How to holiday like a mother

Our intention at LadyFaire is to make our readers’ daily lives a little better, because as much as we’d all love to be at a Renaissance Festival every day, it’s not reality! We all live and function in the everyday world of family, chores, jobs, and relationships. Our motto, “Renaissance Woman, Modern World” speaks to this very question: how do we live rich, meaningful lives in the day-to-day, maintaining just a hint of the Faire’s magic?

By Jennifer Elyse

I first sense the impending arrival sometime in July. The back to school commercials start airing, and the usual low-key stress of single-parenting begins its slow but inexorable metamorphosis into a state of functioning panic.  School starts, and then, almost simultaneously, Halloween decorations are blossoming on the shelves at Walgreens and grocery stores, like cheerfully malevolent manifestations of the angst that is building within me.

By the time Halloween actually arrives, I can hear them coming, can *feel* them, like an approaching medieval army, the ground slightly trembling beneath me, the drums of the vanguard fracturing the air, thumping to the rhythm of my now legitimately rapid heartbeat: Here. Come. The. HOLIDAYS. MOOOOOOM!

Oh. Oh gods. There they are. I can see them. I can smell them. Cinnamon and pine and gingerbread and… Oh hell, is that actually fruitcake? Do people even really eat that stuff? And my five kids are more than ready to capitalize on the fear they can smell on me. They sense my weakness, which is only augmented by the sense of ineptitude I possess every year as the season approaches.  How am I, the single, full-time working mother of a discerning brood, going to pull it off again this year?  How am I going to avoid the pitfalls and agony of last year’s perceived failures? How am I going to maintain my sanity, promote holiday cheer, AND still afford groceries at the end of it all?

Every year, it’s the same. And every year, somehow, I do in fact manage to “pull it off,” with varying degrees of success. Invariably, somewhere along the way, I field queries from friends and family and other moms: How do you do it? How *do* you manage the holidays, with any semblance of success and grace?

Well. To put it succinctly, I fake it. And somehow, eventually, whether I realize it or not, I make it.

Get Real!

My foremost advice to every mom -not just single moms with an unnatural lot of children- is, “The first thing you do is, you lower your standards.” That sounds very strange, especially coming from the author of an article in a magazine that encourages women to not just meet but exceed their own greatest expectations of themselves, but there it is. And it is the single most important takeaway from this entire piece, I think. Women in our society are subjected to an unreasonable expectation of perfection that was not designed with our sanity or comfort in mind.

But take a minute and look around you. Who is keeping score? Okay, who *that matters* is keeping score? Chances are excellent that the only real answer is: You. So lower your own standards. Remember the old adage, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy?” Yeah. 100% accurate. And Mama cannot be happy if she is too busy judging herself to actually enjoy the spirit of the season. (And by “spirit” I mean “cocktail.” But I digress.)

So how do you do that? Lower those standards that were instilled in us by our mothers, our grandmothers, western culture, the Victorians, the neighbors, Good Housekeeping, Pinterest, and every single retail store display ever created between October and January since 1945? By degrees. Let’s use a modern day example of how we can do this. You see a link on Facebook that your friend has posted from, say, Pinterest. Look at all of these meticulously decorated cookies! And handmade wreaths! And enthusiastically themed Christmas trees! And mantle decorations, and table settings, and finger foods, and…!

Yes, Mama. The whole picture is gorgeous. But sit back and take each part of it in, one thing at a time. Which portions speak loudest to you? Which jive with your *actual* aesthetic? I guarantee it’s not every single aspect of what you’re seeing there. Will the kids most likely play frisbee with those ceramic snowflake centerpieces? Is that wall hanging that was made of lace, hot glue, and a prayer going to withstand a child frantically sheltering behind it during hide and seek? Is your weird 11-year-old going to use those gorgeous aspen candles in a slumber party séance? You know as well as I do, the answers probably do not instill any confidence that these things belong in your home, seasonally or otherwise. So what do we do? Rely on grandma’s tired, felted reindeer bobble-heads and misshapen wreaths that came from a church garage sale 17 years ago? How is THAT going to improve the holiday mood of anyone, much less the mom responsible for creating that mood?

We do what we as mothers have become virtual professionals at doing: We will compromise. Pick out one or two projects from that picture, make a list of things you would need to re-create it in your space, and then make the executive decision to do only those things. Then here’s the hard part: What you’re going to do next is parcel out some of these projects to your progeny.


You will need to relinquish the need to direct, control, and perfect the picture in your head. Group project! It will turn out to be uniquely your family’s touch. (In my house, this means that Santa has been mutated into the Krampus -with a Barbie arm hanging out of his mouth- for four years now, and the Christmas tree sports steampunk ornaments that look suspiciously like the inside of our old DVD player, but hey! It’s all US!) 

By the time you and your brood put it all together, you’ll be astonished at just how MUCH holiday you managed to infuse, and how relieved you are that you didn’t set your mind to doing more. Sufficient unto the day was the preparation thereof! Your space has been transformed and you can feel good about finishing a self-imposed task. And your kids will love that their handiwork is being displayed. Even the inappropriate stuff that you haven’t figured out yet, and kind of hope you never do. 

Now. Decorations are sorted. What next?

Creating Your Own Traditions

Traditions, of course. What else?

What those traditions are, exactly how many you commit to every year, and the degree to which you commit is entirely, 100% up to you and your family. It is malleable, forgiving, and not subject to the judgement or aspersions of anyone outside of your home. These are the things that your kids will carry with them once you have discharged your parental duties and they have moved out and on and started families of their own. Traditions do matter to your children, despite the faces they make when your family traditions are discussed around their friends. Does that mean all traditions have to subscribe to -or even remotely resemble- the concepts and ideations of a “traditional” holiday? NOPE. Whether you stumbled into them accidentally or made a conscious decision that they were going to be a part of your seasonal festivities, all traditions are valid, and worth the effort of maintaining. But they do not have to be complicated, or excessively time-consuming. Don’t be afraid to let go ones that are no longer relevant or enjoyable, and feel free to explore new ones as the kids get older. 

A few years ago, I was agonizing over another article I was writing for a university periodical about holiday traditions around the world. One thing that kept bothering me as I did my research was the sobering perception that I had done an abysmal job establishing and maintaining any kind of “real” traditions for my own family. We don’t do Elf on the Shelf. (This is owing to the fact that one year, while I was still married, one of my stepchildren -a mouthy seventh grader with a penchant for pranks with significant shock value- arranged the male and female elves in compromising positions on the mantle, with white toothpaste all over them for “effect.” I returned the elves to my stepkids’ mother and told my own kids that the elves had been sent back to the North Pole indefinitely. My youngest daughter remarked sagely that probably the girl elf was pregnant. Elves are no longer welcome here.) We also don’t go to the Nutcracker, or sing carols around a piano, or open one gift on Christmas eve, or throw annual parties, or… Oh yikes. What *do* we do?

I mentioned it to my then-13 year old, who scoffed out loud and called me “frankly stupid.” (My children are nothing if not painfully honest and entirely without filters.) I perked up though. “You think we have meaningful traditions?” My son rolled his eyes so hard I could hear them squeak. “Yes. Since we were babies, you buy us new sets of Christmas or winter pajamas every single year, and you have us put them on before you arrange us into embarrassing poses to take pictures for the family Christmas card that you always send out late. Then you take us all to the mall and have us each pick a kid off the Salvation Army tree, and make us play rock/paper/scissors to decide which kid we will sponsor. Then you take us to Walmart to fulfill every single wish on that kid’s Christmas list. Then you make us wrap those gifts. Oh, and then there’s the turkey and food drop-off at that homeless shelter dinner downtown. And then there’s lasagna for Christmas Eve dinner -which makes ZERO SENSE, but whatever-, and that terrible movie “Snow” that you always make us watch while we’re decorating the tree, and then there’s the “Elf” quote-along, and then those cheap gingerbread houses that we eat instead of assembling, and…”

He went on for quite awhile in that vein. I grinned like a fool the entire time. I hadn’t realized that those were traditions, but he was right. They are. And my kids not only notice, but embrace every one, without my actually doing anything more than subject them to those activities every year. Last year, I hadn’t purchased the Christmas pajama sets by the second week of December. Every single child pointed it out to me, independently and at different times, over the course of that week. When I finally brought home the pj’s, they made faces and groaned and slouched and rolled their eyes… all while taking their pajama sets and heading to their bedrooms to try them on. Thirty minutes later they were asking me where we were doing the pictures for the Christmas card. I had them all hang upside down from the branches of a live oak in our front yard. It was hard to see them on the screen of my camera phone through all the happy dust in my eyes.

So traditions matter. But they also probably already happen without you feeling overly burdened or particularly anxious about them. Cross one less thing to stress about off your list!

Wrangling a Budget

Here’s the big one, though, the bugbear of virtually every mother’s holiday chagrin: Money. The Holiday Budget. The Lists. How on earth do we navigate, negotiate, break down into chewable, livable pieces this most heartburn-inducing aspect of our already most anxiety-ridden season? How do we continue to provide a holiday of the standards to which our spawn are accustomed without dipping into the college savings of said spawn? Have faith. It CAN be done. And without too much alteration on your part. 

First, request a list from your children (and spouse, and family and friends, if gift-giving is part of your usual holiday repertoire). Then, make your own list -based ONLY and ENTIRELY upon what is on the lists you were given, do not augment them with your own ideas about what they may want, need or like!- and then (and this is the hardest part), ADHERE TO THAT LIST WHILST PURCHASING HOLIDAY GIFTS. You heard me, Mom. I know what it’s like. You enter a store, clutching that list in your hand (or in your phone), with every intention of getting only and exactly what you entered that store to purchase. But then, OH, that jacket! That new computer game! That absolutely ESSENTIAL stationary set! THAT FOOT SPA THAT SHE MENTIONED SIX YEARS AGO SHE WANTED IS FINALLY ON SALE! And so on…

No. Don’t do it. Stick to the list. Get ONLY what is on the list. If the list seems a little thin, get gift cards. Do not give in to the temptation to overpurchase. Do not keep score. Do not fall into the trap of making it “even” (financially, or in number of gifts) for each child. (And if this is an actual, sincere concern, remember that some gifts come with parts that can be wrapped individually. Or, barring that, coloring books, crayons, Play-Doh, Matchbox cars, thumb drives, phone chargers, all of those small, really inexpensive things that you probably already buy weekly and they actually need and use can all be wrapped and given as gifts. They count. TRUST ME.) The same goes for your grocery, pharmacy, liquor store lists. 

MAKE LISTS. Adhere to them. If it isn’t essential, don’t get it. This is not the time of year for splurging or extras. It’s already extra, by virtue of the holiday. No one will feel the lack, and you will relax so much more comfortably at the end of it all, knowing that no one is going to miss a meal because Mom felt like Grandpa needed a new Snake light (despite the fact that Grandpa hasn’t gotten up out of his easy chair in over ten years, and isn’t likely to go tramping around outside in the dark any time soon).

Presence, Not Presents

And now that the house is decorated, the traditions have been observed, the gifts acquired, and the bank account salvaged, what will we do now with all of this un-harried extra time? This is the best part. Over the years, one thing I have learned, truly and above all else, is that my kids do not like me much at all when I’m anxious and worried and pulling my hair out with stress. They avoid me (and, very often, leave me little notes with small cartoons on them, by way of communicating their need for more Robux or help with homework or to tell me that they are pretty sure their sister has been possessed and needs a priest). They rarely address me directly.

During the holiday season, that dynamic absolutely sucks. Avoid it. Give yourself some leeway and a lot more credit than you have been so you can be present for the ones you want to impress with all this magic in the first place. 

Above all else, remember this: You are an amazing mother. Bad mothers don’t worry whether they’re doing it right, or doing enough. You are. Breathe, and go bake some cookies with the kids. Even if they’re just the pull-apart sugar cookies from Pillsbury that always burn on the bottom. Make the seasonal moments count a little bit more by being a part of it all, instead of the harassed director who is only going through the motions. That peaceful, unhurried time with your *actual* reasons for the season -those babies of yours, who very soon will be outside your realm of holiday corralling- is what they will remember most. And so will you. 

We’d love for the LadyFaire community to share their traditions and survival tips. How do you and yours make the holidays memorable and doable?

Intrepid children’s social worker by day, single mother to four school age kids by night, Jennifer Elyse is never bored. After earning degrees in English, creative writing, and medieval studies, Jennifer discovered that her passions extended in a variety of additional directions that include child and animal welfare, social sciences, and theater arts. She performed at renaissance festivals for 25 years, and dabbled in community theater, TV, and film acting for several years in between. A published author and devout bibliophile, Jennifer continues to write The Great Aberrant Novel in her head, and fully expects to put it on paper before she is 100.

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A writer and storyteller by trade, throughout the course of my career, I have led with curiosity. Much like Alice, I love the opportunity to ask questions and look at situations through different lenses. It’s a great way to find unexpected solutions or new ideas.

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