I generally do not go attend poorly reviewed movies or restaurants. As a single mother who works full-time and writes a weekly blog, my time and money are precious commodities, not to be wasted on schlocky movies or uninspired dining experiences. I did recently break my own rule when I went to see A Bad Mom’s Christmas with a group of moms whose children attend school with my daughter as a fundraiser for the school. Who could resist a night of babysitting to attend a movie—albeit mediocre, at best—at the local cinema that has a fully-stocked bar. Sold!

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the movie and commiserated with Kiki, Amy and Carla’s sense of being overwhelmed by Christmas and meeting unrealistic expectations. I totally get it. I have been known to be a little Grinchy at Christmas, resentful of having more tasks thrust upon me to meet some idealized Hallmark version of Christmas joy. When Amy’s mom, Ruth, tells her, “You’re a mom. Moms don’t enjoy. They give joy. That’s how being a mom works,” in response to her adult daughter’s treeless home,  I howled recalling the years that I had not enjoyed Christmas because I was too busy making it joyful for others.

It has taken me 26 years to learn what our fearless heroines and their overbearing moms learn in under two hours about taking Christmas back. Here are six of my favorite tips to make the holidays more joyful for moms and their families alike.

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1. Cookies for the cookie exchange do not have to be homemade.

God bless those women that turn out a dozen different varietals of cookies during the holidays. Love the cookies. Keep them coming. Just please, please don’t ask me to partake in a cookie exchange where I am required to draw on a calculus formula to determine how many cookies I need to bake to accommodate two-thirds of the HOA membership.

The year my bestie decided to host a cookie exchange I nearly pitched a fit. Can’t recall why, but I am willing to bet it had something to do with that seasonal feeling of “too much to do, too little time” for the holidays. Once I gathered my thoughts, I realized that I could participate by employing a hack—dip pretzels or Oreos in melted milk chocolate and rolling them in colored sugar, sprinkles, nuts, chocolate chips or crushed peppermints. It was a lot easier than baking √23 x 7 cookies and my son was more than happy to help.  It was, as my five-year-old likes to say, “easy peasy lemon squeezy” I even got kudos for creativity (although I think they were really jealous that they had not thought of it).

2. Why chop a tree from a farm when you can shop for a tree online?

You can buy anything, anything online these days. But back in 2001, I purchased a Christmas tree online, fresh from a lot in central Pennsylvania. It was the only time I bought a tree online, but I was so grateful to have that option.

At the time, I was working for the American Society of Civil Engineers and our organization was in the midst of a forensic engineering study on the collapse of the World Trade Center building complex and and the Pentagon resulting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks. As the senior external relations manager for the Society, I was working overtime fielding calls from reporters regarding the collapse. One reporter in particular was constantly calling me for information and interviews as the surviving family members became more vocal into the inquiries regarding the collapse, suspecting that the organization was concealing shoddy engineering practices. There was not much time for making cookies, let alone trudging my way to a farm to chop a tree down. The $90 I spent to have a Douglas fir mailed directly to my home was worth every penny.

3. Give yourself a set amount of time to decorate the tree and your home.

In what could be defined as my ultimate “Grinchy” move, I limit the hours spent on decorating the tree to no more than two hours. This does not account for the added chore of putting up the tree, getting it straight in the stand, and draping the lights and garland on the tree.

Over the years, I had amassed a great collection of Christmas ornaments from post-Christmas Day sales. I had acquired such a large a number of ornaments that I could probably decorate every tree on St. Rita’s Catholic Christmas tree lot. The collection grew so huge that I had categorized the ornaments. There was the box for angels, the box of Santas, the box of Latino ornaments, and the box of trains. You get the gist.

Tree-trimming came to be a dreaded chore for me because of the volume of ornaments acquired and the diminishing free time we had due to Scouts, band and holiday parties. One year I got the brilliant idea to limit the time we actually placed ornaments on the tree to two hours.  It was the right amount for three people to get the tree decorated. Whatever we didn’t get to place on the tree would be used in future years.  Two hours to place ornaments on a tree left us plenty of time to enjoy other activities.

4. Jesus is reason for the season, but why go to church if you don’t attend the other 51 Sundays of the year?

Yep, I said it. Don’t go to church on Christmas, or Christmas Eve. Heresy, I am sure of it. As a lapsed Catholic, I went to church at Christmas early on in my marriage. Some years we would attend a Catholic mass. Other years it was a Lutheran service. Or an Episcopalian service. Or whatever Protestant church du jour my in-laws had decided to join. The other 51 Sundays of the year we never set foot in a church.

One day of attending church does not absolve our absences for the other Sundays we did not attend. And to pick the most crowded service of the year always felt odd. Why do it? To be seen? To be festive? To sing the only songs you know every lyric from your hymnal? Regardless, God is everywhere. No need to go visit him at his home. If you have Jesus in your heart, avoid the crowded church parking lot and keep the reason for the season at home.

5. Set one day aside for an intimate holiday celebration before the extended family descends upon you.

The first few years of my marriage, my parents would host Noches Buena (aka, Christmas Eve in Latino culture), which is the biggest Christmas celebration, and I would host Christmas Day. It turned out to be too much extended family time. What was intended to be a lovely two-day celebration of holiday and family togetherness turned out to be a nightmare —twice the opportunity for family drama to unfold.

The same year that I ordered a Christmas tree online was the last year I did the two-day family celebration.  Stressed and overwhelmed, things came to a head on Christmas Day when my father had a meltdown over his present. That’s right; my then 65-year-old father (not my three-year-old son) had a meltdown over a gift. And what was the offensive gift that I dared to present my father with. Pot holders from Williams-Sonoma, because the man liked to cook. The pot-holders were thrown. My mother and grandmother broke into hysterics and I asked them to leave but not before mother puked in reaction to my father’s ungracious treatment of me.

That was the last time we did a two-day-in-a-row holiday celebration. Every year since, until the demise of my marriage, we spent Christmas Eve just the three of us—later the four of us when my daughter was born—at a restaurant downtown within walking distance of the National Christmas Tree. It was delightful. Peaceful.  A respite from the meal preparation and ensuing craziness of Christmas Day when extended family and friends would descend upon us. If things went awry on Christmas Day, at least we would have our Christmas Eve memories to cherish.

Which leads me to my final point. . .

6. Always keep one tradition that does not give into the holiday frenzy.

Our Christmas Eve tradition of dining out and seeing the National Christmas Tree was our way of enjoying the festivities of the holiday without giving into frenzied expectations. Another favorite—seeing the Zoo Lights display at the National Zoo with my sister, our families, parents and friends, which was preceded with a dinner at the local dive bar across the street from the zoo. For us it’s a fun, annual outing, where we are able to enjoy each other without the burden of expectations or the threat of an argument breaking out.

My most cherished Christmas memories have not been ones where gifts where piled floor to ceiling, or of the abundance of food served at the holiday table. When I finally accepted that I could never do everything expected to stage the perfect Christmas season, giving myself the grace to only do what I could and forgiving myself for not getting everything done on my holiday checklist, that’s when I truly felt the joy of Christmas.

Featured Photo Courtesy: Norida Torriente