December 15, 2008

10 Ways to Enjoy the Holiday Season That Have Nothing To Do With Buying Presents


image via the awesome picnic_by_ellie

The other day, as the sun was setting at its depressingly early hour, I stepped into a Crate and Barrel for a dose of holiday cheer. Inside, there were decorations for the mod bachelor pad, the enviro-loving pinecone candle burners, and people who just want to buy a lot of gold trinkets, a lot of red ribbon, and a life supply of sweet chocolate-dipped confections packaged in striped tins. After I stumbled out, sort of in a Karen Carpenter-induced daze, I needed a caffeinated jolt. Inside the ‘Bucks there were more carols, Christmas mugs, gingerbread cookies, and a widespread feeling of hurried pandemonium. As happy as I was to get my coffee in the beloved red holiday cups, the whole production felt sort of…empty. I walked back to my office, past the Gap and a display of sweaters that pronounced in hypnotic scroll, “Joy to the Girl!” And I just thought, this is not what it’s about. Whether or not you work in Times Square perhaps you, too, would you like to count some ways in which we can celebrate the season that have nothing to do with gift receipts and sales on prepackaged gingerbread men.

Candlelight Night
There’s something about candlelight–the way it lends a sense of import, makes you lower your voice just a bit, and makes everyone look about 87% more attractive–that is just inimitably…magic. For one night, why not make like the 19th century and rely on candles rather than electricity, if only just for a dinner a deux.

Ice Skating
If you can find an affordable place to go (for all you New Yorkers, there’s free skating in Bryant Park), this is the kind of holiday activity that makes your heart pound in a good way. In super cold climes, I bet you can even step on to a frozen pond, which is pretty much the most romantic thing ever.

Slow Down

Are your thoughts racing? Are you, at this very moment running three different to-do lists in your head? Turn off the television, and your iPod, and the Elvis Christmas record playing the background. Sit down, take a deep breath, and then slowly exhale. Stop doing and just be for a second. Now keep breathing in and out, and focus on the air coming through your nose, causing your chest to rise and your belly to swell. Let it out slowly. Repeat until a sense of equanimity fills you (you will be shocked at just how fast that will happen–1 minute might do the trick).

I am thinking of having a super low-key dinner in our living room with some friends who live nearby, and I will most definitely tell everyone to bring something to nosh or sip. This season is all about sharing, and nothing warms my heart like someone at my door with something from their kitchen, even if it’s just cheese and crackers (thought by some to be the perfect meal).

Movie Night
When it’s blustery and going outside involves umpteen layers and boots that make you feel dowdy, isn’t it nice to just stay in and order a pizza? This is a great opportunity to watch Doctor Zhivago or Babette’s Feast or just revisit your holiday faves (my suggestions: Little Women and When Harry Met Sally).

Cocktail Party
Few things make me happier (tipsier?) than sharing a cocktail (or three) with a friend (or 15). Technically, unless you have a really well-stocked liquor cabinet and pantry, you might have to buy something for this one. But you’re not wasting money on a piece of crap you’re being forced to give as your office Secret Santa; you’re spending some dough on a night when your friends can drown whatever’s troubling them in eggnog, grilled cheese sandwiches, and the company of people they like.

Hot Chocolate Tasting
You might walk away with a stomach ache, but you are going to like it. Mix up batches of a few different hot chocolate recipes or mixes, and have a wee teacup of each. Swirl the chocolate in your cup like wine and compare the notes and aromas of dark chocolate versus milk…kidding! Just sip ’em and decide which takes the prize for most delicious and you’ve found your signature drink of the season. Then make a bigger cup with the winner and wiggle yourself into a cushy chair with a fat book. (Wouldn’t hurt to include marshmallows in this tasting, either.)

Winter Walk
Once you’ve stayed in with a movie night, a night of martinis, and a hot chocolate tasting, you may find yourself fortified to actually brave the cold. Wear your puffiest jacket, your silliest hat, and your ugliest, most practical boots and take a walk (bonus points for snowshoes). It easy to think of this time of year as dead, but once you are out in the world taking stock of nature or your neighborhood, you might find there’s a lot to captivate your attention.

Deck the Halls
I wish I were someone who always got my house (read: little apartment) into tip-top seasonal shape (read: clean). Oh well. This year we got a tree and decorated it with lights and red yarn. The branch that fell off while we were carrying it home is now in a vase, and I plan to make a garland out of paper snowflakes. No giant inflatable Santas here, but no gorgeous wreaths from Williams-Sonoma, either. You don’t need me to tell you this, but it’s just a reminder: Doing things your way, not the “right” way, will make you a lot happier during the holidays and the rest of the year.

Give Back
With our IRAs plummeting and an eye infection lingering, it is awfully easy to be consumed by our own personal sphere of drama. But the times when we manage to see life from someone else’s perspective can snap us into a state of gratitude for
all we have going for us. Make it fun: if you like kids, volunteer to read to them at night in group homes. If you like babies, offer to be a snuggler in the newborn section of the hospital (yes, this is a real volunteer position). If you like food–the way it brings people together and sustains their spirits, as well as their bodies–volunteer to prepare and serve meals at a soup kitchen.

What else do you do at the holidays to buck the commercialism and connect with the season, your family, your community, and yourself in a more meaningful way?

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  • Dana McCauley: Great list – another idea i like is to have friends over to decorate (and eat!) cookies.
    9 years ago

  • Faith: Those are all lovely ideas, Sarah, and I thought I’d pass along some things I’ve found delightful this season as well. Nigella Express the other day was a holiday episode on which she made some quick, easy and delicious holiday fudge which I have been giving out as gifts to very grateful friends and coworkers. Also she made a delicious drink with the liquer Advocaat and lemonade (British lemonade that is, aka Sprite, well that’s as close as we get here anyway) called a Snowball. I highly recommend it for any festive holiday cocktail parties.
    9 years ago

  • sarah: Dana, Cookie decorating is a great idea. I also have very fond memories of a cookie swap I once went to.

    Faith, That sounds awesome! Gotta love love Nigella!
    9 years ago

  • DD: Wow. That’s a wonderful idea and perfect suggestions. I’m on a When Harry Met Sally binge right now so I’ll heed your advice and watch it again. “It’s amazing, you look like a normal person when actually you are the angel of death.”
    9 years ago

  • Brenda Colleen Leyland: Love your ideas! Wonderful ways to add joy and special memories to this beautiful season.
    9 years ago

  • beth: oh, i’d love to see your red-yarned christmas tree! that sounds so simple and homey. and thanks for the reminder that resisting the retail push and doing things your own way instead is always the most satisfying.
    9 years ago

  • Lilly: This sounds exactly like what my husband and I did this weekend! We made some Godiva hot chocolate, turned on the fireplace and cuddled under a blanket for a movie. Thanks for the additional ideas.
    9 years ago

  • Lisa (dinner party): As a Midtown worker, I totally hear you on all the holiday retail craziness. Except my empty feeling quickly turns to rage toward innocent tourists, which is certainly not in keeping with the Christmas spirit. So, yeah. Cookie baking!
    9 years ago

  • EB: “Do things your way, not the “right” way” Never better said! Merry Christmas Sarah.
    9 years ago

  • sarah: DD, Haha, thank you for giving me a chuckle. Also, waiter, there is too much pepper in my paprikash.

    Lisa, I know what you mean. I just try to remember that, well, they’re on vacation. 🙂
    9 years ago

  • Kristina: Excellent, excellent list. I would add cookie swaps/cookie baking with friends, and also caroling, to my list of non-consumerist holiday merriment. Oh, and my husband and I will be dining my candlelight tonight. Thanks!
    9 years ago

  • Kate: I’ve been reading along for a while but this is the first time I’ve commented! Love the list – and just wanted to share what we do in my family. Rather than spending lots on crap we give gifts that are either homemade, fairly traded or from a charity shop. It makes preparing and receiving gifts much more fun (although I will always love festive Starbuck’s in those red cups …)
    9 years ago

  • love,gidget: What a great post! I love walking in the snow, and holiday cocktail parties are divine! my mom and i also really dig singing holiday tunes while baking or if we are in the car.
    9 years ago

  • Kat: as ever you’ve summed it up so perfectly. i have the english version of the same thing – i work just behind oxford circus in london, and the stress is contagious.

    closing my door at night and lighting the tree and candles, turning on a festive radio channel and filling my apartment with the smell of orange and rosemary oils makes me feel happy and festive again.

    next year i am definitely going to take more days off in december- i’ve spent the whole month working, and getting a bit envious of people who’ve had lots of time for making decorations and baking.

    ooh and *please* post a pic of your tree !

    9 years ago

  • geek+nerd: *laughs* I love the When Harry Met Sally quotes trickling down through the comments! Another favorite: A man, came to my willage, and said to me, “I have nice girl for you”…I love that whole story!

    As far as making Christmas a little homier – I just stopped going to the mall about five years ago. The last time I was there around Christmas time was two days before Christmas, and it was insanity. Shortly after that I got into crafting and I saw that there was a whole other way to do things out there. I’m self admittedly a bit of a Christmas freak, it’s my favorite holiday, and I literally prepare all year for it. But when I see the looks on my family members faces when they open something that was especially handmade for them – all of the hard work is worth it! This year, my family grew quite a bit, and I shopped a bit on Etsy, at craft fairs and from a local bookstore. I accepted the fact that I am human – and there is only so much time in the day to sew, knit, bake for my family. However the purchases that I did make, I *really* thought about where my spending dollars were going. It felt nice.

    (This is turning into an opus)

    Another idea – that I’m doing with my co-workers right now – is a Secret Santa with a twist. You can only give something that was either free (you own it and you’re passing it on, like a good book or dvd that you don’t need to keep), something second-hand from a thrift store, something recycled, or something handmade. I think it’s a nice twist on an old, sometimes stressful, idea!
    9 years ago

  • Brenda Colleen Leyland: Sarah, I just loved your idea list so much, I mentioned it in my own blog last night.

    Thought you might want to take a peek… here’s the link.
    9 years ago

  • nicole: These are all lovely ideas … I’m partial to the potluck + cocktail party one myself, and have already indulged in a few this season! Fun and not-too-expensive.
    9 years ago

  • Elizabeth: Sarah, what a wonderful post. I’m adding a bunch of these to my list of holiday plans!
    9 years ago

  • jora: This is a wonderful list. Thank you. We have been trying very hard to incorporate non-consumerism, non-glaring-religious meaning into our holidays.
    9 years ago

  • Ruth: I know it’s the post-baby hormones, but my resounding “Amen!” to this entry is accompanied by sappy tears as I listen to Christmas music, and think about how Christmas is NOT about chaos and anxiety. Thanks for the post.
    9 years ago

  • Sara Rose: As much as I love giving gifts, I agree. Things get so commercialized, it gets old. I’ve had a hard time of it this year, getting in the holiday sirit. One thing we like to do, which isn’t always practical in cities but it is in normal neighborhoods- we lik to pile into the car at night with hot cocoa and drive around looking at the lights on peoples houses. It’s fun, it’s a way to get out of the house, and it only costs about a gallon or two of gas.
    9 years ago

  • Ann: I love this whole entry and list. Happy holidays, Sarah!
    9 years ago

  • Robin: Sarah and Lisa, cut us tourists some slack! I love, love, LOVE visiting New York. But even though I was born and raised in the 4th largest city in the country, visiting Manhattan makes me feel like a hayseed. No matter how many times I’ve been there, I spend the first day or night walking around in a state of immeasurable delight with my eyes wide and my mouth open. Share the gift, ladies!
    9 years ago

  • sarah: Robin, I think that’s great! I have a very, “they’re on vacation, they’re here to enjoy themselves!” policy about tourists, so I’ve got nothing but love and directions. 🙂
    9 years ago

  • LuLu: Sara your comment about candle light making people “about 87 % more attractive” really made me laugh. But it’s SO true! I also loved “doing things your way not the right way.” That to me is the heart of Pink and why I love it here so much.
    Thanks so much for the list.

    9 years ago

  • Evon T.: You certainly can’t go wrong with any of these ideas. It’s always been a dream of mine to enjoy Christmas in much the same way, but I never quite get there. I usually have a small gathering at my place the weekend before. Everyone eats food that I’ve slaved over all day and indulges in cake, cookies, and punch. Not this year though… my sister hosted it last night and it was a total bust. It was awful because she was in a crappy mood. She ruined everyone’s evening. So I’ve decided to salvage my Christmas week by enjoying Christmas day at my own apartment. I’ll buy a turkey loaf and just cook some sides, bake a cake on Christmas Eve and enjoy eating and nodding out on the actual day with my beau. I’d normally be with my family but… long story. I’m excited about buying some lounge wear just for me to put on and eat and nap in all day while watching “A Christmas Story” marathon.
    9 years ago

  • sarah: That sounds like a super relaxing day, Evon, even if it does break with tradition. My Christmas day might be a little untraditional this year too — we still don’t know what the plan is!
    9 years ago

  • sarah: Aw, thanks LuLu. It’s easy to get caught up in what other people might think, but the times you can shirk it and just do things your own way are so liberating!
    9 years ago

  • Steph W: Nice article! I just linked to this post. Thanks!8 years ago

  • Allison Conley: Sarah, your words actually seem fresher and wiser a year later! Lovely. XOX MOM8 years ago

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