How a mere mortal copes with a superhuman holiday

Posted: Friday, December 14, 2007

There's no getting around it: Christmas is a complicated holiday. I don't want it to be complicated. Like other people, I try hard to simplify it. But there it is, all the same, in all of its complicated glory, waiting for me each year.

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There are just so many parts to it: Christmas cards, Christmas carols, Christmas presents, Christmas trees, Christmas lights, Christmas dinner, Christmas cookies, Christmas decorations and Christmas stockings. Not to mention baby Jesus, charitable giving and family, which are the real heart of Christmas anyway.

I really don't believe that Christmas was invented to make me feel incompetent. But here I am, year after year, just hitting my fall stride around late October. The kids are settled in their school year, I'm on a roll at the office, we have clean clothes to wear and we eat every day. You know. I'm feeling good. And then Wham! It's Christmas season again.

Don't misunderstand. I love Christmas. I am neither hard-hearted like Grinch nor uncharitable like Scrooge. I am just human. And Christmas is a holiday loaded with superhuman expectations. The trouble comes when I try to align my all-too-human self with these fantasies of what Christmas is supposed to be. So, over the years, I have made a few rules for myself.

Stay home. It was our first Christmas as a married couple and we had to decide between our families. I had never spent a Christmas away from my parents but I did realize that marriage meant compromise. My husband's mom was widowed, so it only made sense to make her our priority.

Our plan was to spend Christmas Eve and morning in Western Washington and then drive over the Cascade Mountains to be with my family in eastern Washington for Christmas dinner. It sounded good until we found ourselves in the midst of a blizzard on the top of Snoqualmie Pass in our old Volkswagen Squareback that had no spare tire, defrost or heat.

We made it over the 3,000-foot summit by traveling in the wake of a snowplow only to find the downhill side of the pass blanketed in a thick fog. Inching along, we finally reached Ellensburg after midnight and still 32 treacherous miles from our destination.

I tearfully called my folks. My husband and I spent our first Christmas in a run-down, deserted Holiday Inn with a broken radiator. We had visions of "The Shining."

Without credit or ATM cards (you know, one of those impractical lifestyle choices), the hotel took pity on us and accepted our check. I think we ate dinner out of the vending machine with our spare change.

Don't make Christmas cookies. People, mostly women, do such amazing things with dough. I marvel and applaud and express my gratitude but I no longer attempt to match the effort. I once volunteered to make dozens of ginger bread cookies for my daughter's Montessori holiday bake sale. Not knowing better, I used blackstrap molasses and no sugar. Paper weights, yes. Edible, no.

Forget the arts and crafts. I'm just not good with my hands. I have tried year after year to make those homemade Christmas gifts that people supposedly love to receive. The abandoned ideas include quilts, afghans, picture frames, pillows, homemade soap and on and on. It was such a relief when I finally admitted to myself that I just wasn't good at any of it and got rid of all the guilt-inducing supplies. Please, never give me a gift card to Joann's.

Marry a man who can cook. Luckily I did this so I have never cooked a dinner for Christmas or Thanksgiving either. I am, however, great at doing dishes and I make a mean macaroni and cheese casserole.

After eliminating those stressful factors, that still leaves me with Christmas cards and Christmas carols. I still get to decorate a Christmas tree and put out stockings. And I do like to buy presents, as long as I don't have to wrap them. It's that arts and crafts thing again.

My advice? Pick your favorite parts, let everyone else picks theirs, and have a wonderful holiday season.

• Carol Prentice is caught in the middle of work, family and life in Juneau.

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