Listen. I'm going to tell you one of the dumbest things I've ever done in an attempt to make Christmas magical and special. I decided that Santa Claus should bring my daughter, Caroline, that pink retro Pottery Barn kitchen when she was two years old. You know what a toddler can't appreciate? Besides basically everything except a cup of goldfish crackers and a sippy cup full of juice? An overpriced, darling kitchen designed to make us long for the days of yore.
I woke up that Christmas morning, full of excitement to watch her gasp and shriek with delight at the fact that the best of Pottery Barn had just materialized in her living room, and you know what she did? Totally ignored that kitchen and ran to hug a dinosaur stuffed animal that my husband and I bought for her on a whim at the last minute. She carried that dinosaur everywhere for the rest of the day and I learned a basic math problem along the lines of a cheap, stuffed dinosaur costs significantly less money and causes less regret than a Pottery Barn kitchen that gets completely ignored.
Yet I think that's what so many of us do in our own way. We recall our own childhood Christmases that felt so magical and want to recreate that same experience for our own kids. But you know why your childhood Christmases were so great? Because there were adults working madly like the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain to make it all come together. And now that we are the adults, we are the ones in charge and it can be significantly less enchanting to check off to-do lists and navigate crowded toy stores and figure out how to budget and manage our in-laws and remember to sprinkle reindeer food on the sidewalk on Christmas Eve and figure out how to get toy trucks that were clearly wired into the box by the devil out of their packaging. Adulthood has its perks, but the pressure to figure out where to hide an Elf on the Shelf isn't one of them.
Something happened in our house several years ago that helped shift my perspective back to the heart of it all. It was several nights before Christmas and I was reading a bedtime story to Caroline from the Bible. In full disclosure, I'd started the month with grand plans to do an elaborate Jesse tree situation and that fell apart somewhere around December 5th because the road to Christmas is paved with good intentions and our Jesse tree fell over and, well, at least I tried. Anyway, I was reading to Caroline and stopped to ask her if she knew what the word "disciples" meant. She said no and so I explained that "disciples" was a word that described the men who were Jesus's best friends while he was here on earth. She looked at me with an incredulous expression and exclaimed, "YOU MEAN TO TELL ME THAT JESUS WAS HERE ON EARTH?" And that's when I silently awarded myself the Christian Mother of the Year Award because that seems like an important detail that I should have made clear early on.
But here's the thing. In that one moment, my sweet girl brought me right back to the wonder that is the Christmas season. There is no better time than Christmas to remember that God sent his son into the world to save us all from darkness and sin and certain death. And two thousand years ago, the cry of a baby was a holy roar letting evil forever know that weeping may last for a night, but joy will come in the morning. Jesus came to earth, in the smallest and simplest of ways and it helps me to remember that often our best moments of the Christmas season come the same way.
Here are a few ways I've learned to appreciate the small things during the holiday season:
1. Treat yourself to some great new Christmas music.
Whatever your musical preference is, put on some music and light a few candles. Create a peaceful atmosphere as a reminder to breathe in and enjoy what Christmas is all about.
2. Cut down on Christmas gifts.
Everything does not need to be extravagant or over-the-top. It's so easy to get caught up in all the sales and the pressure and end up stressed about spending more money than you really should. This is going to look different for every family, but don't let yourself get caught up in the pressure to buy your kids the latest and greatest of everything just because that's allegedly what "EVERYONE ELSE" is getting. I believe the "EVERYONE ELSE" strategy is just a political move developed by enterprising kids and honed by marketing professionals. Get gifts that make sense for your family and are actually meaningful.
3. Look for ways to help others.
This can be as small as offering to put your neighbor's Christmas cards in the mail for her since you're on your way to the post office. Adopt a family that needs help with Christmas gifts for their kids, serve a meal in a homeless shelter, or deliver cookies to your local police station. There is nothing that really makes you experience the joy of Christmas like finding ways to give back to others.
4. Keep your traditions simple and flexible.
I have found it's usually not the big moments that kids remember, but the small ones. Make a pallet underneath the Christmas tree and watch Christmas movies, drive around with hot chocolate and look at Christmas lights, or decorate sugar cookies with sprinkles and embrace the mess. Those are the little things that create long-lasting memories.
5. Make sure you schedule in some downtime.
It's so easy to get overwhelmed by all the activities and stay so busy that we end up feeling frustrated. I'm an introvert by nature so my whole life is about scheduling downtime, but it's good to remember that you'll enjoy the holidays more if you make the time to actually slow down and rest. Prioritize what's important to keep on your calendar and let go of the things that you are only doing out of obligation.
And, most of all, remember why we are celebrating in the first place. Jesus actually came to earth in the form of a small thing that changed the world forever in the biggest of ways.
Melanie Shankle is a New York Times best-selling author, podcaster, wife and mother. The Texas A&M graduate is also a guest blogger for high-profile outlets and an in-demand speaker for events across the country. Her latest book, Church of the Small Things: The Million Little Pieces That Make Up a Life, is available now. Melanie lives with her husband Perry and their daughter Caroline in San Antonio, Texas. For more information, please visit melanieshankle.com.