The dusk is crystal and cold, the skyline rose colored. Tree branches etch their way across the sky. The white snow and black branches create a quiet starkness that has a beauty all its own. It’s the beauty of December, of snowy wintertime, of the holidays, of the Christmas season.
As the sun disappears below the horizon, a million tiny Christmas lights shout of joy and warmth amid the chilly darkness of the subzero world outside. They are beacons calling us inside, where a mug of hot cider and a plate of holiday sweets awaits. The warm cinnamon-laced elixir is the perfect antidote to make us toasty on the inside.
The Traditions of Christmas
From the time when I was a little girl, December has been a month meant for memory making.
Being both of Midwestern and Scandinavian heritage, our home glows with candles to counter the darkness outside. We fill the kitchen with the smells of the season, of cardamom, nutmeg, and cinnamon, of sweet breads baking in the oven, and of the rich, heady aroma of Swedish meatballs cooking on the stovetop.
The tunes coming through the speakers skip between classical Christmas and my favorite jazz bands’ renditions of similar tunes. At some point in the month, we’ll form a caroling group and travel the neighborhoods, singing Christmas carols as we go. Concerts and ballets are usually standard fare.
Music and food seem essential to my family’s traditions, but these are inconsequential unless shared with friends and loved ones. And so we gather at our homes, in our churches, in concert halls, and at restaurants. We eat, we sing, and we worship, drawn together to celebrate the reason for the season, the birth of the Christ child.
Encircling ourselves with family and the traditions we hold dear offers a deep sense of peace. This then becomes refreshed again each December. Possibly from the sentimentality, this year, all the hallmarks seem heightened. The lights shine brighter, the caramels taste sweeter, the Nutcracker Suite is even more beautiful and poignant than I remember.
How to Find Peace in the Chaos
An eternal struggle as we navigate the holiday season is how to maintain calmness. How to not get swept up in the busyness of shopping and preparing to host family and friends. Over the last few years, I’ve made a point of intentionally choosing the important aspects of the season and not getting caught up in the fluff.
1. Think Ahead
To this end, I try to do my shopping for gifts all through the year. When I come across the perfect gift for someone in my life, and it’s only July, I buy it and tuck it away. This way when the Christmas season rolls around, I already have most of my gifts, and I only need to wrap them.
2. Scale Back, but Keep What’s Important
Another strategy for managing the stresses of the season is to scale back the amount of Christmas baking and preparation you do. Choose only the favorites, and abandon the rest. I still bake to give, just not as much to keep.
As I’ve aged, I’ve reconciled myself with the folly of filling myself with holiday treats only to adopt the (mostly failed) strict New Year’s resolutions that include dieting and exercise. As a way to follow through on this simplification, I divide the need-to-have Christmas delicacies into two categories: heritage treats and purely delicious (and thus have-to-make) treats.
My family’s heritage treats include lefse, krumkake, ginger snaps, sugar cookies, yulekake, and sometimes butter balls. The can’t-do-without-because-they’re-so-amazing cookies include (but aren’t limited to) browned butter spoon cookies, peanut butter kiss cookies, and sea salt caramels. I’m always a sucker for great fudge and homemade peanut brittle, so those are on an alternate list.
I think back to the days when a homemade gingerbread house was an annual necessity. Those times have definitely gone by the wayside. Only the most delectable treats make the cut these days.
3. Spend Time Soaking in the Season
By taking a look at those activities that bring meaning to me, and leaving the rest behind, it’s possible to clear your holiday palate, so to speak. I have created openings in my schedule to go to a midweek Advent service, take a stroll through downtown to enjoy the Christmas lights, and sit and watch the cardinals, nuthatches, woodpeckers, and slate colored juncos fight over their spots at the bird feeders. For me, these are activities that feed my soul.
Similarly to those who have gone before me, it is with excitement and intention that I look forward to times with family and friends, building memories to last into future generations. Memories complete with coffee and a spot of something sweet …