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29 Ways To Make The Holidays Magical (Not Commercial)

What do you do when life gets hard before the holidays? Throw some glitter at it.

This year we’ll be celebrating our twelfth holiday season as a couple. In the decade plus that we’ve been our own circus, we’ve gone from casual celebration in a near-empty New York City to cramming four holidays, our son’s birthday, two families, and mountains of tradition into one short month. Things have gotten more and more intense, and by last New Year’s Eve, I just wanted to lay my pregnant self down and take a nap forever. (Which I could not do, because our son ended up in the hospital with RSV, pneumonia, and asthma for most of the next week. #TheHolidays.)

All that, plus a really tough 2015 for our family meant that I was determined to approach things differently this year. We decided to make this the year where we crafted our own (less commercial) holiday traditions, not to mention the year that we traveled less. We’re focusing on activities that bring us joy, rather than piles of presents. But mostly, we’ve decided to lean into fun, and sometimes even ridiculous. If December is about celebrating, let’s celebrate, am I right?

To help me brainstorm new ways to have fun this December, I asked y’all for your best joyful ideas, because obviously I wanted to steal the very best ones. Here are the non-commercial holiday traditions we’re playing with in our own (interfaith) lives this year, and the very best of your ideas to go with them.

Our Crazy Absurd Interfaith Not-Too-Commercial Holiday Traditions

(Totally Intense) Holiday Cards: If there is one thing that I love about the holidays (and don’t even mind spending money on) it’s holiday cards. My favorite part of the whole holiday season is seeing the faces of all of my far flung friends and loved ones faces and well wishes lined up on our mantel. I leave the cards up till at least the end of January, and then bundle them up into a little pile for the year. In the past few years, digital printing has given me a bunch of new toys to play with, including foil decorated cards, letterpress photo cards, and now a thing where I can make custom hot pink letterpress of my kid’s drawings? STOP IT. (None of those links are sponsored. I’m just really into mail.) Because holiday cards bring me such joy, I allocate one of the largest chunks of our holiday budget to it, because why the hell not? If you get a card from us, it might have gold foil, twelve pictures, an annual letter, a decorated envelope, and an envelope liner, so just enjoy that madness. I sure did.

The Crazy Holiday Photo: Because I love holiday cards so much, I normally try to schedule some sort of family photo for the holiday. It’s a good excuse to get us all together in the same frame, maybe even looking in the same direction. I don’t care if it’s a professional photo session or taken on an iPhone (we’ve sent out cards with both types of pictures), but this year we decided to make the snaps as fun and ridiculous as possible. Tiny gold crown for the baby? Check. Red lipstick for me? Check. Feeling like you’re hung over the day after photos because you had so much fun taking them? Checkcheckcheck. (Side note: our son knocked out two of his teeth the day after we took the pictures, so I have some serious gratitude that we took the time to take those shots.)

Nixing Hanukkah Presents, Leaning In To Hanukkah Food: If you’re not Jewish, here’s the back-story on Hanukkah. It’s… a super minor secular holiday on the Jewish calendar. It’s been elevated to the level of even-bothering-to-celebrate-it (because the Jewish calendar has a minor holiday several times a month) simply to compete with Christmas. That means Jewish families everywhere try to remember to just light a candle all eight nights (we have never once managed this feat), and give our kids presents to emphasize their Jewishness at a very Christian time of year. Long story short, in our family we could care less about Hanukkah presents, but we’ve been doing them since we had kids to go through the motions. The problem is, with a Thanksgiving birthday and celebrating Christmas, adding eight days of presents into the middle of December makes our kid think you got a present every day you came home from school. It’s overkill, and it fills our house with unneeded toys. This year, we’ve decided to try to do eight (well, realistically, maybe four) fun things instead. Most of them will involve eating, because… Judaism. Latkes and donuts here we come.

The Insane Fake Christmas Tree: Remember that part where I said our son ended up in the hospital just before dawn on January 2nd? Well, taking down our real Christmas tree that day didn’t help his already weak little lungs. After some research, we decided that at least for now, the dangers of a real tree for a kid with asthma outweigh the wonderful fragrance of pine. If we were going to do a fake tree anyway… we decided to go all out. Inspired by my friend Allison’s tree above, we went with this one. (Just kidding! I talked Maddie into that one. We went for this beauty.) Also, we’ll now spend $200 once on a tree, instead of every year. Score!

Chinese Food for Christmas Eve: There is nothing David misses from his days not celebrating Christmas than Chinese Food with the other Jews and Buddhists. Okay, just kidding, he really misses going to Vegas on December 25th. But I can’t give him that, and we can order delivery, so we’re going to make it a fortune cookie Christmas Eve.

Bonkers Stockings The Night Before: I love the theory of stockings (little gifts! Fun fun fun!), but I’ve begun to hate the practice of stockings (even more things I don’t need on a day of centered around objects). So this year we’re trying out the stockings on Christmas Eve before bed, to get the kids excited. There will just be one gift in each, something fun and a little silly, along with some fruit. Our toddler loves fruit. (Oh, and we ordered these amazing not Christmas-y patterned stockings.)

Holiday Jammies: My friend Jordan sold me on the kids in cute holiday PJ’s, and this year I’m really hoping to go for broke on that. That is, if I can get my toddler out of his Batman pajamas, which frankly, is a long shot.

One Present Each(ish): As a couple, we’ve never been hugely into holiday presents. Before I got together with David, I would have told you that presents were my love language, but over the years he sold me on the idea that random this-made-me-think-of-you presents can be more touching than “It’s Christmas so I had to get you this” gifts. But with kids added to the equation, the holidays started to mean more toys than we could deal with in our small house. This year, we’re aiming for about one Christmas morning present per kid from us, meaningful gifts for each other, and helping the toddler make or buy a gift for the other parent. Tear emoji.

Opening All The Presents At Once: In my family, the one hard and fast rule of Christmas is that each person opened one present at a time. The intention was good (no mad rush to rip open presents, ending in a childhood crash of emotions). The result—for me—has never been great. Our present opening stretches on for hours, making the focus of the day about gifts, not action. And the performative nature of opening a present with an audience has always been too much for my sensitive emotions. (Crying in the bathroom on Christmas? I do it.) So in what seems like a truly crazy act of rebellion, this year we’ll wake up, rip open the few presents under the tree, and then commence to playing with them. Perfect for a three-year-old attention span.

Christmas Brunch: After our hours-long present marathon, David and I generally head straight to the kitchen, where we spend hours cooking a complicated dinner. It’s real yummy, and it also makes Christmas feel like tremendously exhausting work. We’re still working out the logistics, but we’re planning to focus on a mid morning brunch, because french toast takes far less time then perfectly roasted game hen. That will free us up to have a dinner that’s a little less work and a little more fun. (Help! If you have tips on how to make Christmas dinner easy, I want them!)

Christmas Booze: Until David came into the family, I never had a Christmas cocktail. Yeah, it turns out holiday stress can be dialed down with a nice eggnog… or French 75… or hot toddy… or… Did I mention winter cocktails are delicious? (APW’s best ideas are right here.)

Christmas Crackers: The Harry Potter books introduced me to Christmas Crackers. (Anyone else think the Hogwarts Christmas feast sounds nearly perfect?) But my tiny English cousins really sold me on them. So now, each year, we have a drink, pop some crackers, read some jokes, and wear some paper crowns. It’s easily my favorite part of Christmas day.

A Movie on Christmas: There will never be an It’s a Wonderful Life marathon in our mostly Jewish household (though my favorite roundup of dysfunctional family holiday movies lives right here). But we are planning to pop something celebratory on the TV for our toddler Christmas afternoon, and maybe even sneak off to a mostly empty theatre to see something on our own. If not on Christmas day, then definitely the day after.

Boxing Day(ish) Open House: My favorite part of celebrating anything is celebrating with our friends. But Christmas is the one holiday where you’re supposed to stick to family only, making it just… not as fun for me. As we’ve gotten older, we’ve started to realize that a lot of our favorite people have… also gotten older… and stay in town for the holidays. This year we’re inviting everyone over two days after Christmas for lots of cookies and a little bubbly. The folks that stay in town tend to be our most low-key folks, so we’re not planning anything super fancy. We’ll probably get out my grandmother’s china, and maybe supplement with some paper goods from the Oh Happy Day party shop, and then pour everyone a cocktail before they have a chance to look too closely at the leftover holiday mess.

Those are the ideas that we’re playing around with this year. But we can’t fit in every tradition into our December (nor would we ever try). So here is a round-up of APW readers’ very best ideas. Mix and match and make your own holiday magic.

Pink Line

NON COMMERCIAL CHRISTMAS TRADITIONS

Go to church on Christmas Eve: “My actual favorite Christmas tradition is and always has been church on Christmas Eve. My husband grew up Catholic, and actually attended a boys’ choir school from eight to eighteen. He is now an atheist, but agrees to come to church with me on Christmas Eve, because I love it so much, and he is wonderful to me. And you guys. This is the only time I ever get to hear him sing, and his voice is just so, so beautiful. Years of training went into that voice, and now he’s mostly given up music, but sitting next to him while he sings Christmas carols is always my favorite moment of the holidays.”

Attend a Christmas-esque event: “I’m weird because even though I’m agnostic and my husband isn’t exactly Christian, I LOVE Christmas and actually like to go to church in December. One new-to-us tradition we discovered in our area is the Moravian Lovefeast. I like to go to the one for Advent because I find the expectant waiting of that season to be so interesting. Basically, we listen to a sermon and some hymns and then share buns and coffee. I also like going to the Christmas Eve service at my brother-in-law’s Quaker meeting. Even though I’m not at all religious, Christmas fills a deep need for me—light in the darkest time, hope, a focus on peace and community, the warmth of good friends and good food, revisiting the teachings of Jesus even if I don’t view him as my savior. I’m glad I’ve come to a place where I can let myself meet my spiritual needs while not negating my agnosticism.”

Celebrate St. Lucia’s Day: “I lived in Sweden for several years, and St. Lucia’s day was one of my absolute favorite times of year. What a lovely tradition! It was magical to hear the singing, and see the lights from the candles. I was lucky enough to participate in singing Lucia songs as well, and that will always be a favorite memory of mine.”

Keep the day before Christmas Eve just for you: “My favorite tradition for my baby family is actually the night before Christmas Eve. We spend Christmas with my family, Christmas Eve with his, but the night before is our night. We buy a fantastic bottle of champagne, make a charcuterie and cheese plate, put a Christmas jazz record on, and exchange our gifts. It is such a romantic, special quiet time for just us and we plan on keeping it as our special moment, even after or if our family expands.”

NON COMMERCIAL HANUKKAH Traditions

Give to others: “My mom makes latkes and spiced apple cider and everyone in the family gets seven presents. On the fourth night of Hanukkah, we go to Target or Toys R Us and pick out a new toy to donate to a kid in need.”

Take A Family Photo: “We take a family photo of my mom’s side of the family (since we all live close together) every year. We’ve done this since I was one year old (and I’m the oldest grandchild), so we have an amazing thirty year record of our family. ”

Decorate like crazy: “We decorate big time for Hanukkah (Happy Hanukkah streamers, dreidels, sparkly hanging things, electric menorah in the window, lots of silver and blue) so it seems more like it’s own separate event. There are a lot of traditions around candle-lighting (e.g., everyone has their own menorah, some family members push all the candles toward each other and build up the wax over the eight days). We usually host one big party with dreidels, candles, and latkes, and in the morning we stuff the leftover latkes into breakfast tacos. The best!”

Chinese food + movies FTW: “My favorite ‘holiday’ tradition as a Jew is watching movies and eating Chinese food on Christmas. It’s just fun to do our own low-key thing when so many others are celebrating this big massive commercial affair. Now I’m married to an atheist Christian, and we plan to visit my sweetie’s family during Christmas. I’d be lying if I said that I won’t miss my other tradition.”

have your own Christmas Day outing: “For Christmas, because even if you’re Jewish, you have to have a Christmas tradition if you live in the western world out of necessity (everyone’s off work and few places are open), this is what we do: for Christmas Eve, my parents and sister and I go see a movie (we pick which one we want to see at Thanksgiving), then come home and watch however much is left of It’s a Wonderful Life on NBC. On Christmas Day, we go to a family friend’s house (also Jewish) and my mom makes turkey soup with the leftover, frozen turkey carcass from Thanksgiving, and we play board games and watch TV and eat dinner. It’s nice and low key.”

SECULAR HOLIDAY TRADITIONS

Watch all the movies, and then watch some more: (Here is a big list of people’s favorite holiday movies.)

Eat food that you never eat otherwise: “My mom always used to get the Pillsbury Grands cinnamon rolls for Christmas morning (it was quite a treat because we NEVER got them any other time of year). The first Christmas I spent in Washington with my then-boyfriend, now-husband instead of going to California to see my family, I had purchased some Pillsbury Orange sweet rolls to make, and it turns out that’s what my husband’s mom used to make them on Christmas morning! It was such a coincidence and it’s turned out to be a small thing that we’ve been able to continue much to both our delight.”

Celebrate St. Nick’s Day: “One thing my family did that I don’t think many people do is celebrate St. Nick’s day, December 6. That’s when we get our stockings full of candy and little things. When we were little my mom coordinated a program at our church where she took all the kids and did a craft and explained to them who St. Nick was (a sixth century bishop who was generous to poor children and the origin of Santa Claus… seriously, say Saint Nicolas quickly and tell me what it sounds like). She’d also explain little holiday symbols like the shape of a candy cane like a bishop’s hook. Meanwhile volunteers would fill the kids’ stockings. A couple times, “St. Nick” wrote each of my siblings and me a letter saying the things we do that are good and the things we should work on. (By that time the older ones of us knew St. Nick and Santa were both Mom, but didn’t care.) And one horrible year, we were a bunch of little brats on St. Nick’s night, and we got coal in our stockings. We cried and it was a wake-up call to shape up before Christmas. And it makes a great story now, without the holiday entirely spoiled.”

Go see Star Wars: APW editor Stephanie explains this is “included because STAR WARS FOREVER and also because I was one of those people who went crazy trying to buy tickets the night they went on sale, and SUCCEEDED and will be happy dancing all the way to the theater.”

Bake cookies and desserts together: “Christmas cookies! This is my favorite way to feel festive in the days before the holidays. I collect cookie cutters and have probably a hundred or so, although there are several antique ones that have been in the family forever and are sort of the focus. This is the second year we’ve spent away from my parents’ house at the holidays, and one of the biggest disappointments last year was that I only made one batch of cookies (I usually make eight to ten batches of several different kinds). I have a tiny kitchen here and the cookie cutters are still at my parents’ place (I’m in the UK so not very practical to mail), but I think it will be worth the time to figure out how to get some more cookies underway, and to find people to eat them!”

eat, drink, and be merrily unrushed: “I’m an atheist (with a Jewish dad, agnostic mom, and Presbyterian minister for a grandfather; talk about complicated) and my hubby is essentially agnostic, but Christmas means so much to all of us. For me it’s about eating smoked fish and drinking wine by the fire, baking way too many cookies, spending some of the few truly unhurried hours that I ever get with the people I love. You can call it what you like, and perhaps it’s wrong of me to call it Christmas, but there is a real need to have that kind of time.”

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