Better Living

Recapture the Magic with Simple Holiday Gatherings

BY Sina McCullough TIMEDecember 12, 2021 PRINT

Christmas is my favorite time of the year. Do you remember being a child during the holiday season? It was magical. People were kinder, a palpable joy danced on the air throughout the town, and anything seemed possible—if you believed. As we age, that magic seems to fade. But why should magic be reserved only for children?

A few years ago, I decided to bring the magic back into my life. In order to regain the Christmas spirit, I knew I needed to remove as much holiday stress as possible. For me, the biggest stressor was preparing traditional holiday meals.

There was a time when women would gather in the kitchen to cook. They would come together to share the work while bonding over lively discussions. For many of us, that tradition has changed. For example, I cook alone in my kitchen for the holidays.

While I love cooking for my family and am filled with nostalgia while preparing traditional holiday foods, I also recognize a trade-off: I can either spend hours alone in the kitchen preparing a meal that will be consumed in less than an hour, or I can spend that time creating hours of memories with my family.

However, I felt obligated to spend those hours in the kitchen making traditional holiday foods—just like my mother did and her mother did before her. I was afraid that deviating from that expectation would disappoint my family. And I felt selfish for thinking of my own needs instead of theirs.

So, I sat down with my family and shared my feelings—and proposed a happy medium.

Stress-Free, Simple Holiday Gatherings

Between planning the meal, procuring the ingredients, and cooking in the kitchen for hours, my holidays were centered around food. But once the meal was served, I was usually too tired to enjoy the food with my family, let alone clean up the kitchen. I decided that I didn’t want my holiday memories filled with images of me cooking alone in the kitchen while my family was in the next room laughing and playing board games without me. I didn’t want to continue missing out on the magic simply because I was too busy and too tired.

So, I decided to change our family holiday tradition by making food a side dish instead of a centerpiece. Much to my surprise, my family loved the idea. Together, we created stress-free, simple holiday gatherings. Here are some ways in which my family has recaptured the magic of the season:

We value relationships above food: Food is no longer the center of our holidays. Instead, we focus on relationships. For example, for Thanksgiving, I cook a simple, traditional meal of fish paired with wild rice and a vegetable. The entire meal takes roughly 45 minutes to prepare. Since I’m not exhausted from spending hours in the kitchen, I’m able to spend quality time with my family playing cards, telling jokes, or reading holiday stories together.

I let go of expectations: My mother was a legendary hostess. She cooked everything from scratch. Every recipe was unique—from orange zest in her cranberry sauce to award-winning dinner rolls that took half a day to create. Needless to say, she set the bar high. How could I live up to her example? After years of trying, I decided I didn’t want to. As I reflected on my childhood holiday meals, I remembered the food tasting fabulous. However, I also remembered my mother being too tired to play with me. I watched in awe as she rushed around the kitchen creating masterpieces, but all I really wanted was her attention. So, I gave myself permission to break free from the expectation of following in my mother’s footsteps, which allowed me to forge my own path—a simpler, less stressful path that fosters play.

We give ourselves permission to go rogue: Not only are traditional holiday meals time-intensive, there is added stress in making sure that each dish is timed perfectly so they can be served simultaneously. By being willing to change our family traditions, we have created several solutions to turn the stress of cooking into the joy of cooking. Those include potlucks and grazing gatherings.

Potlucks: Sharing the cooking dramatically decreases the amount of time you spend in the kitchen. I usually provide the meat and ask guests to bring a side dish or dessert. Instead of dictating what each person brings, my guests choose for themselves. As the host, if you are concerned about redundancy or missing categories of foods, such as vegetable dishes, you can send a group email or use an online option where guests can indicate what they are bringing. The key is to let go of control. Prepare your one dish and give your guests the space to express their creativity and food preferences.

Grazing Gatherings: Sometimes we forgo sit-down meals for buffet-style grazing with no set meal time. People eat when desired and sit where they please. This eliminates the stress of pushing tables together and ensuring that there are enough chairs for everyone to sit down and eat at the same time. It also eliminates the need to ensure that every dish is ready to serve simultaneously. For example, you can serve cold dishes or finger foods. My aunt serves finger foods during her annual Christmas Eve party; the foods are frozen, so she simply reheats them—no preparation involved. Roughly every hour, she places a new finger food on the buffet table.

Grazing gatherings also eliminate the stress of having to time a meal based on the arrival of the guests. What if someone is late? It doesn’t matter with grazing gatherings. For example, if you add the potluck aspect, whenever the guests arrive, they simply place their dish on the buffet table. With grazing gatherings, you can eliminate the stress of timing the meal and reduce your time in the kitchen.

We host simple gatherings for our children and their friends: We host kid’s holiday parties without food. Instead, we focus on games, crafts, and spending time together. Parents are welcome to bring food for their own children, but our guests love the parties and have never complained that no food is served.

Once we changed our approach to the holidays, the magic of the Christmas season returned. Now, my holiday memories are filled with images of my children smiling as we play board games together, the sound of their laughter as I chase them around the house playing tag, the warmth of my husband’s arms wrapped around me as we sit on the couch and enjoy the stillness, and the joy in my heart that comes from allowing myself to slow down and live in the moment.

If you give yourself the freedom to reshape your holiday traditions, simplified gatherings could be the key to recreating the magical Christmas season you knew and loved as a child.

This article was first published in Radiant Life Magazine. 

Dr. Sina McCullough is the creator of the online program, "GO WILD: How I Reverse Chronic & Autoimmune Disease,” and author of Hands Off My Food,” and “Beyond Labels.” She earned a Ph.D. in Nutrition from UC Davis. She is a Master Herbalist, Gluten Free Society Certified Practitioner and homeschool mom of three.
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