You can call it so many things: setting intentions, manifesting our hopes, praying, being present. Everyone knows how to do this, how simple and important it is; this is just one way that we do it, at one particular time of the year. I'm sure I read it in a book somewhere.
When all of us have made our spiral we gently pick up our placemats and go outside into the dark. We stand in the silence for a moment there together, and then someone says “1-2-3!” and we fling the salt out into the world, we plant the seeds, we let them go away from us to do their thing. Another light moment, another way to both realize our power and let it be in its proper place with everything else.
When we go back inside it is to a dark house. We feel our way upstairs to a different space where pots and pans are set out with metal spoons, and a tray of candles, and a small bowl of macadamia nuts. We stand in a circle holding hands, and we move slowly clockwise as we slowly sing “We are awake, awake in the night, we turn the wheel to bring the light. We turn the wheel to bring the light.” We sing it again, slightly faster and a just little higher, moving our circle a little faster too. Again and again we sing and move, higher and faster. We are the darkness, and we are part of bringing the light. Just like for real, we are dark and light! Just like for real, we are the changers and the changed!
When we have gone as fast and as high as we can, when we are dizzy and it is more than we can take (Sophie went though years when she sat in the corner and plugged her ears), then we take up the pots and pans to clang and bang them together, making a ruckus and a roar. We trill and screech and ululate “Happy Yule!” “Welcome Sun!” We hug each other and hug the dog. We light candles, because the light has now returned. It's very theatrical, just like it sounds!
Once we've quieted back down a bit we settle back down on the floor in our circle for a few more songs: Light is Returning, and Round and Round the Earth is Turning, favorite sun poems by Mary Oliver and Gary Snyder and others, and then the sharing of the Oblatek. This is a variation on a Polish Christmas custom, in which a flatbread is broken and shared by each family member with each other, offering forgiveness, pledging to move on from the old arguments and resentments of the past year. We use macadamia nuts instead, and we use it as a time to offer blessings and gratitudes to each other.
There we sit, our hearts enlivened by the dancing and the energy of the returned sun, our bright faces soft in the candlelight. There are 12 nuts total, 3 for each of us to give. Someone begins, taking up a nut in her fingers and holding it as she faces the one she will thank and bless. We look intro each others' eyes as we speak and listen. In this way we practice the art of offering blessing, and of graciously receiving it. Some years some of us are bubbling with words, some years we say simply “I thank you for all that you are and I love you,” or we offer our nut-gift with silence and a kiss. This is how we have practiced knowing that all ways are good ways.
There is no hurry but whenever it is time to leave that space we go down to the Christmas tree and light it for the first time of the season. By that special light we snuggle on the couch and sing a few carols. We get out a two favorite children's Christmas books which Daniel reads aloud to the girls for old-times' sake.
Then it's time to give our gifts to each other. We have a very laid-back way of presents: we hope that they can be homemade, or found, or used, or biodegradable. There is no expectation that everyone gives something to everyone. No one wants obligation-presents, and we know that absence of a gift is not a sign of anything. Group gifts are great. Mended bluejeans, certificates of back massages, original songs, transcribed poems...all of these kinds of things, and each year too someone 'breaks' the rules and goes out and buys something because it was just too perfect and too needed, and that is celebrated too. Because of all this, the gift-opening time is slow and sweet. With so few gifts, we can drag it out as long as we like and we still don't have to wait too long for dessert.
There was another tradition that we used to have, one of my favorites but one which had to take a break when the girls got older. Maybe we'll see the return of Nutcracker Dancing someday when young children live here again. Here's how it went: we put on the recorded music from the Nutcracker Ballet and the girls dressed up in dance clothes and danced for us. They danced the whole thing, changing costumes multiple times. It was magical of course, and Daniel always feel asleep but that was part of the tradition too. Nutcracker dancing was the last thing before bedtime, the slow dragging out of the hours until we couldn't find anything else to do but sleep. Then the girls settled in to bed next to the lit tree and our night was over.