Christmas Survival Guide

It seems like you’re just getting over the post-Thanksgiving heartburn and you’ve given up even the idea of losing that extra weight so generously bestowed by all that pumpkin pie, and already it’s Christmas time! How did this happen? Again! The kitchen still has a faint scent of turkey and ham, and that gray lump way in the back of the fridge could be what’s left of some stuffing. The stores, though, are crowded with cardboard Santas surrounded by wreaths of dollar signs…and one of them even seems to be standing on a turkey. The television screams at you about gifts and decorations and shipping deadlines between mob scenes and grizzly reports of mass violence and political upheaval.

And then suddenly you’re halfway through December and the panic sets in. You haven’t decorated – not even hung a wreath – and there are still all those gifts to buy, and the Christmas tree, and cookies and candy and holiday food and…aaauuggh! Stop and take a deep breath; this is not the time to either run and hide or begin drinking heavily. Nor is it all just a bad dream, although it may have caused a few. Believe it or not, it is possible to not only survive the holidays, but enjoy them as well. And neither your sanity nor your budget have to be sacrificed. This time you do not have to begin the new year broke, frazzled, and just glad it’s all over. Not even if you have a houseful of kids.

In fact, if you have children, you’re halfway there already. They’re probably excited anyway, so use that to your advantage any time and any way you can. After all, child labor laws don’t apply at home or at Christmas, do they? Kids historically love making colored paper chains and hanging them around doors and windows, as well as in various other places, some rather creative. Hint: watch out for the shower curtain rod and towel racks in the bathroom; soggy colored paper can become a real mess!

And they’ll probably like stringing beads, dry macaroni, Froot Loops, marshmallows and popcorn to make garlands. And clean-up is simplified if your little elves are allowed to eat the cereal and other edible materials that break or fall off. The last two may take a little supervision, though, as popcorn especially tends to need a needle to get it onto the string. Activities like this can take up several hours for preschoolers that otherwise would be spent in utter boredom or staring mindlessly at the TV. And don’t forget, school will be out for the holidays soon, and then boredom becomes a truly ugly word.

You can challenge the older kids to provide suitable decoration for the front door, but be prepared for some remarkably clever and unusual results. If you didn’t throw away all those cards you received last Christmas, they can either be taped into a circle of sorts to make a cheery wreath, or taped at random all over the door for a festive welcome to your home. (Just be sure to provide easily removed tape.) Give any kid a fistful of colored markers and some large pieces of plain paper, and you will have a stack of giftwrapping paper that will bring tears to the eyes of any grandparent or various other relatives or close friends. Nothing says “love” like a child’s efforts! So what if it isn’t professional-grade? This really isn’t about your ego, is it?  Just give them permission and a few supplies, and several of your chores will get done like magic, and without your having to do them. You can use the time to make those cookies and other goodies everybody loves. Or maybe just lock yourself in the bathroom for some quiet personal time.

Then there’s the Christmas tree. Many families have fixed traditions when it comes to trees and their decorations, and so it’s just a matter of the time to get it set up. Others of us seem to wing it and have something a little different each year. Either way, it can get a bit expensive, especially if you go with a real tree (either cut or live) or have to buy a new artificial one. After all, we live in a desert; it’s not like you can just hop over to the nearest forest and cut your own!

Then after the holidays, you have to either carefully store your tree or throw it away, unless you plant it in your yard (and as I found out when I was a small child, cut trees will not grow when stuck in the ground). The thought of throwing away a tree bothers me, and not just because of what I had to pay for it to begin with. Therefore, I sort of favor decorating a “tree” that is readily available in our area. A dry yucca cluster with a minimum of stem makes a rather stunning tree when dressed in even very simple ornaments. And I have admired more than one tumbleweed adorned with shiny balls or tiny lights. Potted cacti make stunning small trees, topped by glittering stars, and even a twisted mesquite limb looks festive when decked out in Christmas finery. Of course, if you have children you might meet with some resistance; they tend to be hung up on traditional-looking trees and Santa Clauses. Just take your six-year-old to talk to a Santa who’s dressed in a blue suit or a Hawaiian shirt, and you’ll see. But none of them will object to homemade ornaments, especially if they made them themselves.

Whatever you use for a Christmas tree, you may feel the way I do when it’s all over and you have to undecorate it. Personally, I’d rather eat spiders. I can recommend from experience that you can avoid this chore by substituting candy canes, cookies, marshmallows, or lollipops instead of regular ornaments on your tree. Then let anyone who comes to visit take a tree snack with them when they leave, and by New Year you’ll have a tree that is essentially bare. (If you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a great fan of things re-purposed, cleanly disposed of, or hassle-free.)

Another thing that I really like is giving gifts to people! Not just at Christmas time, but what better excuse can you find? Some of the best presents I’ve ever given were during the times when money was scarce or non-existent. As many of you know, I’m married to an artist, and that occupation does not come with any kind of guaranteed income. Once during our very early years, he used some time between projects (translation: unemployment) to paint a portrait of me, using materials he already had. We gave it to my mother for Christmas and she was thrilled beyond words. Huge smiles and tears – the whole nine yards.

One of the most wonderful and highly appreciated Christmas gifts I ever received was a huge box of wood scraps. Odd, you say? Well, we lived in a house with an inefficient and barely-functioning central heater, but we did have a fireplace. My crazy best friend cruised around to some construction sites and scrounged from their trash piles. She then mixed in a few small dead branches and topped the whole thing with a big red bow. I had enough kindling to last until the spring, and she didn’t spend a dime! Needless to say, we spent many of those winter evenings sitting by the fire sharing coffee, tea, and stories. And laughing. That began a life-long tradition between us. We gave each other gifts on every possible occasion, but our one rule was that no money could be spent. I once gave her a cow skull (complete with horns) that I found in a ditch. It still had dirt in its nostrils, and there was a spider web in one eye socket. It was wrapped in newspaper with a handmade card that said simply “Merry Christmas” and had no signature. I figured she’d know where it came from. She was a very creative sort, and the next time I saw that skull, it probably would have sold for several hundred dollars!

Thus, I learned how to “shop” for presents and how to truly “gift wrap.” For instance, this year a number of my close friends will be receiving what amounts to empty cans in brown paper bags. But after spray painting the cans (they’re all green; I could only find that one container in the garage), I glued witty sayings that I cut from catalogs and other junk mail all over them and filled in the blank spaces with amusing images. This way I was able to truly personalize each one with stuff the recipient can relate to. They will be presented in brown paper lunch bags that I found in the back of the pantry, and tied with twine, yarn, or whatever else I can find. I may even embellish the bags with some of the stickers that various organizations seem obligated to mail out with their requests for donations. I seem to have accumulated quite a lot of those in the past few months. Anyone can give a gift of art. Hey, if some nut can sell a work of art consisting of a banana duct-taped to a wall for thousands of dollars, then you, too, can give an art gift.

Any unusual object, either by itself or redesigned into a planter, wall hanging, or other object d’art can be a beautiful gift! All you need is someone to give it to. And remember that any odd or mismatched dish can be a very welcome and cherished present if it’s filled with cookies or other homemade goodies.

You may, however, prefer to purchase gifts to give your friends and relatives. And you will probably want to use your money to fulfill the wishes of those in your household. There’s nothing wrong with that if you have the funds to do so. But be sure to protect yourself from the spending gremlins that lurk online and in your credit cards. It’s awfully easy to spend money you don’t have if you’re not really careful. That is the main reason I recommend shopping in physical stores and using only cash.  And keep in mind these two magic words: Dollar Tree and thrift shops (OK, that’s four). They have some pretty poor quality items, but also some really good stuff. If you can tell the difference, so can your recipients!

Also, don’t give a gift just because you feel obligated to do so. Give it only if you want to. You haven’t seen Aunt Suzie in four years and you have no idea what she might enjoy…so send her a card with a short note instead. Wish her well and let her know you’re thinking of her. Trust me, she will be pleased. Or use my favorite catch-all; make a donation to a favorite charity “in honor of” as many people as you wish. Just send a card with a note indicating that you have included that person, and you come off looking like a benevolent hero. One and done!

Want to make a child really happy? A box of cookies or a giant candy bar with a note stating that they are not obligated to share it will make any kid feel really special! College students, especially those who live in dorms, will eat anything. And if you package it in pet food containers, ie: thoroughly washed dog food cans or puppy biscuit boxes, nobody else will mess with it. A can of nuts or M&Ms goes really good with a late-night study session. Clever and inexpensive.

Now that you have amassed all these gifts, you’ll need to wrap them, and that could conceivably cost as much as some of the presents! And really cheap wrapping paper can look worse than aluminum foil or newspaper. Plain brown or white paper is a good alternative, but harder to come by than my personal favorite, newspaper. If you sew, you probably have some scraps of fabric or at least some lace or seam binding. Any of these can make the plainest box look gorgeous. Or just hit the spray paint found in the garage or store room. Even ugly boxes look good when painted. Tied with yarn or even twine they can look very hip or elegant. This is another area where you can put the kids to work. If you feel uneasy about the way it looks, just add a note “wrapped specially for you by_____”. Like I said before, nothing says “love” like a child’s obvious effort. Irresistible!

Suddenly, your home is decorated, you have piles of gifts to hand out, the kids are having the time of their lives, and you still have several days before Christmas. Now you have time to make goodies, listen to Christmas music, hug your sweetie, smell the fragrant scented candles, and rest. And laugh. And rest. And be glad it’s the holidays.

So you’ve saved the season for this year, but what about next year? Here are a few simple suggestions that can help you avoid the stress and anxiety:

1. Start now. Any time you see something that you feel a particular person would just love, grab it. Or make it. I keep a shelf in my closet for storing gifts-to-be. Any shopping can be Christmas shopping, even in mid-summer.

2. Throughout the year, make a list of people who will be getting gifts.

3. Have a reason for giving any gift or sending a card.

4. Whenever you can, drop any money you won’t miss into a jar (or can, or box or envelope) and store it with the cache of presents you are accumulating.

5. Enjoy all the other holidays during the year…and if anyone offers to host a celebration, by all means attend – and let them do the majority of the work!

6. By next December, you should be able to let go of most of the hassle and just do the fun stuff you’ve always loved.

Merry Christmas to one and all.

Ellen Kimble wasn’t born in Marfa, but she got here as soon as she could. The lifestyle coach’s experiences have been varied and often unusual. Her writings draw from her former career as a paramedic and her time seeing the world outside of Marfa, before returning home. She has written for newspapers and magazines and now shares her life advice in this new column. Check back in 2020 for more.