holiday magic, simply?

November 30, 2022

I love making so-called holiday magic. I love stringing up popcorn and cutting out cinnamon stars and lighting candles. Give me all the fir clippings! If it’s cold enough I’ll make ice lanterns and ornaments! Roll me some beeswax and pour me hot chocolate! I want Christmas trees and twinkly lights and sharing and getting ideas from creative people about how to go about making a long, dark month a little more tolerable.

I would make my little paper chains and salt stars whether or not I had a blog, but there’s no mistaking that creating the magic and sharing it here is also part of a job I’m paid to do: to make something worthy of inspiring others and tying it up in a great big bow, or an understated bit of cotton string, as the case might be. This is the task before media makers the world over in the month of December and I’m no exception. But it’s personal, too, and I think it can get confusing.

Last week I shared a list of ideas for tiny gifts for kids. I wanted to showcase easy, manageable, ideas for mostly waste-free bits of delight that might be offered in lieu of a lot of little plastic things that tend to get tossed around this time of year and end up directly in landfill. I wanted the gifts to be free or very close and I didn’t want making them to require huge input of energy or resources. Because all of the gifts were tiny and adorable and fit perfectly into the pockets in the calendar Rose made last year, that’s how we decided to photograph and film them. Rose doesn’t even celebrate Christmas, so for her, the exercise was entirely editorial, and for me, I filmed the video knowing that the envelopes were blank and boxes empty and when it came time to put together the actual calendar my kids will use, the contents might be decidedly simpler and would probably also involve chocolate.

Reasonably, this distinction between what happens in real life and what’s created as editorial inspiration is blurry. In response to that tiny gifts post I received questions back from folks asking for more specifics about the calendar and the gifts. How do my kids decide who gets what tiny present on what day? Don’t they fight over the puppets? Do I make all of those tiny gifts times three?! How much time does this all take? I had folks telling me I was the mom they wished they could be and wondering how I had the time for this kind of thing in the first place with so many kids underfoot.

Last night I picked my kids up from their afterschool program after dark. We stopped at a bodega for a chocolate bar and we walked and ran and also stomped our way the mile back home. Once here, backpacks and lunchboxes and used tissues landed on the floor and then began a twenty-minute long entreaty to get my kids to pick them back up again and put them away. Homework was cried over. A game of pickup sticks started well and ended badly. The nightly glass of water was spilled in the middle of the dinner table and mopped up off the floor. The dishwasher stopped working in the middle of its cycle and hasn’t started up again. James stayed up way too late making lesson plans for a new job that we’re all still getting used to. We’re very lucky and also life with little kids, and no doubt bigger ones, is not always merry and bright. Tomorrow evening will likely go more or less the same, with the addition of my kids each getting to move a cardboard shadow puppet stuck to the end of a broken-off skewer. A Christmas tree, a snowman, and a star vaguely resembling the fabled star of Bethlehem will advance a pocket and the kids will find foil-wrapped chocolate of the kind called kisses and procured while picking up prescriptions at the pharmacy. We’ll read a story. When there’s an inevitable hiccup, we’ll do our best to remember that the holidays are like the other days.

I hope my work shines a bit of light in dark places and I hope it offers some inspiration and some joy, and I hope it’s always grounded in a bit of reality. Here’s to making a bit of magic where and when we’re able. Here’s to opting out of the traditions that don’t suit us. There are no supermoms here (or anywhere).

**And because a few people have requested where they might buy a many-pocketed cloth advent calendar instead of making one, here are a few favorites I’ve spotted from Magic Linen, Pi’lo, and Confetti Mill.

PS. Now your turn: If you celebrate, what’s your favorite holiday magic making and what’s something you wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole?

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  • Reply Jess November 30, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    Love doing little things for advent. This year we’re doing little miss gardens and will add simple stones, toy animals we already own, and little angels and a bead/felt baby Jesus in a walnut shell manger over the days. We’re combining that with a book advent on the days they don’t have things for their moss gardens using books we already own too.

    I also like making ornaments for the kids on years I have ideas for them and I like to try to make them one of their gifts by hand each year. This year I’m knitting my daughter a blanket – the boys might not get a handmade gift this year, and that’s okay.

    I am not a fan of Elf on the Shelf. I definitely like looking at pictures of other mischievous elves in other homes but it’s not for me!

  • Reply Gillian November 30, 2022 at 2:30 pm

    Thank you for this! Life with older children (my oldest is 15) is not surprisingly easier is some ways (there are fewer spills) and harder in others. They often think they have it all figured out, but like the rest of us they don’t. Still, whether they admit it or not, they enjoy a little magic as much as the rest of us and they are great partners in creating holiday magic. One of my new favorite holiday traditions is working with my teens and tweens to create a little magic for the one little kid left in our home, and for kids less fortunate than ours in our community.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2022 at 3:05 pm

      I love that.

    • Reply Sondra November 30, 2022 at 4:50 pm

      Yes! Everything is merrier now that my teens help me “Santa” for the little ones. Conspiratorial whispering, winks, and plans kept secret are so much fun when shared. It is a whole new level of holiday magic.

  • Reply Christina November 30, 2022 at 3:03 pm

    Favorite: Filling stockings with thoughtfully curated gifts and bakingpumpkin bread.
    Thing I skip the vast majority of years: Christmas tree. Terrible, I know, but I also know that I will be dispiritedly putting it away in March and rueing the months of chaos.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2022 at 3:05 pm

      Not terrible! Extremely here for not doing any of the things that make us rue the months!

  • Reply Christina November 30, 2022 at 3:08 pm

    Also, and take this unsolicited parent advice with all the grains of salt needed for your life and availabe space, but one of the best things I have done as a parent is get a large, well-ventilated basket for each child (they’re plastic laundry baskets, and yes, they’re hideous) for post-school “drop zones.” Everyone’s backpacks, gloves, coats, hats, etc. just get dropped in the baskets instead of the floor and are still waiting, easy to find, in the morning rush. It dramatically decreased the amount of tearful, overwhelmed parental pleading with tearful, exhausted children to please, please pick up your stuff as well as morning chaos.

  • Reply Megan November 30, 2022 at 3:09 pm

    Looking forward to: lights, a tree and some ornaments, an advent calendar of the $1.99 only chocolate variety, and plane travel to visits aunts and uncles and friends and grandparents.
    Won’t be partaking: anything that feels daunting in the moment. Will we make ornaments? Bake cookies all together? Other wintertime activities? Time will tell.

  • Reply Emily November 30, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    I love lighting the candles on our Swedish angel chimes and dimming the lights at dinner every night in December. I also love doing mini gingerbread house kits with far flung relatives over zoom. I’ve skipped out on the advent calendars – they’re either full of chocolate (I’m more into other sweet treats at Christmas time!) or plastic trinkets. Instead we do an advent lanyard that we found on Etsy that’s a series of wool balls, advancing a wooden circle along the wool balls until you get to the star. Not sure that makes sense but it’s stress free. And getting out all the Christmas/winter books is always fun! And I love the tree and the carols around the piano. Ok I love a lot of it ha. I DON’T love the fact that the grandparents insist on lots of presents for the kids and compel me to research and make them a list of presents that I’d rather they didn’t get anyway, since we’re a low-to-no-gift family. Ah well. Life is always full of magic and stress and they’re both just a little heightened in the month of December!

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2022 at 4:05 pm

      ha, indeed! advancing the wooden circle makes perfect sense! sounds lovely.

  • Reply mado November 30, 2022 at 4:02 pm

    Last year I tried to do a very well meaning activity-based advent paper chain. We did about half of the activities. So I decided advent anything, not for me. Anything I have to do every day (or on a certain day) in December is just not going to happen.

    But my favorite tradition is going to the park and picking lots of eucalyptus and getting some fern leaves from the garden and making myself a very messy greenery wreath for the front door that smells lovely and dries decidedly dead-looking, but still festive in my mind.

    Still mulling whether it’s worth the environmental ramifications and hassle of getting a fresh cut tree in a place where the vast majority of people do artificial (and we do have a little artificial one stored away already). Last year we sprung for the fresh one and probably this year too, but rather than pressure myself that we have to do one or the other every year, in the name of “tradition”, I’m just seeing what feels right.

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE November 30, 2022 at 4:05 pm

      decidedly dead-looking but still festive = my favorite kind of holiday greenery!

    • Reply SJ November 30, 2022 at 4:37 pm

      Christmas trees are an environmental positive overall – they are an agricultural product, we are not chopping down old growth forests for Christmas trees. They take 5-7 years to get to the right size and sequester carbon dioxide while they grow. Totally understand the hassle aspect but lift the environmental concern from your shoulders! – Child of a former Christmas Tree farmer

      • Reply mado November 30, 2022 at 6:48 pm

        Yes but I don’t live in the US and pine farming is purportedly hard on the environment here! (More water intensive than other crops I think mostly, but also there’s a lot of complicated dynamics between native farmers farming traditional crops vs commercial/agro business). I don’t know how it washes out but I know it’s complex!

  • Reply Marie November 30, 2022 at 4:19 pm

    My little ones love the old traditional paper calendars with tiny doors to open/tiny images hidden behind. And we make a little-notes-calendar with activities (candle light bath-time and picnic dinner on the livingroom floor are total winners) and poems! This year it got an up-grade with two tiny cardboard figures – snowman and duck – thank you for the inspiration !!

  • Reply SJ November 30, 2022 at 4:32 pm

    It’s funny I find your kid craft posts the most inspirational and attainable! My house is a cluttered mess, I’ve never painted a single item of furniture and I can’t avoid single use plastic to save our life (asthmatic kid w inhalers so that is quite literal, sob) but I love your kid crafts and have done so many. This year my kids and nieblings are getting homemade watercolor palettes and stamps, I’m excited to make paper bag garlands and stars again, and we’ll make cinnamon and salt dough ornaments and dried oranges too. I get a huge Charlie Brown-esque tree, we eat our cheap advent calendar chocolate every morning with GREAT JOY, and we repeat wintry bedtime books all month. Having kids converted me from a Grinch to a holiday enthusiast!

  • Reply riye November 30, 2022 at 5:03 pm

    One of my favorite things is walking around my mom’s neighborhood looking at people’s Christmas lights. I also like putting up and decorating our super old fake Christmas tree. My top least favorite thing is being obliged to dress up to go to a “fancy” party with too much food and drink. I’d rather be home eating popcorn next to the Christmas tree. 🙂

  • Reply AnnieH November 30, 2022 at 5:52 pm

    My husband and I celebrate both Hanukkah and Christmas on our home. We love lighting the menorah and playing the dreidel game for chocolate coins. We don’t bother with latkes from scratch, too much work so we buy a small amount of ready made ones and reheat them. As for Christmas, we love to decorate with my grandmother’s ceramic tree and a few other items, and exchange donation gifts and small stocking stuffers, usually consumables. My mother and I used to make pierogies from scratch for Christmas Eve dinner, but now that she’s passed on we buy them from a local restaurant, much easier and just as tasty.

  • Reply Caroline November 30, 2022 at 6:10 pm

    Love this post, Erin. I am looking forward to hanging up the decorations (I love a garland and I have made some of my own this year out of packaging paper, inspired by your reel from last year!) We have shop-bought advent calendars with chocolate and also homemade ‘advent tasks’ which is the not-very-fun name that seems to have stuck for nice, easy to do things each day after school throughout December – drink hot chocolate, make a Christmas card for grandma, have a family Santa-drawing competition etc etc. I’m not a fan of office Christmas parties so I’m not looking forward to ours this year!

  • Reply HJoy November 30, 2022 at 7:11 pm

    Your writing is not a personal letter to me, but it sure does always touch my soul a little like a sweet note. We came off a tough Thanksgiving weekend with ear infections and cranky parents and a dirty house. We will do a little advent calendar that just has a number countdown and make sure we eat our weight in Grandma’s cookies. Pretty much anything else we accomplish is gravy. Thank you for soothing words and an excellent reminder.

  • Reply Emily November 30, 2022 at 8:18 pm

    Erin, I love your writing and so appreciate this perspective. I’m making a simpler and much jankier advent calendar, but your posts did encourage me to think about what I could do based on what I had around. I’m looking forward to hearing some Christmas music, seeing a kids performance of the Nutcracker, and eating pupusas (made by a restaurant) on X-mas eve.

  • Reply Cindy November 30, 2022 at 9:20 pm

    I love the honesty here.

    A thing I’ve done the past few years with my kiddos (now 9 and 6) is to sit down together to brainstorm our Advent hopes: ways to prepare our home and hearts for Christmas and to share love and kindness with folks around us. I’m not curating an experience for them with daily activities or treats: instead, we’re collaborating on a list of small delights, preparations (like decorating and cookie baking), and acts of care (like making bird feeders and cards for teachers or neighbors) that we do as we can throughout the month of December.

    It is DEFINITELY shaped by my love of a list, but it also invites our whole family into a shared project of making the celebrations happen. I feel triggered by too much pressure to Create Magic—there is SO MUCH pressure in middle-class motherhood. But this low-key gentle approach sidesteps some of that for me.

    • Reply mado December 1, 2022 at 2:02 pm

      I really like this approach, especially since my kid is already getting anxiety about having time to do all! the! Christmas! things! Maybe a good time to practice prioritizing together.

  • Reply Christina November 30, 2022 at 9:30 pm

    Thank you for this post! Daily activities stress me out because I worry I’ll forget/won’t do it perfectly so we are skipping. My son has a big sweet tooth, so 98 cent chocolate advent calendar it is! I’m trying really hard not to put pressure on myself to do things that neither me nor my son care much about.

  • Reply Emily December 1, 2022 at 1:34 am

    Thanks, Erin! This post is a sigh of relief in a sea of holiday content that gets my “I’m not enough” heart rate up embarrassingly quickly. My kids are 2 and 5 months, so truly the only pressure is what I’m putting on myself. Last year I flung together an advent calendar of activities on November 30 and no one cared but me when I threw in the towel on December 10. The magic for me this year has been watching my 2-almost-3-year-old delight in the simplest pleasures. A fully lit tree to pad out of her room to in the morning. Taking full ownership of hanging the ornaments, including vetoing a few. The free little train ride around the tree farm last weekend. A new song about snowflakes at preschool. All reminders that I don’t even need to try to be “enough” — there is abundance in the simplest of things.

  • Reply Sarah December 1, 2022 at 8:52 am

    My favorite is going to a local preservation mansion/garden area, which every year does Winter Lights where they make the house and garden over in lights and my family and I will buy a hot chocolate and fresh cookie from their food stand and walk around and enjoy the lights. The first time we went was the night after my beloved uncle passed away unexpectedly and I found that walking around and appreciating the intricate designs other people put so much work into was a nice moment of reflection. This is our third year going and I always look forward to it and think of him.
    My least favorite is The Elf on the Shelf. Too creepy and too much pressure. When my daughter was in kindergarten it seemed that she was the only one in her class who didn’t have an elf, and I dreaded the questions that might come home. Thankfully, my daughter announced one afternoon that our elf is shy and lives outside and no one sees him…. 100% support this for “our elf”

  • Reply Tammy Everts December 1, 2022 at 11:51 am

    Thanks again for your real, honest thoughts. I love that you embrace the reality alongside the magic. I try to do the same.

    My kiddos are 14 and 17, and they would probably say that their favourite holiday tradition is cutting simple snowflakes out of recycled paper. We’ve been doing this every year since they were tiny. Sometimes we only make one or two per evening, sometimes we go on a bender and make dozens. Inevitably, our windows — and sometimes entire walls — are covered in snowflakes, and it’s beautiful. (The first time we watched ‘Elf’ as a family, my kids said, “Buddy decorates like us!”) Sometimes we leave them up all winter!

  • Reply Mackenzie December 1, 2022 at 2:16 pm

    It feels like there is always so much pressure to make Christmas this incredible magical experience for one’s children and that you need to spend all this money and buy all the things and do all of this in the name of MAKING MEMORIES, ugh… It also feels like social media really heightens this. Just as an example, my kids will be fine with regular shaped waffles, I don’t need a special waffle maker that makes gingerbread-shaped waffles for them to enjoy the season 🙂

    • Reply ERIN BOYLE December 1, 2022 at 3:47 pm

      oh jeez. totally.

  • Reply Madeleine December 1, 2022 at 9:07 pm

    I will NEVER do Elf on the Shelf. Ever! And I’ve pretty much written off gingerbread houses until my littles are considerably older. I’m definitely a believer that the Christmas season is a special one and that it’s worth celebrating. But those festivities and special moments can very much be done through simple things – hot chocolate with candy canes, special books we only bring out at the holidays, gingerbread cookies and the joy of decorating them, bringing fresh bread to a neighbor, lighting candles at dinner, a candlelit Christmas service. The tone and tenor of our homes matter. And if that means embracing the simplest traditions and joyfully cultivating those small things, then it’s well worth cutting out the fluff and the stress and the stuff that makes us all absolutely crazy (or at least that’s my mantra!)!

  • Reply Susan December 2, 2022 at 7:39 pm

    We bring in and decorate our Norfolk pine tree that lives on our apartment balcony right after thanksgiving. This year we bought an advent calendar at IKEA and are enjoying sharing the little truffles it contains. Making cards and gift tags from bits of paper is always a highlight. Since we travel for Christmas I have been getting “house” gifts that we open through December like blankets, a family photo book, puzzles and lots books. We read holiday/winter library books and books from our own shelf. We bundle up and take night walks. It feels merry enough to be warm inside and eating good food together. We are lucky.

  • Reply Sarah December 6, 2022 at 1:42 pm

    We live several states away from our family, and gave up traveling at this time of the year a few years ago, because it was way too high stress.

    I miss being in a busy household/kitchen though, so I make a little magic by baking enough treats to ship to our families. Only the things I really like to make. We’ve waffled on a tree a lot, and I think we’re actually going to get one this year, but I love getting a couple arrangements of greens from the local florist. It fits my budget, they last a very long time, and smell wonderful. That’s also my hot tip for host/ess gifts too: a ball jar with a $10 evergreen arrangement works for all but allergic households, and last so long. (I love pointsettias, but I would like to compost them in Jan, and my husband would like to keep them 5ever, so we sidestep them now for the sake of harmony in the new year.)

    We don’t have kids, and we also don’t do Gifts For Everyone. Our hair stylist will get a holiday bonus, but we don’t do gifts for postal carrier, or the garbage haulers, as much as we value their work. We’ve been lucky enough to arrange very limited gifting with our families (see also: baked goods, above), which reduces the load at this time of year, too, and lets us give thoughtful gifts at other times of the year.

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