By Jeannette Boner // Illustration by Savannah Raye Brady
Our first big holiday in a home that we owned—a place where we were establishing roots—provided an insight into the future of the Boner household structure. (Brad, my willing partner, acknowledges that this marked a shift in our celebratory practices.)
Still newly married, we invited my in-laws for Christmas. While this may seem like common practice to some, for me, it was my big debut. You see, my mother set the holiday bar high. Starting at Thanksgiving and running through the second day of January, my childhood circled around tradition and the dinner table. From the cookie making, to the Festa dei Sette Pesci on Christmas Eve, to the pork and homemade sauerkraut on New Year’s Day (and a baked pretzel for good luck), our holiday season was dipped in butter and gift-wrapped in a magic that I lapped up eagerly, and, most of the time, thoughtlessly.
That first holiday in our new house, I sweated through menu details and took mild offense when I opened a FedEx box to find that my mother had, lovingly, packed me cookies of all shapes and sizes. Another box arrived with her perfectly wrapped gifts. My mother was always on top of it, even when she was 3,000 miles away. Come on, I thought, I’ve got this covered. I have the food on lockdown, and the tree and the lights up. Check, check, off my list they go.
The snow was deep that season and Brad was covered in it when he walked through the door after work one evening—skis in one hand, a six-pack in the other. I was busy at the kitchen table searching for my wedding invitation addresses to send out the grown-up Christmas cards that would surely arrive after December 25.
“You know your family is coming in two days?” I said.
“What? Already?” he answered.
“Yes,” I said calmly (surprising even myself). “Christmas is Sunday.”
“Does UPS deliver on Saturday?” (When I opened Brad’s gift Christmas morning and pulled out the sweater that had been dropped off the day before, my sister-in-law cocked her head and said, “It probably looks better on.”)
If there is one thing I have learned through years of holidays with family, it’s that no one is going to make the magic for you. You have to grab Tinker Bell by the wings and shake that pixie dust all over the place if magic is going to happen at all. But while you’re shaking, keep these few points in mind, not only for the enjoyment of the season, but also for your own sanity.
You Are Not Your Mother
I am proud to be cut from the same cloth as a woman who can put up spaghetti sauce, jelly, and pickles, and turn around and hem my jeans in the same day, but I am not my mother. I spent the first half of my eleven years of marriage trying to be her each holiday season. It’s an easy and young mistake to make, and, at the same time, a huge compliment to the woman who created the magic and wonder I felt as a child. If I could get a redo on some of the earlier years, I would have taken a big, huge sigh and saved myself some deep disappointment by taking baby steps into our own traditions instead.
I have borrowed a lot from my childhood traditions, but it still takes years of practice to make it look easy, like my mother continues to do every year. She’s stopped mailing me cookies, but I have yet to master the baklava.
Carve Out a Space for Yourself
In the rush of the season, inevitably there are going to be some things that fall by the wayside—you simply CAN’T get to everything on your list. I have always been amazed by the ladies who find the time—amidst all the chaos—to go skiing, mix up a favorite holiday cocktail with a few friends one night, and sit quietly, listening to the sounds of the season.
Listen, this isn’t going to “just happen.” You have to make it happen! Schedule some time, put yourself on your list, and make sure it gets checked off. We are making the magic—gifts and cards, food and fun—happen for everyone else. C’mon, no one thinks through the details quite like women do. So put yourself on your list, shake up your favorite holiday drink, and don’t forget to breathe.
Keep the Flame Alive (Or Not)
I don’t know about you, but I have always felt pressure to keep the flame of tradition alive, willingly taking the baton from my mother and running hard until I pass it on to my daughter. Again, it’s what women do. And in my family, there is a lot of pride that comes with re-creating that expectation every year.
A few years ago, Brad and I decided we wanted to make our own holiday traditions. We didn’t have children yet, but there were a few seasonal happenings—like cutting down the tree in the forest up the road, skiing on New Year’s Eve in the mountains to punctuate the year and usher in the year ahead, White Russians, football and tree decorating on a lazy Sunday afternoon—that we started looking forward to every year. This was how the Boners were going to roll.
Along with friends’ families, we also started attending events in the community that have become a mainstay on our list of holiday traditions, like holiday light parades and high school concerts, which add to the swell of the season.
While I always look forward to visiting my parents and playing the usual part in my childhood traditions, when I do, it makes me miss the mountain home that Brad and I have created. That’s a new feeling of homesickness, and I like it.
Finding Merry in the Making
I have no real advice for navigating the uncertain landscape of the family dynamic. I have spoken at great length to my tribe of friends—some who have children, some who do not—who all deal with the emotional roller coaster of the in-laws and siblings, cousins and grandparents, and the general stress of bringing people together over the holidays. I’m a firm believer in seeing a good mental health counselor around this time of year and have started scheduling a pre- and postholiday appointment around the family rush. Seriously. This is what I do.
But at the end of the day, when you strip it all down and stand there among the garland and twinkle of lights—feeling a little spent—remember that any control you thought you had over the holiday magic is as real as pixie dust. Relax your shoulders, take another small sip of your Christmas cocktail, and see that the magic has been in front of you the whole time. It’s found on the faces of the people who simply want to be with you during this wonderful time of year. Save everything else for your shrink’s couch.