Martha, Mom and Midwinter Madness

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Robyn Griggs Lawrence learns that the holidays are about joy and family, not domestic perfection.

My mom was a true Martha Stewart type before any of us had heard of Martha. Christmas started as soon as the last Thanksgiving dish was wiped clean. Mom hauled out Christmas candles with pinecone holders, ceramic nativity scene sets and handpainted dishes adorned with red holly. Bowls of candy and nuts were everywhere, and the Christmas tree took up nearly the entire den. Every Christmas Eve, friends and neighbors gathered around our dining table, taking their fill from platters of cheese, shrimp, deviled eggs, cookies and fudge. Mom made exotic hors d’oeuvres Midwestern kids in the ’70s tasted only once a year: stuffed mushrooms and asparagus rolled in ham.

When I was a busy magazine editor, married with young children, I tried to mimic that holiday extravaganza. As we counted down to Christmas Eve, I worked deep into the long nights, making appetizers, wrapping gifts for Santa to distribute, cleaning Mom’s old Christmas china and baking cookies. I despised the cookies. Nostalgia had turned childhood memories of sitting around the kitchen table with my siblings, sprinkling green and red sugar onto cookie dough cutouts, into an idyllic family ritual. In comparison, my tedious hours of loading and unloading cookie sheets while my husband dealt with our small kids, who lost interest after the second sheet, didn’t match up. But we had to have those cookies–and peanut brittle, toffee and date balls. It was tradition.

In my attempts to re-create Mom’s magic, I forgot that she worked part-time and had my two older sisters to help out when my brother and I were young.  I’m not saying she wasn’t amazing, but I didn’t have her resources. To make matters worse, Natural Home & Garden inevitably went to press every year on January 2, forcing me to stay up way too late during a season when hibernating is our natural instinct. I overcaffeinated. I called into deadline meetings while dusting neglected baseboards. By Christmas Eve day I was exhausted, my kids were tired of being ignored, and my husband was fed up with grocery store runs and dealing with grumpy kids on his own. I shudder a little now when my iPod stumbles upon one of the medieval carols that accompanied the strained days leading up to the Christmas Eve bash.

On the day of our last-ever Christmas Eve party, I was searching frantically for last-minute ingredients and arranging evergreen boughs on the table. My 3-year-old daughter, Cree, kept asking me to play. I kept saying no, and she kept asking. I snapped.

“Can’t you see how much I have to do?” I yelled. “I haven’t even set the table yet. And don’t crack those nuts in here!”

Cree burst into tears. “Mommy, I hate the Christmas Eve party!” she said. “I hate Christmas Eve!”

She got my attention. I sat down on the floor, leaned against the dirty baseboard, and took her into my lap. We cracked nuts and threw the shells on the floor. As the afternoon light dimmed, we lit candles. By their flickering light no one could tell which baseboards hadn’t gotten dusted. We let the house get dark around us, and we were still sitting and eating nuts when the first guests arrived. It was the best Christmas party we ever had.  

The next year we ended the madness. No one (including myself) trusted me not to turn back into a hostess from hell. Our neighbors started hosting a quieter Christmas Day open house where we could catch up with everyone while snacking on leftovers from their Christmas Eve celebrations.

They were relaxed, chatting with people as they came and went. They had no appetizer platters to refresh or piñata bashing to coordinate. Their party, clearly about welcoming rather than impressing people, became a cherished tradition more fitting to our lives.

I’ve accepted that I don’t have to compete with my mother for a place in the Christmas Memory Hall of Fame. Now I funnel all of my holiday ambitions into our Winter Solstice feast, which is more manageable and meaningful for me. As part of the celebration, we light white candles and make wishes for the coming year. Every year I wish for peace, global and personal. On the personal front, at least, every year I get a little bit closer.

Robyn Griggs Lawrence, Natural Home & Garden‘s editor-in-chief for 11 years, is the author of Simply Imperfect: Revisiting the Wabi-Sabi House. Her goal is to help everyone create a home conducive to a simpler lifestyle.