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December Is My Personal Everest

How I survive Hannukah, Christmas, 3 birthdays and New Year's every damn year.

by Carolyn Abram

The rabbis call it the “December Dilemma” — how to celebrate a relatively minor Jewish holiday in the shadow of a mega-cultural event like Christmas. I don’t have a dilemma, though. I have a deluge: Chanukah, Christmas, my son’s birthday, my birthday — which is on New Year’s Eve — and my husband’s birthday three days later. Every one of these events comes with its own set of requirements for planning, gifting, hosting, and traveling. The kids get two weeks off from school. We like our families, but they’re spread all over the country. To top it off, my husband is a complete grinch about all things related to Christmas, and that’s his holiday. We are happy and healthy and very lucky as a family. We are also so sick of each other by the end of it all.

After ten years of the deluge, I’ve learned a few things about how to make it through intact, sometimes even with good cheer. Here’s my best advice for your own deluge, whether its during December or otherwise.

Do Less

So many of the things we think make holidays and birthdays special just aren’t necessary. There doesn’t need to be a theme, or matching plates and decorative banners. The food doesn’t need to be home-made. Kids (and families) just want to feel seen, noticed, and celebrated. That requires attention, not necessarily more things.

If you’re having trouble figuring out what to eliminate, try focusing on the parts that actually make you happy. Set aside what you think your kids or parents or spouse require. What is it you enjoy? I realized that the part of Chanukah that I loved most, that I looked forward to even though it was a ton of work, was cooking latkes for all of my friends. It wasn’t lighting the menorah every night, even though that’s nice. For me to feel good about Chanukah, I just need one night out of the eight surrounded by friends and deep fried potato pancakes. The rest I let go.

Tradition For Tradition’s Sake Is Overrated

I don’t mean to throw baby Jesus out with the bathwater here, but whenever a friend tells me that they just have to [hide the elf/open a present every night/bake a birthday cake from scratch/drive seven hours to see spouse’s family on Christmas Eve and their own family on Christmas Day], I want to shake them. You don’t have to do it! People don’t do it all the time!

Traditions are not binding contracts. The needs of my kids and my family shifts every year, so I shift to accommodate. The part of the tradition that matters to us is being with people we love — some years that’s our little family of four and some years it’s an extended family of t30.

If it’s feeling too hard to let go of a particular tradition, try this: take a year off from it. Tell your kids/parents/spouse/self that you’ll try again next year, but this year you are going to [not travel/not host/order takeout]. I promise, nothing will be ruined. If it turns out you miss any particular tradition, then next year you’ll do it with excitement instead of dread.

Keep It Simple

I survive December by being slightly ruthless. Things are rarely matching, ornate, or fancy — it’s enough that they get the job done. I stick to the “Want/Need/Wear/Read” gifting strategy; I wrap presents in brown paper from cut up grocery bags. My husband and I don’t exchange gifts, and we opt out of his extended family’s Christmas exchange. Sometimes I miss the childlike glee of opening a mystery box myself, but mostly I feel relief. The gift of not doing a thing is truly priceless.

We don’t compensate by going overboard on birthdays, either. Here’s our simple Birthday Game: You hand out scraps of paper and pencils. You ask a series of questions about the Birthday Child — What are their favorite books right now? What’s their favorite subject in school?— and everyone writes down their answers. Then the Birthday Kid announces the real answers and everyone can score themselves for how well they know the kid. It’s not a flashy thing. It doesn’t Instagram well. But it’s such a simple way to turn your attention to your child and who they are right now, on their birthday, even if that birthday is in another holiday’s wake.

Outsource, With Gratitude

As I drive down the very dark streets of Seattle at this time of year, I always feel gratitude for the people who’ve actually got the patience to decorate. It brightens up a very dreary time of year. I love Christmas lights. Not enough to put them up myself, but enough to be thankful that other people do.

This is how I feel about most Christmas traditions: they are so pretty and nice and… not mine. So I let other people do them. One of the aunts comes in with a gingerbread house kit? Pure joy. Going to a friend’s house to admire their tree? Beautiful magic. My mother-in-law taking care of the gifts from “Santa”? My undying thanks.

Slow Down & Enjoy Yourself

Last year we wound up celebrating all of our holidays in snowy Montana, with my parents in tow. My parents and I cooked latkes for the in-laws, the in-laws made Christmas dinner for the crowd, we did pizza and board games for my son’s birthday. By New Year’s Eve I had several grown-ups, including two mothers, very earnestly asking how I wanted to celebrate my birthday.

“I want to make my own cake,” I said.

I know, unbelievable, after all my big talk about doing less and outsourcing. But I have strong cake opinions. That matters to me. The rest of it — dinner, leaving the house, doing some sort of celebratory activity — that was superfluous.

So the grandmas planned a very nice take-out dinner, giving everyone the gift of not cooking, and afterwards we ate the ugly but delicious cake I had thoroughly enjoyed baking. We played The Birthday Game. I lay in bed that night feeling very lucky indeed to be loved by three families — the one I’d been born to, the one I’d married into, and the one I’d made. Across the country, the ball dropped. I’d survived December.

Carolyn is a writer, teacher, and editor based out of Seattle. Her work has appeared in Bellevue Literary Review, Lilith, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency. She has two kids in elementary school, an aging rescue dog, and way too many houseplants. Follow her on Instagram: @carolyn.abram