My Tips for Holiday Happiness

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New Tradition: The Funky Tree

I remember way back in the day when I was a child visiting my old Italian Grandmother at Christmas time. She had this tiny fake table top tree on a coffee table. Yes, it was lovely, but I thought to myself “how can anyone settle for such a small fake tree? I will never do that!”

But now I understand. I love traditions, but as time passes by, children grow up, time is short and priorities change, so do traditions. Sometimes these are hard to give up. The tradition when I was growing up was for my mom and her sister and two brothers and all of their kids to go to Great Grandma’s (small) home and have Christmas (25 people in addition to random great aunts and uncles and cousins who might stop in). There was always a gigantic fruit tray covered with dates and figs, nuts and chocolate along with all varieties of Italian food. We kids would be all over the place, climbing on couches and under tables, eating and laughing. As the years went on, Great Grandma passed away, and new traditions evolved.

After I had three children and a home of my own, I took it upon myself to have a gigantic family “Open House” the Saturday before Christmas. This way, my siblings (who also had children) and I could be home with our families Christmas Eve (easier for Santa Clause).  Because most of us were struggling financially, we totally eliminated buying gifts for each other and instead, for this party, everyone bought a 10 dollar gift for their children, wrapped it and stuck it in a Santa Clause bag that was kept hidden. After much talking, eating and holiday music Santa would arrive with fanfare! He would be loud with his HO HO HO (since he was a professional who my aunt was able to get due to the fact she hired them for the malls…one year even I was almost fooled). Santa would take out the gifts one by one as each child would go and sit on his lap. We would gather around, the adults almost as excited as the kids. Since everyone brought a dish or dessert, and no one needed to bring gifts except for their own child, it was a simple yet wonderful night filled with all of the important things: family, fun and love.   Since then, our children have all grown up . Many of them are in their 30’s with children of their own. Some have moved out of state and can’t afford to fly home every Christmas. Yes, times have changed. And so have the traditions.

I continued to have open houses however not everyone could attend. One year we decided to look for a retirement home in Naples, Florida (not that we are ready to retire, but prices were low at the time). We ended up purchasing a lovely condo with a “Lazy River”Pool that is fantastic. We are able to rent out the condo for all of the winter months, but for the last 3 years have gone down for 2 weeks over the holidays. At first it was hard because I felt guilty leaving the one daughter who still lived home in CT as well as missing seeing my parents and siblings who still get together at Christmas. Because I still had my “Open House” or at least a family holiday dinner the week before we left, I still had that feeling of connecting with family that I needed….just not on the exact day of Christmas.

Now, I count down the days to fly away! Last year two of our daughters were able to join us and that was wonderful. Thank goodness for Skype and Face-time because I was able to “see” my son in Colorado and my parents and family at home.

Even with all of the ways we have changed, and even simplified the holidays, this time of year can still be draining. Besides accepting that traditions are bound to change a bit, there are other things that interfere with enjoying this season that I think we all struggle with. These are my top issues and how I have learned to deal with them:

  1. Making everyone happy. I remember when my daughter was about 7 years old and wanted this walking barking toy dog. They were all the rage….and no where to be found.  My friend asked me if I wanted to drive to the next state because she found two there in some store. I declined. Where do you draw the line? If she does not get the walking barking fake dog, will it really ruin her Christmas? Instead, Santa left a note that he ran out but he would send some money to buy one if she still wanted one. A week went by, she got to see her friend’s walking barking fake dog…came home and said “I’m glad he ran out. I don’t want one”. What makes your family happy? YOUR happiness : )
  2. Baking the traditional cookies for everyone so they will be happy. This may only be my issues (probably because making the same traditional cookies allows me to reconnect with my family, and all of those great memories). The fact is, I do not like baking. It has to be cold and dark, and maybe with a candle or two lit. Snowing is better, and conducive to baking enjoyment. It rarely snows when I have to bake. I need to send out my cookies to Colorado and Austin and South Carolina, so I need to get them done. I have learned to compromise. I no longer bake every single cookie. I no longer make 92 dozen. One small container per person will do. I need to fight my Italian instinct that more is better when it comes to giving people food. They truly don’t care. It is the thought that counts.
  3. Getting gifts for important people in your life to show you care, when you don’t have extra money lying around. My close friends and I no longer exchange gifts. Instead, we go to Happy Hour. There are still people however that means something to you, maybe a special co-worker or even just the mail man, or your hair dresser. Yes, I may give a cash gift (especially if it is your hair dresser who you have known before your hair turned gray). Otherwise, I like to make what I call “White Chocolate Crunch”. This is a yummy mix that can be wrapped in those small cellophane holiday gift bags, tied with a ribbon, and good to go. A batch might make ten gifts. Here is the recipe that I found in a newspaper while waiting for my snow tires to be put on a few years ago: Melt 3 (12 oz) bags of white chocolate chips on low. Stir in 3 cups of cheerios, 3 cups of rice or corn chex, 3 cups of pretzel sticks (thin), 2 cups of raisins, 2 cups of peanuts, and a large bag of M and M’s. Mix well. You can add more or less of whatever you want. Spread on wax paper and cool completely. It is the best.
  4. Parties. Happy Hours. Too many social events with people that you want to see but you don’t always have the energy for. Don’t get me wrong, I love parties and happy hours, talking and sipping wine and catching up. But not when I am exhausted. Unfortunately, I have had to decline a few happy hours, and had to leave one of my favorite annual holiday parties early because I am fighting a cold. It just is not worth it. So, my advice is, as usual “listen to your body”. Just say no. Your good friends and the people that matter will be just as happy getting together in January.
  5. Taking care of your health (sleep, eating, fun moving, etc) when time is flying. Even though our schedule is busier, with more to do than usual, our bodies still need to be nourished with food, sleep and movement. Our diets don’t need to be perfect, we may not get our usual sleep, and our exercise/physical activity patterns may change for a month. It really does not matter much unless it is extreme. Are you missing meals or living off of cookies? are you drinking too much Wassail punch and not enough water? Are you staying up to the wee hours so all those packages can be wrapped perfectly? It is wise to look ahead at your week and weekends and be prepared. Plan to get to events early so you can leave on time and get to bed at a reasonable hour. Bring water or other non-alcoholic drinks to parties so you can stay in balance (or just know your limits). Don’t forget to buy your usual lunch food for work, food for dinner (even if you have to buy ready made food such as a rotisserie chicken) so that you don’t miss meals for the simple fact that you were so busy getting stuff done you forgot to buy food. Maybe you have too much to do and can’t get to your Zumba class, but you still deserve a break such as going for a leisurely walk on a weekend when you may have more time. On the other hand, if you have been shopping and cooking and cleaning all day, don’t try to get in visit to the gym just because you feel that you should. Listen to your body if it is exhausted. If is it not going to be rejuvenating, but will only serve to exhaust you more then skip it.
  6. Christmas Cards. I know there is some kind of rule that you only need to send holiday cards out to people who send them to you. I love getting the cards from old friends and others, but I just honestly don’t love doing cards. I love making calendars though from the hundreds of funny pictures I collect throughout the year. So I may make a funny calendar for someone, or a funny card….or not. I used to feel like it was a job, an obligation, but not anymore. I don’t think people care. I know I don’t care if  you send me a card. I just want everyone to have a happy and healthy holiday. But like I said, I may send a funny calendar, it just might not be on Christmas…                                                                                                                                                                                                                              So, that Funky Tree you see at the beginning of this post…..our new tradition started several years ago. Since we now go to Florida we can no longer have a real tree, so we purchased the funky tree which, you guessed it, stands on the table. Whenever we travel we keep our eyes open for the silliest funkiest ornament we can find (hippo on skies, Santa on a Hammock, etc). Each ornament carries a special memory….we love our little tree and everyone else has grown to love it too. So yes, traditions change, holidays are stressful, but, if you take the time to keep it simple, this time of year can be as special and meaningful as it was meant to be. Happy Holidays!
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    Santa Clause……

Holiday Food Traditions:Embracing the Joy

This morning I finally sat down to dig out my Christmas Cookie recipes that I have made every single year for the past 36 years (or more). Some of them were almost illegible having been written on scraps of paper that happened to be what was available at my Auntie Maryanne’s house (my mom’s sister, and the one who baked in the family and therefore had the very best recipes). There are a few other favorites such as the candy cane sugar cookie recipe. My younger sister Fran  was taking a home economics class in high school at the time (1976?)  and came home with these absolutely delicious sugar cookies in the shape of a candy cane. That recipe I finally had to rewrite since it was so faded after all these years. Another addition to the original Auntie Maryanne list was an Italian almond paste cookie that I searched for after having some at Michael’s Italian Bakery in Boston that were so good, I went on a search to recreate them. The recipe isn’t exactly the same but dang, pretty darn close.

So the final traditional list I have acquired consists of Auntie Maryanne’s Chinese Chews, Jelly Print Cookies, Peanut Butter Blossoms, Walnut Butterballs, and Merry Cheesecake Squares. The ones added on (with a story behind each and every one that evokes a memory of a special person in my past) include Thyra’s Raspberry Almond Bars, my sister Fran’s Candy Cane Cookies, Barbara’s Peanut Butter Bars, Laurel Bean’s Vanilla Bean Crescent Cookies, Lucy’s Chocolate Fudge and Barbie’s White Chocolate Crunch (well, she refused to share her secret family recipe however I found a similar one, so it still makes me think of her!)

What is the point of going into detail about all of these cookies on a health/nutrition blog? It makes me sad when people are so focused on dieting and eating perfectly (sometimes), and worrying about weight gain they end up missing out on the important things behind the food. Just trying to recall all of the recipes and thinking about all of these old friends in my past made me happy. It has nothing to do with the sugar or the butter or the health of the cookie or bar but everything to do with the connection and memories created. The problems arise when there is an imbalance in eating often triggered by restriction followed by compensatory binge eating or overeating and guilt. Not a way to enjoy the holidays.

Yes, all of the sweets and drinks and other holiday foods are very triggering for some people. Some people truly are not able to stop if sweets are in the environment. Again, as I have said so many times before, work on knowing yourself.  If you have been working on intuitive eating, and you have learned to have some fun foods without binge eating them, then embracing the food traditions may not be a problem for you. For others, trying to avoid foods, not enjoying old family traditions or recipes because of fears of weight gain means missing out on part of the joy of the season. If this rings true for you, why not at least try to think about your own family traditions over the years? Do you have an Aunt Maryanne in your life who has the best recipes ever? Why not ask for them so you can start to build your arsenal of memories for the future……..when hopefully, you will have learned to enjoy every aspect of the season. That means getting to enjoy different foods, yet still listening to your body and remaining healthy and feeling good.

Anyway, after talking about all of these cookies, I feel I should at least share one of the recipes. Here it is!

Fran’s Candy Cane Cookies

Cream together: 1 1/3 cup butter, 2 1/2 cups sugar, 4 teaspoons vanilla, 2 eggs and 1 tsp salt. Blend in 3 cups flour. Divide dough in half and add a few drops of red food coloring to half the batter. Chill, then roll into small logs the size of a marker or pencil or crayon. Roll together  a red strip and a white strip then shape into a candy can on the cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 6-8 minutes. Cool on a rack. They will get crispy as they cool. If you use more dough for each one, they will be bigger, so make them as big or small as you like. You can also shape into circles. Enjoy!