What I didn’t do this Christmas and the repercussions thereof.

Here’s how it all started:  We kicked off our 2012 holiday season with a week-long trip to Portland and Seaside for Thanksgiving (it was fab.)  We came home and then left again for a weekend in Wenatchee (a swim meet; also fab.)  After returning home, I scrambled like a madwoman for the next week to get the Big Fat Church Christmas Party together (which was quite fab as well, thanks to the people who did all the work while I bossed them around.)  With that finally behind me, it was time to start thinking about our own family Christmas.  I took a deep breath and looked up at the calendar.  Oopsie–already mid-December.  And in a week and a half we’d be leaving for a family wedding in Boise and my sister’s family would arrive right afterward, thus officially commencing the Christensen Christmas festivities (i.e., a weeklong glut of eating, playing Trivial Pursuit, and saying “I’m so fat.”)   So, I knew I needed to have everything done before the wedding.  Hence, the Christmas countdown in my house started on December 10th and ended on December 20th.  A different blogger would tell you she had everything listed, bought and wrapped by mid-November, due to common sense and careful planning.  I, however, took a less structured approach (big shocker, I know.)  I decided that rather than fight the holiday stress, I would simply eliminate it.  So instead of telling you what I did for Christmas this year, I’ll tell you what I didn’t do.

This year, I did not:

1.  Overdecorate my house.  Pulling out homemade ornaments and the red and gold bulbs from our first years of marriage I thought, yet again, about going out and  buying some stylish, quality Christmas decorations.  After all, I’d been married for seventeen years and had hardly ever spent anything on holiday decor–didn’t my poor family deserve better?  But then I reconsidered–out of laziness more than frugality–and I’m so glad that I did.  The kids had a marvelous time hanging everything up and when they finished our house was warm and sparkly with a hodpodge tree, an accidental snowman collection, and old mismatched stockings hung on the fireplace.  That was pretty much it, and it was enough.  (I asked the kids if we should get new, matching stockings this year so they looked nicer hanging together, and they practically started crying.  “No!  These are our stockings!  You can’t change them!”  I felt like a cross between a stage mom and the Grinch, and quickly dropped the subject.)

2.  Bake.  I usually make cookies and candies in November and freeze them until Christmastime, thus providing my family an abundance of sweets during the Month of Merry.  I didn’t do that this year, or even bake at all in the weeks leading up to Christmas.  And guess what?  Between generous neighbors and visits to Grandma’s house and leftovers from parties, we had plenty of treats–and I wasn’t stuck in the kitchen, throwing one of my adult mini-tantrums because the kids had lost interest halfway through the cookies and left me to finish baking and cleaning up, rather than sticking around to create the lifelong memories this project was supposed to inspire.  Another perk was that we didn’t feel sick to our stomachs the whole month of December, which was nice.   I saved my baking for when my my sisters and I were together the few days before Christmas.  We helped the kids make a huge gingerbread village (read: graham cracker ghetto), and then made a few simple treats we finished in a couple of hours.  Between that and the pies and the dishes of candy, it was more than enough. (And yes, we have managed to feel sick to our stomachs since then.  In fact, I feel sick to my stomach as I’m writing this post.  Ah, tradition.)

3.  Drop off neighbor gifts.  I am sorry, neighbors!  I love you and I love dropping off treats to you every year–I think those kinds of visits are what Christmas is all about.  Which is why I’ll enjoy doing it even more next year.  I realized, for maybe the first time this year, that just because I skip a tradition once doesn’t mean I have to give it up forever.  So December was too hairy to do everything you wanted to do?  Give yourself a break and pick it back up next year.  I also realized that I can do many things over the course of the calendar year to express my love and gratitude to the people in my life.  Doing it between December 1st and 24th doesn’t necessarily make it mean more.  (But it’s still nice.)

(And I still want you to drop off a neighbor gift to me.)

(I know that’s not fair.)

(But my lack of ambition doesn’t get you off the hook.)

(I had to skip neighbor gifts this year so I could wax eloquently about skipping neighbor gifts in this self-aggrandizing, slightly condescending post.)

(You have no such obligations, so I expect a neighbor gift from you each and every year.)

(And it better be good.)

4.  Send out Christmas Cards.  If you want to know how I feel about Christmas Cards, read my post from last year.  If  you don’t want to read my post from last year (what??), let me just say this:  I value this tradition more than any other at Christmas, aside from the whole kids/magic/holiday glory thing.  I love the thoughtfulness of it, I love the sentiment of it, I love the nostalgia of it.  And what I love most is opening and reading the beautiful cards that you send me.  I appreciate it, truly.  Which is why I’ll enjoy sending them out even more next year, when I pick that tradition back up.  And, as with my neighbors, I can do many things over the course of the calendar year to stay in touch with dear friends and family.  (For a full treatise on this topic, see pp. 3.  The same thought process applies.  In other words, don’t even think about not sending me a Christmas Cards.  Ever.)

5.  Stress over gifts.  I didn’t start my shopping until December 10th, and guess what I found out?  I like it that way!  By minimizing the allotted shopping window, I spend less–and spend less time–finding the perfect gift for every single person on a list of people that grows longer and longer the earlier I start making it.  Planning Christmas is like planning a wedding:  it will take up as much time as you allow it.  Example:  if I start my shopping in October so I can “get ahead,” I simply keep adding people and items to the list because, really, it feels unnatural to finish your Christmas shopping in October.  I’m telling you, there’s something in a woman’s DNA that insists she must show up at Target at least three times (a week) during the month of December.  You cannot fight this, ladies.  No matter how early you start, no matter how Amazon-dedicated you are,  you will be pulled into the December crowds at the mall.  And you’ll spend money once you’re there.  So why not compartmentalize the whole thing and do it in a week?  You can buy five gifts at Target in one week as easily as you can buy five gifts at Target over three months.  You’d be back this week for stocking stuffers anyway.  And you’ll enjoy your shopping more because, I don’t care what any ultra-organized, start-planning-in-August Christmas expert tells you, there’s something fun and even a little magical about Christmas shopping at gee, I don’t know…Christmastime.  And finally, the slight rush will force you to pull back and find a nice–not perfect–gift for everyone.  And a nice gift is enough.   Enough, enough, enough.  (Except for the Santa gift.  You gotta deliver there.  But would you believe it if I told you we didn’t even order our Santa gifts online until December 15th?  They miraculously arrived before the big day.  What if they hadn’t?  We had no Plan B.  Derrick and I have always been big risk-takers.)

6.  Blog.  These last few weeks, I just couldn’t make the time. My days were spent flying from here to there, and at night I was up late wrapping, enjoying another holiday get-together, or walking the dog with my husband (who I never see in December unless we’re walking the dog).  I am not blogging for money or ratings (darnit), so I decided to just skip it for a little while.  I would have liked to have documented all the fun little holiday moments I enjoyed with my family this year, but instead I decided to just enjoy those moments, and write a big fat journal entry about the whole thing later on.  Will it be as fun and whimsical as a series of humorous, photo-filled posts leading up to the Big Day would have been?  No.  But a private journal entry will be enough.  Enough, enough, enough.

Funny, but all of the things I didn’t do this year are things that I really enjoy doing.  (Except stressing over gifts.)   I love to bake and decorate and and I lovelovelove visiting my neighbors and saying “hi” to you all through good ‘ole fashioned Christmas cards.  These are the traditions that make Christmas Christmas, and they truly bring me cheer.  But here is something else I realized:  whether it’s joyful or painful, I can only do so many things in so much time.  I do not have a Personal Christmas Assistant, and I think some of the things we expect ourselves to accomplish in December–when the rest of life does not slow down to Norman Rockwell time–exceed what a professional would expect to accomplish without a good assistant herself.  Just because I enjoy something, and just because it’s sentimental and well-meaning and will surely fill my children’s tender hearts with the Light-‘o-the-Season, doesn’t mean that I can–or even should–do it every year.  I should choose a few of those things to do, and swap them out for a few others next year.

And so among all of these magnificent yuletide revelations, here is my favorite:  I learned that when you skip out on some of the good things, it opens up time for other good things.  Like simple service projects with your kids, and visiting people who need your time more than your gifts, and listening to a beautiful Christmas concert at your church, and reading to your second-grader under the tree every night, and taking one whole evening to just sit with your kids and share what each of you loves most about Christmas (no program/planning/wrapping required), and taking another evening to play a long board game together, which you always mean to take more time to do.  And instead of all that baking, you might have time to turn on some Bing Crosby at home and just make a good pot of soup with your kids–one that’s not red and green and sprinkled–and bundle up for a long walk with your husband afterward, talking over your day and enjoying the beautiful lights on the beautiful homes in your neighborhood.  In the absence of the frenzied giving, you might actually have time to receive, and thereby make someone else’s giving worthwhile.  You might have to time to really  notice and appreciate how other people’s efforts–their lights, their treats, their cards–blessed your own Christmas this year.  And you might even have time to write about it on your blog and thank them.  And tell them how you love them.  And how you can’t wait to be the giver next year.  We can take turns, you and I, dazzling each other with beautiful food and lights and cards.  It’s all such fun, but it’s too much for each of us to do on our own, every time.  So we can give when we can and receive when we should.  We can share.  I think that’s a pretty good way to wish each other a merry Christmas.  And so I wish it you now, as the grateful recipient of so much good giving.  Merry , Merry Christmas.





Christmas Quagmire.

The good part is that I got to see Lincoln and Les Miserables within a month of each other.  Suddenly, going to the movies is fun again.

The bad part is that now I have to decide who should get Best Actor when the Oscars come around.  (I have to decide this, my faithfuls.  I just have to.)

It hurts me to say it, but I think the award should go to Daniel Day Lewis.

Who’s with me?

Crossing over.

Since becoming a proud (read: annoying) dog owner, I’ve made a monumental discovery, and it hasn’t been that of my inner child or a sense of wonder about the dynamic canine species with which we coexist.  The discovery, my friends, has been Petco.

That’s right: Petco.  You know–where the pets go.

This geeky place was never on my radar before, for two obvious reasons:  1)  I didn’t own a pet, and 2)  I was busy shopping at Walmart (which, as we all know, isn’t geeky at all.)  The only time I thought about Petco was when I passed it on my way to Walmart and vaguely wondered:  how do they stay in business?  Just looking at that brown box of a building bored me; I shuddered to imagine how boring it was inside.  Now, let me assure you that this distaste for Petco had nothing to do with a distaste for pets or for pet owners (okay, maybe a little distaste for pet owners.  Sorry.)  But really, I cringed at the sight of Petco mainly because the presentation was shabby enough to be offensive.  A mudcolored square structure with puffy red letters on the side spelling out the (wildly imaginative) name–Petco–and they expect the masses to flood?  Obviously, the higher-ups at Petco know nothing about where rich, sexy dog owners like me want to spend our money.  A fool’s store, I thought to myself.  Or worse, a dork’s store (!)  I may have succumbed to the greasy enticements of Walmart, but some things still remained beneath my dignity.   Petco was one of them.  I knew–in the same way I knew I’d stay young forever–that I would never, ever shop at Petco.  Turns out I was wrong (about the latter, not the former.)  (Obviously.)  The epiphany hit me one crisp autumn afternoon, as I found myself walking through the front entrance of Petco with my dog on a leash.  Pushing through the heavy glass door, I was unprepared for what waited on the other side.

Rich, did I say?  Sexy?  Yes and yes.  But wait–Petco is so much more than that.  Don’t be fooled, as I was, by the clumsy simplicity of the red-puffy-lettered-brown-box of a building.  Here’s what happens inside Petco:

You walk through the front doors and smack into a “treat table,” which is an understatement; a long counter with dozens of different dog delicacies stands with style and color that rivals the cosmetic counters at Nordstrom.  (I mean, the way I imagine the cosmetic counters at Nordstrom look.  See, I don’t shop at Nordstrom.  I shop at Petco.)  Each dog treat looks like a fancy handmade Christmas cookie, and you can fill your bag to the brim–for only $6.99 per pound!  (Twice the price of ground beef, but who’s counting?  Your spoiled, fat kids can eat cereal; your doggie deserves a treat.)  Before you can select your goodies, however, you are flanked by two–wait, three–Petco employees who pounce on you like a kitten pounces on one of those beige-carpeted catstands they sell for just $124.99 (aisle P4.)  These chipper employees seem to have but one purpose:  serving you.  Not exaggerating here–they are the most cheerful, accomodating pet-product-pushers I’ve ever encountered:

“Need a new dog collar?  Let me show you our rolled leather ones–do you prefer jewel or earth tones, vibrant or hidden stitching?”  “Looking for a bone?  Well, what’s your puppy’s age, breed, and temperament?  Because we have natural bones, synthetic bones, teething treats, chew toys and–for the very invested owner–antlers.”  Antlers.  (True story, my faithfuls; they’re on a display shelf in front of the checkstand.)  “Oh wait; is it dog food you’re in need of?  Well then.  What’s your breed?  Because for each breed, we have newborn puppy/small puppy/growing puppy/small dog/medium dog/large dog varieties; and each of those comes in meat lovers/vegetarian/vegan/organic/sugar free/preservative free/fat free/flavor free options.  None of it, however, will be free to you.  Far from it.  But don’t worry; when your bill for a “few things” totals $176.00, we’ll ring you up with a smile!  And a complimentary Dog/Human Crossover Cookie.”  You gave the cookies this title when you learned, upon asking, that their free “dog cookies” at the checkout counter are actually human cookies that are simply sugar-free.  (Which says something about how good sugar-free cookies actually taste.)  (And how weird it is that dog owners eat the same food as their dogs.)  (And how thinking this is normal is what makes people without dogs kind of despise people with dogs.)

You pay for the “groceries” with a credit card (whose checking account can cover a diet like this?) and head toward the exit, thinking that you’re done.  Oh my sweet, naive faithful–you are not done.  Far from it.  Because how did you think you were going to to serve that highbrow food to your dog–in a plain old dog dish?  A pox on the thought!  You must take a left down aisle P7 and decide between a Bronze Elevated Pet Diner, a Bamboo Bistro Double Dog Diner, or the classically simple Two-Tone Ceramic Crock.  And were you really just going to leave stale water in that poor puppy’s dish all day?  You will obviously be needing the Deluxe Fresh Flow Purifying Pet Fountain, in ebony or stainless steel.  (I’d go for the stainless–so sleek!)  And since the dinnerware should never outgloss the dog, you’d best speed over to P9 for some Evening Primrose Oil Shampoo and Jasmine and Vanilla Silky Coating Brush Conditioning Spray.  All of this, of course, means nothing without an Ionic Waterless Pet Massage Brush with which to apply it.  What–you thought you could just wash your dog with your own grubby human hands?  Talk about passe.  I mean:  Welcome to the nineties, Mistah Bahnks!

You mentally compute your purchases and decide that you really must be done shopping now, lest you start dipping into the Target budget (a pox on the thought!)  Spinning past the aisles toward the front, however, you can’t help but toss in a Pink Polka Dot Diva Dog Tank Top, a UV Protective Visor, and a Holiday Mrs. Claus Dress for Dogs.  (Your dog is a girl, after all, and ’tis the season.)  The clerk beams at you as her fingers fly over the keypad and approval oozes out of her eyes.  She pauses in her bagging to hold the Mrs. Claus getup at eye level then announces with bravado, “I got this for my puppy last year and it was”–she turns it sideways to show everyone in line behind you–“SOO CUTE!”  A series of gasps and clucks validates your already confident purchase; you may have even heard some applause break out in the back.  Eyeing your audience, you notice that several of the patrons and their puppies are wearing matching sweaters.  No matter–you still bask in the glow of their admiration.  You smile and nod modestly to your fans as the clerk folds the dress gently and places it in its own bag.  You appreciate her care and, in what you hope will be seen as a gesture of goodwill, help yourself to two complimentary Crossover Cookies.  She smiles magnanimously as you pop one of them into your mouth.  With shining eyes, the clerk says softly, “Tastes good, doesn’t it?”  You are instinctively aware that by consuming this Crossover Cookie, you have actually crossed an ideological divide. What the clerk really meant was, “You’re one of us now.”

And you come to realize, as you chew (and chew), that the Crossover Cookie does taste good.  Or at least, it doesn’t taste bad. Which is all it takes to satisfy the palette of a dog–and, it would seem, a dog’s owner.  Masticating that pasty lump in your mouth, you also realize that for all its talk about animals, Petco understands some pretty basic human psychology.  They know that we know that If We Love Our Pets, We Cannot Have Better Stuff Than They Do.  Seriously:  how elitist would it look if we, as mere humans, hogged all the fine food, fashionable clothing, and luxury grooming goods for our own species?  After some more (prolonged and determined) chewing, you finally swallow the cookie and realize something even more profound:  you will, heretofore, join yourself up with Petco’s righteous crusade.  From now on, it will be organic food and sparkly tutus for the dogs, Top Ramen and hand-me downs for the kids.  And you understand that we should all–dog and human alike–be eating stale sugar-free cookies.  Together, forever.  It’s only right.  And if the non-dog-owners roll their eyes at you, rest easy knowing that the matching-sweater crowd will fling your name to the heavens.  Your decision is made and you tell the clerk boldly, “Sign me up for the PetPals rewards card.”  This time applause does break out, as your new wool-clad comrades whoop and cheer behind you.  You refrain from bowing, tempted though you are.  You simply grin and leave the store, heavy with bulging bags and a happy heart.  “Next paycheck,” you think excitedly, “I’m coming back for the Luxury Tuscan Villa Dog Castle!”  Fixing the roof on your own pile of bricks can wait.  I mean, really.  Doesn’t your dog deserve an upgrade?