Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Christmas magic on a budget

I am a firm believer in the magic of Christmas.  It has always been my favorite time of year, with some of my favorite music, foods, movies, and traditions.  And this year is set to be one of the best years in a long, long time.  You know why?  My daughter is now two.  That means that she's finally old enough to appreciate the holidays.  Last year she thought things were interesting, but confusing.  The year before, she was a six-week-old lump of baby human who cried when someone other than me held her, or if I put her down for any reason whatsoever.  (Or so it seemed in my sleep-deprived haze.)  This year, though, she realizes that things are different.  She loved Thanksgiving--watching the meal prep all afternoon and taking in the excitement of all of the adults.  She recognized the fancy silverware and platters, the tablecloth and just the specialness of the day.  She does not, of course, understand why we do all these things, but she's enjoying them nonetheless.
I want Christmas to be as magical for her as it always was for me, but at the same time I want to do it in a healthy way.  Because she's so young we don't let her watch too much TV or movies (and she'd be totally bored by some of our favorites anyway--White Christmas? that's a bit much for a toddler), we usually don't give her a lot of sugar so making cookies all the time is out, and I've always felt that Christmas presents, in some ways, get in the way of the Christmas fun.  After all, how many people stress out over gifts, finding just the perfect thing and paying for it all?  That's not fun!  That's not magical!  That's turning Christmas into one giant to-do list and chore.  (We'll give gifts, I'm just not stressing out about it.)
I found an idea online a few years ago, before we even had a kid, that I really liked, so I wanted to implement it this year.  It's a very simple idea to create a magical season without overloading a kid.  It is this: come up with one fun holiday activity each day.  Just one.  Now, some days we'll have more, because some things aren't up to me.  I don't know when we'll get a tree, and putting up the decorations is at my parents' discretion since it is, after all, their house.  But I came up with some simple things for us to do as a family (both including and excluding the extended family) to help celebrate the season.  Things we don't normally do, or let the Munchkin do.  I drew up a plan on my calendar, which can change as things do, but it gives me an idea every day for something fun to do, something just a little bit extraordinary.

1. Lights
My kiddo loves lights.  I mean LOVES them.  We go to the store and she's getting my attention to point up at the boring, industrial lights.  We regularly find her asleep in her bed, clutching her nightlight because she's been exploring it before falling asleep.  So we knew that the Christmas lights would be a big hit, and they are.  The day after Thanksgiving we put up the first string of lights in the dining room, blinking ones.  When darkness fell my dad and I brought her in there and I plugged them in.  The look on her face was priceless.  On Sunday, we put up more lights while she was napping and, this time with the whole extended family gathered to see her reaction, we turned them on.  She laughed with joy and spent an afternoon pointing at the bulbs to have us tell her what colors they are.  (Pro tip: it's an excellent way to teach kids their colors, and I didn't even think of that until she started showing interest in that aspect of it.  We've been quizzing her, "Can you point to a green one?  What about a red light?")
Aside from our own decorations, however, there are also the lights in the neighborhood.  Twice a week I have it scheduled to go for a walk in the neighborhood to go look at the lights.  This combines two of her favorite things: walking (or any kind of being active) and lights, so it's a huge win.  We bundle up and head out after dark, which is a treat in and of itself, and go wandering to see what we can see.  Already there are quite a few houses completely done up for the holidays, and there will be more as Christmas draws nearer.

2. Special drinks
We've never let the Munchkin have hot chocolate before yesterday.  Crazy, right?  But it's never been necessary or advisable for her to have that much sugar, and she's had a dairy allergy which has made stuff like that a bit complicated.  Well, she's growing out of the allergy so we can relax a bit now.  Once or twice a week I have on the calendar a fun drink: hot chocolate, hot apple cider, and eggnog.  And we go all out on these.  We have cider from the apples we pressed sitting in the freezer, waiting until the whole family is together for Christmas.  Until then, we're making do with cider from the store and mulling it ourselves.
For the hot cocoa, HusbandX has an excellent recipe for Mexican hot chocolate that's rich and warming and delicious, without actually being overwhelmingly sugary.  As he told me earlier today while making it, if we're going to have hot cocoa on the list as a special treat, we might as well make sure it really is special.

Helping Daddy make hot chocolate

The last on the list is eggnog.  We found a brand which actually makes really good 'nog.  I can taste actual nutmeg, not whatever chemical crap they have in the other stuff which sort of tastes like nutmeg.  And at some point we will pull out my grandfather's recipe for eggnog and make the real stuff.  NOM.
All of these things are also tied into physical activities.  After all, hot cocoa and hot apple cider are best consumed after coming in all rosy-cheeked from the chilly outdoors, and the eggnog necessitates a (bike) trip to the store.  So it's not just the drinks themselves, but the fun time spent playing outdoors which makes these days special.

3. The mall
You know what else my kid has never done?  She's never been to the mall.  Not only do I tend to avoid them, but it turns out that there's really nothing truly mall-like in Fairbanks.  I mean, there is a mall, but it's more like a strip mall.  Nothing special, and I couldn't even name what stores are in it because I think I only went there once, and didn't buy anything.
We have precisely one trip planned to the mall.  We will try to get a picture with Santa (I love the ones where kids are crying--it's cruel and hilarious), look around for gifts, and probably play on the big kids' toy they have.  (If they still have it?)  Since my kid loves activity and people watching, this will be fun and exciting, and way stimulating which is why it's only on the list once.
My family also has a tradition we call the Truffle Run.  According to family lore, there was a shopping trip with my older brothers when they were very young during which they were very good even as they got super, super tired.  As a treat, my parents bought everyone a fancy chocolate.  After that it became a yearly treat.  As a kid, I'd always pester my parents about when we'd go on the Truffle Run, and we'll carry on this tradition with the Munchkin.  Maybe not the pestering, hopefully, but the buying of chocolates.

4. Cookies!
OK, I'm not the Grinch.  Just because we don't let her have that much sugar doesn't mean I'm going to Scrooge her out of eating any Christmas cookies.  And, she loves helping in the kitchen.  So on the list once each week I have a cookie date.  Chocolate thumbprints (the recipe for which my grandmother typed up), sugar cookies, peanut butter blossoms, spritz cookies!  Yum.

5. Movies
Just like with the cookies, I think this is perfectly fine in moderation.  Twice a week I've got Christmas movies.  Not that she'll probably watch the entire movie--her average is about half an hour at a time.  So while the movie is on the list twice each week they'll probably get parceled out when she's got the afternoon lull for a few days, meaning she'll be ready to start the new movie the day it's listed.  I'm looking forward to introducing her to The Muppet Christmas Carol, The Grinch, and The Nutcracker.  (The ballet version with Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov which my grandparents taped for me when I was a toddler.  I think she'll enjoy dancing along with that one, just as I did.)

6. Candles
I don't know what it is about candles, but they make things so very special.  My parents have always had an advent wreath on the table for the season, with candles (three purple and one pink) and this year the Munchkin got to light the candle the first night (with lots of help from me).  She was fascinated with the candle, waving her hands around and excitedly grabbing my attention to show me that when she did so, the flame wavered.  Every time!  My little scientist.  She was so enthralled.

7. Music
This always has to be a big part of Christmas.  It just sets the tone for the whole season.  Which sucks if you hate it, but I love it.  The Munchkin does too.  This isn't an activity I have on the calendar, but playing Christmas music and dancing with her is something fun we can do, which might not be special in and of itself but, again, adds to the magic of the season.  It's completely free if we make the music ourselves, too, and I sure could use a bit of practice on my violin.

In addition to all of these things, I've been planning a few other tricks.  We might do one special trip to either somewhere in Seattle or out to Leavenworth for an afternoon, just to mix things up.  And since my busy little girl loves to get into things I'm hoping to make a felt Christmas tree so that she can play with the ornaments on it all she wants and, cross your fingers, leave the real tree alone.  (Ha!)  We're busily coming up with ideas for what we'll get her for Christmas, and it won't be a toy.  I think that the experience of Christmas, as a whole, is far more important and memorable than what we receive, so whatever we do get her will last far beyond Christmas day.
These are just a few ideas for cheap or free ways to enjoy the holidays with a small human, but they're also fun and special for the adults.  We're not stressing out about making this the perfect Christmas, or about making every second of every day magical.  That would be ridiculous, and completely counter-productive.  The point is to have fun, not to make ourselves and everyone else crazy, or to out-do anyone else.
The walk we went on as a family on Sunday was great, with the grandparents and uncles joining us.  With HusbandX's family due to arrive in town (yay!!!) a bit nearer to Christmas, I'm looking forward to including them in all of these activities too, making even grander and more fun memories.  Who needs to spend mountains of money to have a fantastic holiday?

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