Big families seem to have holiday festivity built in just by sheer numbers—carloads of cousins pulling up in the drive, aunts and uncles unloading boxes of presents, dueling grandmothers kneading complicated doughs. Just the mere noise of a big family is festive! For someone who grew up in a very small family—just me and my mother, for a long time—the riotous togetherness of the big family can inspire a whiff of envy.
But now I’m a mother, and I’m in charge of making our small family’s Christmas festive, and…I don’t really know how. Certainly my mother produced festive holidays, but she also had all the gear—the special set of china, the elaborate centerpieces—that we don’t have room for in New York. She also benefitted from some generational training: Ladies her age were prepared for the homemaking arts. Me, I’m really more of a reader. So I wondered, what makes Christmas in a small family really great? I polled a few friends, all members of small families themselves.
1. You don’t have to tiptoe around the lunatics.
The more people at a celebration, the more likely that someone will drink too much and start with the maudlin reminiscences, self-flagellation, and sorrowful damp hugs. A small celebration means, hopefully, that all the people are the people you want. And will be mostly cheerful.
2. You’re not overwhelmed.
My husband, one of ten children, recalls shutting himself in the bathroom at regular intervals on Christmas just to calm down. Now that we’re grown and hosting our own small events, we actually have time to enjoy the festivities. This is vastly better than feeling like the lunch lady in the cafeteria, setting out one meal only to clean up and start over again. Feeding 30 people means cooking hams, chickens, beef, lots of sides and oven-fulls of desserts. Feeding four people is vastly less daunting. No deep breathing in the bathroom necessary.
3. You can make extra special food.
For a small meal, you can concentrate on technique instead of volume. (And the food might actually hit the table hot.) My mother experimented with special dishes every year: soufflés, dainty hors d’oeuvres, meringue desserts that she dubbed the Sydney Opera House.
4. You can practice meaningful rituals.
My friend Kim’s mother buys each member of the four-person family a special ornament every Christmas. The ornament commemorates something about that person’s past year: The year her brother learned to scuba dive, for example, he received a scuba ornament. The year Kim graduated from college, she got a diploma ornament. They’re grown now, and the tree is both a record of their lives and accomplishments and a symbol of their mother’s love and attention.
5. You can play games.
Another tradition I plan to start this year for my kids is the practice of opening one gift on Christmas Eve—and that gift will be a board game for the family. (I love games—I wrote an enormous book on games!—and I’ve been waiting for my boys to move out of the stultifying Chutes and Ladders stage and on to something more complex.) This year I’m going to try out Hanabi, a cooperative deduction game.
6. You can fit four people into your car.
Where I grew up, in West Virginia, a drive around the county to observe the most elaborate of Christmas lights—barns outlined, tractors lit up, sagging trampolines draped with colorful lights—was a Christmas Eve tradition. In New York, the nearby neighborhood of Dyker Heights is so bright you can see it from space. A big family would mean a convoy of six cars, someone would get lost, there’d be a squabble about lousy directions, etc.
7. You can see the Sugar Plum Fairy without breaking the bank.
When you need tickets for only a few people, a yearly viewing of The Nutcracker or A Christmas Carol is affordable.
8. You can go to the movies again.
When I was a child, we often went to the movies on Christmas afternoon. Since we’ve had kids, we’ve rarely made time for any evenings out at all, much less to the cinema. So a Christmas afternoon movie will feel like a special treat, both for us and our kids.
9. You can hang out with your friends.
When you’re dealing with the people you’re obligated to host—your obnoxious brother-in-law, your high-strung mother—you can’t make plans with the non-kin people you want to see. Your small family walking over to the neighbor’s house for dessert or a cup of hot cider reminds you that your community is wider than just your blood kin—and the weird folks they happened to marry.