The napkin depicts a spotless 1950’s kitchen where a mother and daughter are preparing to take Christmas dinner out of the oven. The little girl looks excited about the feast ahead, and while her mother appears calm, the caption reveals her inner turmoil, “She was one plum pudding away from a Yuletide meltdown.” After several decades of cooking the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings, I understand her angst.
By now, I should be a pro at Christmas dinner. I should be able to get a hot turkey dinner from oven to table to plate before the gravy congeals, but every year it’s a challenge. No matter how organized I am ahead of time, as soon as that bird comes out of the oven, there is a crazed flurry of activity in the kitchen. Within minutes, my kitchen looks like a bomb went off. And then, once we sit down at the beautifully laid table, almost everyone eats far too quickly (perhaps they were expecting hot turkey), and the feast that took days to prepare is over in 15 minutes.
The culinary challenge of Christmas dinner is only one aspect of the season that can make a cheerful holiday spirit as heavy as plum pudding. The weeks of shopping, baking, decorating and socializing that lead up to Christmas Day can morph the jolliest elf into Scrooge. It can be difficult to stay level when there is so much to do in so little time, and when we expect that our preparations will produce a holly, jolly Christmas.
While I haven’t quite perfected the art of a stress-free holiday season, a few years ago I had a revelation that helps me keep my preparations in perspective. In the wee hours of the morning, on a night before Christmas, to-do-lists, instead of sugarplums, were dancing in my head. As I tossed and turned, wondering how I would accomplish all the tasks with which I had burdened myself, it came to me: Christmas Day would come and go no matter what I did, or didn’t, do. I was the only one who cared if I baked that last batch of cookies, picked up one more stocking stuffer, put up one more decoration or polished the door knobs. My family wasn’t interested in a decorator magazine-style Christmas. My unrealistic expectations were mine alone.
This realization changed my approach to Christmas preparations. Since that sleepless night, I buy less, decorate more simply, bake fewer cookies, and I no longer worry about polishing the brass. These changes have freed up time for reflection and spiritual preparation, both of which help me to be more present to my family and others. Christmas is better when I’m rested, relaxed and fun, instead of fatigued, stressed and cranky.
I never forgot the ‘reason for the season’, nor did I forget to ‘keep Christ in Christmas’ when I was caught up in the hustle and bustle of busy sidewalks. I just got a little sidetracked in my efforts to make Christmas extra special. I hoped that my preparations would distinguish Christmas as a sacred time. Although I didn’t realize it then, I realize now that my Christmas preparations expressed a longing for those intangible things that contribute to my idea of a perfect Christmas. Those things – a renewed spiritual life, a happy hearth, everyone healthy for the holidays, and a sense of inner peace and joy – are not found in the material aspects of Christmas. While I still feel edgy sometimes during the holiday season, I am much more focused on the essentials of Christmas.
Christmas, in a broad sense, is a celebration of generosity and relationships. While special foods, gifts and decorations help to make the holiday special, it’s important to keep those preparations in perspective. If we are one plum pudding away from a Yuletide meltdown, we have probably gone overboard and have set up unrealistic expectations for the holiday.
I have definitely toned down my preparations since that night when to-do lists disturbed my sleep. Now, if I could only figure out a way to get a piping hot turkey dinner on the table, I would be the jolliest of elves.
Troy Media columnist Louise McEwan has degrees in English and Theology. She has a background in education and faith formation.
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