Laugh So You Don’t Cry: What It’s Really Like to Celebrate Christmas With Little Kids
I decorate for Christmas the day after Thanksgiving and don’t un-decorate until well into January. In fact, I wrote this on January 9th basking in the warm glow of my Christmas tree. Although less warm than it was earlier in the month because a bunch of bulbs burned out. Probably because I turn it on ALL the time.
I had high hopes for Christmas this year because:
- I’m not pregnant (hello gin-and-tonics on Christmas Eve);
- Kidwoods is three years old, which seems old enough to “get” Christmas;
- We weren’t hosting or traveling!
So I thought: yeah! It’ll be a low-key, cozy, lots of adult beverages snuggled up by the fire type of Christmas week!!
Somehow I forgot that:
- There was no preschool so we had both kids home all day. Every day. Allllll day. Did I mention it was for 9,139 days?
- Kidwoods is only three years old. Sorry, rephrase: Kidwoods is a full blown three-nager;
- Littlewoods is 10 months old and learned to crawl the day after we put up the Christmas tree (coincidence? I doubt it);
- We’re weren’t traveling or hosting so there was no one to pawn our kids off on.
Probably should’ve thought this all through a tad more. Nevertheless, we survived the week and there were magical Christmas highlights interspersed with Littlewoods trying to eat the tree and Kidwoods trying to instruct Littlewoods on how to be a person and ornaments breaking and Mommywoods and Daddywoods wondering how early is too early in the day for spiked hot cocoa.
Today, for your reading pleasure, I present a series of real life vignettes from our Christmas week.
How We (Tried To) Celebrate Christmas With a Three-year-old and a Ten-month-old
1) Attend Christmas Eve service at our church.
When traumatic events happen to me, I need time to process before I can write about them in a cogent, introspective way. I tell you this because I’m not 100% sure that enough time has elapsed since what will be our last Christmas Eve church service for several years.
On regular Sunday mornings, our wonderful church has a nursery room where Kidwoods and all the other toddlers go to frolic/scream/color/pull one another’s hair. On Christmas Eve, however, there is no such nursery room. And that is how Mr. FW and I found ourselves stationed at the back of the church with two kids at 5pm on a Monday evening. 5pm happens to be when our kids eat dinner. No problem, thought I, I’ll bring their dinner with us!
Here’s how I envisioned this going:
- Our children silently read books and play docilely with the bag of quiet toys I packed until they turn their precious faces up to me and whisper (whisper, mind you), “Mama, could we please have some food?” Note the use of “please.”
- I then smile and–hoping someone is overhearing and definitely seeing my incredible display of parenting/Martha Stewart-ing (minus the whole jail thing)–produce a healthful, delicious dinner made of organic, local, handcrafted ingredients. They’d also note–with awe–that I’ve brought a bib for the baby as well as a little blanket on which to spread this delectable picnic.
My children coo (quietly) with delight and sit on this little blanket as they munch their nutritious, free-range, GMO-free meal and listen (silently) to our church’s sonorous choir and our pastor’s soothing voice intoning the true meaning of Christmas.
- Also, these fictitious onlookers marvel at what a good-looking, fit mama I am because–for reasons indecipherable to me now–I decided to do all of the following prior to church:
- Shower. With soap. Can’t recall if there was shampoo.
- Wear an un-stained black dress, black leggings, red ballet flats, JEWELRY, and a green cardigan (all of which I dug out of our basement on account of me never dressing like this and scarcely remembering I own such finery).
- Put on some MAKE-UP (which you know is a rarity for me).
- And the clincher: PAINT MY NAILS RED TO BE FESTIVE AND JOLLY.
- I didn’t get around to doing anything with my hair, but it was clean, which is a level up from normal.
- The above line item (#4) is nearly unprecedented. I don’t think I’ve been that put together since before Kidwoods was born. So, ya know, I felt like a hot mama. I also had both girls DECKED out for Christmas in hand-me-down Christmas dresses that, while not matching, were indeed coordinated. You better believe I had them both in tights, patent leather shoes, and hair bows. Oh we were going to have fun and be MERRY. Got that? I said MERRY. Mr. FW was even wearing a green plaid shirt to add to the date-appropriate color scheme.
Allow me to now share what actually happened at 5pm in the back of our silent, reverent, packed-to-the-gills church:
- We arrived early (unprecedented) so that we could settle the kids in before service started.
- The children played happily enough as we chatted with friends and Merry Christmas-ed everyone in sight. “Happily” is a total overstatement: they were not screaming (loudly) and they were (marginally) occupied with toys.
- Service began and the children sat rapt in our laps, drinking in the music and candles and joy. (THIS IS SO WORKING! I whispered to Mr. FW).
Two minutes later, Littlewoods squirmed her way to the floor and, once there, released a wail in the pitch of a hyena with its tail caught in a car door (how that hyena managed to: a) locate a car; b) have the misfortune of getting its tail trapped is irrelevant to this conversation, but likely worth pondering at a later date). Mr. FW swooped her up and took her outside to walk around.
- I took Kidwoods up to the altar for the pastor’s “time with children” and she nestled sweetly in my lap while we listened to the Christmas story. PERFECTION, I allowed myself to think. I hope everyone saw my great nails while I was up here.
- One minute after returning to our seats, Kidwoods began to fuss. With a Mary Poppins-inspired flourish, I produced dinner and Kidwoods began to devour.
- Littlewoods–having recovered–similarly munched food, most of which made its way onto the floor. I hadn’t accounted for her gross inability to deliver food into her mouth. I furiously scooped discarded, partially-chewed food and deposited it into the bottom of our diaper bag, which, fun fact, was my college backpack. The more you know.
- We’re now roughly 10 minutes into the service. The kids are hoovering up the food I brought. Kidwoods is asking what else we have to eat. I empty the contents of the picnic dinner and they both eat like bears fresh from hibernation.
- People are starting to stare as food flies in many directions, particularly from Littlewoods because she jerks her head around every time there’s a noise, which causes whatever she’s eating to fling out of her mouth. Mr. FW and I try to contain the particles and continue stuffing debris food into pockets of our increasingly mangy backpack-turned-diaper bag.
- Littlewoods has now kicked off her shoes and is chewing on one. Finding it lacking in sustenance, she wails and I try to latch her on to nurse. I am not wearing a nursing dress. Was this wise? Unlikely. I maneuver my black wrap dress into position, which works, but involves A LOT more bare skin than I normally reveal when nursing in public. Mr. FW liberates the picnic blanket to help me cover up. Littlewoods won’t nurse on account of the intense excitement and also the picnic blanket on top of her head. The harder I try to get her to latch? The more she pushes against my body with tiny, angry claws. The collar of her Santa Claus-inspired dress rubs against the rash on her chin and she is flat-out furious while I try to conceal my body parts from fellow congregants.
Mr. FW again escorts Littlewoods outside (did I mention it’s 6 degrees and snowing?) while I turn my attention to Kidwoods, who is systematically picking crumbs off the floor and licking them from her fingers.
- The congregation stands up and starts singing “Joy To The World.” Oh RIGHT, it is Christmas Eve and this is a song we sing at church. Kidwoods’ eyes fly open and she says, “mama can I sing too?” Of course, I say! And so she starts singing–with the fervor and volume of Ella Fitzgerald–“Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” Although, she says “Tinkle, tinkle Little Stah!!!!!” all while the good people around us struggle to maintain composure and follow along with verse 98 of “Joy To The World.” I peer over the edge of my hymnal and realize my dress is wildly amiss after the failed nursing attempt. It’s super fun to re-adjust your top in church, let me tell you what.
- The lights in the sanctuary go out. Not on accident, but as part of the magical “candlelit” part of the service. Kidwoods looses it. She does not like this newly darkened sanctuary. And so what does she do? She grabs her bag of cheerios (I was kidding about the whole organic/free-range thing, you guys) and makes a beeline for the altar. You see, Kidwoods loves our pastor, which I love, which our pastor loves, and which is wonderful. However, not so wonderful in this precise moment. Kidwoods sees our pastor up at the lectern (delivering a solemn sermon, mind you) and she wants to hug her. Kidwoods advances up the aisle and she is not slow. I hiss an instruction to retreat but she’s beyond the point of obeying verbal commands. Left with no other choice–in my fancy wrap dress, leggings, and ballet flats–I crawl after her, hoping that if I’m low enough to the ground, few people will notice because, after all, the lights are out. And if they do notice me, perhaps they’ll be impressed with the red nails that are now clawing their way up the aisle.
- I (gently) tackle a three-year-old–who is wearing what I now realize is a dress with audible, rustling tulle underneath it–adjacent to the third pew from the rear. I clap eyes on my friend (sympathetic mother of three older kids) sitting in a pew to our right and I make a Hail Mary pass at foisting Kidwoods into her lap. No dice. Kidwoods wants our pastor, no one else will do.
I get my arms around Kidwoods and she bucks in a spastic manner known only to recalcitrant toddlers and unbroken broncos everywhere. Cheerios are airborne like dust spores. People will get home and wonder who put Cheerios into the bottom of their shoes. There’s no way I can walk back this food-related devastation.
- Kidwoods and I continue our floor-bound tussle as her volume starts to escalate.
- We’re now about half-way up the aisle and I realize we’ve come to the moment of desperation. The moment every parent faces. The moment when you have no cover, no more tricks, no more pleading, no more negotiations. You just need to GTFO. ASAP.
- I haul Kidwoods off the floor and run–sprint–out the back door of the church as she rears her head back and belts a wail. Mr. FW–who’s been trying to mollify Littlewoods in the foyer of the church–wasn’t witness to our aisle floor skirmish and turns to me with wide eyes.
- “Grab the bag!” I hiss. “We have to leave NOW!”
- We run outside into the snowy night with two children wailing, a backpack spilling partially eaten food, and my ballet flats soaked with fallen snow. The service isn’t even half over.
- We wrestle both girls into their car seats in the back of the Prius and I return to the sanctuary to do a brief recon mission of our remaining detritus and Littlewoods’ shoes.
- I hand the girls the rest of their dinners; Mr. FW finds Christmas carols on the radio and–I kid you not–both kids cheerfully munch their dinners, laugh, and play the entire drive home. As if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
And that, my friends, is why we won’t be going to Christmas Eve service for the next several years. If you need me next Christmas Eve, I will be at home by the fire with my husband–after putting our kids to bed on time (or perhaps even early)–sipping a gin and tonic.
2) Let’s take a Christmas photo!
Brilliant idea, mama! We’ll sit still right here in front of the Christmas tree and both look at the camera and smile (or at least not grimace) at the exact same moment. Then we’ll rush over and hug you because you’re so great and we love you. Also your hair looks excellent.
-Said by no kid ever
I wanted a Christmassy photo of the girls SO BAD that I did the unthinkable: dressed them up and attempted to get them to smile (or again, at least not grimace/scream) at the same moment. Results were mixed. There were only two decent ones (which I used on our Christmas postcard), one of which is featured at right.
I had the hubris to write a post about how to photograph kids and pets last year and I will say that my tips proved useful, but there is no panacea for conquering the recalcitrant toddler/feisty baby combo.
After the C- level of the siblings photos, I tried to photograph them individually. I managed to get a hilarious shot of Littlewoods sticking her tiny tongue out. That, however, was the first and last photo of my individual attempts because right after I took it, Kidwoods scaled her trampoline, absconded with a breakable ornament and–wait for it–broke it. Shards of ornament skittered across the room, colliding with the sea of books and toys that comprise our interior decor.
3) Baking sugar cookies.
Apparently Kidwoods has done a lot of play-doh lately because she was a pro at rolling out the dough. She got in there with her mini rolling pin (thank you to my mother-in-law for that gadget) and rolled her heart out.
Then she cookie cutter-ed her way to cookie bliss. I let her self-direct the rolling and cutting so she ended up with six GIGANTIC cookies. These things were like two inches thick and three inches across. The satisfaction she got from doing it herself was worth me needing to scrape flour out of the interior of my shirt.
In her tower of power (which Mr. FW built last spring), Kidwoods is at counter-height and thrilled to do real, big people cooking. I’m amazed at how precise she is with the ingredients and cautious about measuring. I mean, we did take liberties with the recipe and I had to physically restrain her from eating all of the raw dough. And then, in the mode of toddlers everywhere, after 17 minutes, she was DONE with the cookie project.
So I remained in the kitchen by my lonesome (well, with a baby on my back in a carrier), toiling over cookie baking while marveling at all the places baking ingredients can sneak into when handled by a three-year-old. Don’t feel too bad for me, I was drinking egg nog with caramel vodka by this point, so all was well.
Later in the day, Kidwoods’ interest in baking reignited when she spied the green and red sprinkles. I let her go wild with the sprinkle shakers because it was Christmas and I’d had an egg nog with caramel vodka. I swear there’s a cookie under there:
4) Breakfast with Santa Claus.
This was not an unmitigated disaster. Mostly because: a) it was in the morning, b) it involved food (A LOT of food), c) Mr. FW and Littlewoods stayed home, so I had a thrilled three-year-old all to myself. I wanted to get the Santa experience because I am ardent in my love of Christmas traditions. However, given who I am and what I do for a living, I couldn’t stomach the idea of seeing Santa at a mall or store where the prompts to buy, buy, buy would be everywhere.
The perfect solution: charity fundraiser Santa! There’s a quaint, local, ye olde country inn that hosts an annual buffet breakfast with Santa as a fundraiser for the local food pantry/homeless shelter. I am SO HAPPY to pay for my child to see Santa, but I’d much prefer it be in the form of a donation than a purchase at a store. I also figured this would be a wonderful way to teach Kidwoods about giving back and helping others.
Blinded by my whimsical vision of a three-year-old grasping the concept of charity, I handed Kidwoods some cash and directed her to put it in the donation box. She glared at me, she glared at the box, and then shouted (a loud shout), “I don’t want to donate!!!” So ya know, philanthropy is apparently more of a four-year-old thing. I also tried to have her donate the baby clothes we brought for the clothing drive and that didn’t get any traction either.
The actual visit to Santa was decidedly not the highlight for Kidwoods. She was leery and encircled my hand in a death grip. Kidwoods refused to even sit NEXT to Santa, so we settled for her sitting on my lap as I sat on the floor next to Santa. I held Santa’s hand in the hopes this would show Kidwoods that he was a kindly soul, but all it did was look super weird in the photo the helper elf took… (see weirdness above).
The highlight was decidedly the breakfast, proving that Kidwoods is my daughter. She put away a serious amount of french toast and eggs. I’m pretty sure we ate for at least 45 minutes. Fine with me as they had coffee!!!! And muffins!!! And it was a buffet!!! (don’t worry, I donated more after I saw how much food my tiny child was consuming… ).
We are definitely doing this again next year and we’ll let Mr. FW and Littlewoods tag along.
5) Decreased emphasis on gifts.
This is something we decided to institute as it’s in line with our values and priorities. The cool thing about being a parent is that you get to decide how to celebrate holidays and you get to teach your kids why and how you do the things you do. Mr. FW and I are big fans of the phrase: “In our family, we do ____” and similarly: “That’s not something we do in our family.” I am not a genius and I did not come up with this phraseology; rather, I read it in my all-time favorite parenting book, Simplicity Parenting. This phrasing works SO WELL in discipline scenarios as well as with expectation setting. It’s also a super great way to end a circular conversation with a toddler about why we don’t eat oatmeal with a knife. Dear God, where do they come up with these ideas?! (that’s not swearing, I’m actually asking God this question).
Mr. FW and I don’t buy into the whole consumer Christmas concept and the idea that you need to buy a mountain of gifts for your kids (or anyone else for that matter). I outlined our full philosophy and tactics in this post, so I won’t rehash the whole thing here. What I WILL share is….
How we handled gifts this Christmas:
Kidwoods’ grandparents each sent her several gifts for Christmas (thank you, g-parents!). I also had a little stash of gifts I’d gotten as hand-me-downs or from garage sales. I initially put these lovely wrapped presents under the tree. Ten minutes later, I walked in to discover Kidwoods unwrapping them (because why not?). I explained that we wouldn’t unwrap them until Christmas. “Why not?” she demanded. “Because that’s the tradition in our family.” See? That phrase works for (almost) everything.
All was well with the gifts, or so I thought. Three minutes later, I happened past the Christmas tree again and found Kidwoods stacking the gifts on top of each other and then climbing them in order to reach the breakable ornaments, which I’d (cleverly, I thought) hung out of her (incredibly long) reach. I explained that we don’t stand on gifts and repeated the old “in our family” line, blah, blah, blah. You’ve heard of the theory “management by walking around”? This is parenting by walking around.
Two minutes later, Littlewoods scooted her way over and proceeded to chew the corners of a particularly delicious-looking package. Being a baby who is immune to logic and reason, I decided on a new family tradition: no gifts under the tree. I escorted all of the packages to the basement, where they spent the month in unmolested silence. I kind of wish I’d been able to join them there.
While I initially removed the gifts for safety/sanity reasons, I started to dig this approach for another reason: it removes (in a physical sense) the focus on GETTING stuff for Christmas.
Kidwoods forgot all about the gifts and didn’t ask us a single time what she was getting for Christmas. By physically taking them OUT of her daily sight line, it had the effect of removing the focus from STUFF. We also didn’t ask her what she wanted for Christmas. We’re her parents, we spent 8,695 hours a day with her; we already know what she wants. The goal was not to remove gifts from our Christmas tradition, but to decrease the rabid focus that our consumer culture has on PRESENTS FOR ME, ME, ME.
Then, my husband had a wildly good idea: since Kidwoods has no idea how many gifts there are, let’s mete them out one per day over the entire Christmas vacation! That’s just what we did and this approach turned out to be amazing for several reasons:
- It allows the child to focus in on the one gift they open that day. On Christmas day, Kidwoods played for hours with her new guitar (actually a Ukulele) from my parents.
- The next day, she played for hours with the tool kit my in-laws sent her. By only opening one (or two small) gifts per day, Kidwoods was able to sink into what experts call “deep play” with each new toy. She wasn’t flitting around overwhelmed by too much at once, she was figuring out these new toys and utilizing them in all manner of settings. Who knew, for example, that you could play a guitar while sliding down your indoor slide? I’ll tell you who knows this: Kidwoods.
- We also gave Littlewoods a gift (foam alphabet magnets), but only for the benefit of Kidwoods. I’m otherwise against giving gifts to infants because they have no idea. Littlewoods’ gift was intended to demonstrate to her older sister that Littlewoods is a person too and receives her own things, but that we share all of our toys.
- This made for an easy way to explain why we share our toys because Kidwoods was desperate to get her hands on Littlewoods’ magnets, which meant she immediately shoved one of her toys into Littlewoods’ lap to share.
- Littlewoods, for her part, could’ve cared less about any of these gifts because all she wanted was to do was rip, rip, riiiiiiiip the wrapping paper (and ideally eat it while we weren’t looking).
- The message of sharing seemed to sink in with Kidwoods, which is why I selected those magnets in the first place–I knew both kids would go wild for them. Although let’s be honest, siblings want ANYTHING the other one has, no matter how dumb it is. Not kidding here, I found the girls fighting over an empty oatmeal box the other day… which Kidwoods had pulled out of the recycling. Really, guys? Really?!?
This gift strategy (of not having them under the tree and doling out one per day) wasn’t something we planned in advance, but it worked so well I think we’ll carry it forward to next year!
6) Building a gingerbread house.
“Building” is a term I use loosely here. It was more of a manic rush of Kidwoods trying to consume all the icing while I tried to use that very same icing to stick the walls of the house together.
I’m going on the record: icing is NOT a viable building material. I’ll tell you what it is good at, getting stuck in: a) hair; b) clothing; c) furniture; d) floors and walls of your actual house, but not your gingerbread house. Beyond that? Icing is worthless.
But no matter, both kids dissolved in hysterical laughter as the walls of this woeful house toppled again and again and again. Mr. FW and I then discreetly disposed of said tragic house as it otherwise would fall victim to our two mini food pirates. Next year, we’re going to do either a “healthy foods gingerbread house” or a “not made of food gingerbread house” and we are using GLUE (not the edible kind) to hold the walls together. GLUE, people. You heard it here first.
7) Pancakes for breakfast on the first morning of Christmas vacation
Ok one actually was fine because Mr. Frugalwoods made the pancakes by himself while the girls and I woke up and got ready upstairs. Turns out, for optimal success in creating a gorgeous Christmas memory with a toddler and a baby? Do most of the work yourself. Mr. FW (and I) LOVE creating our own family traditions and so this year we blended in a few Christmas traditions each of us grew up along with new traditions that we thought sounded fun. Pancakes were a new one and they were a hit. Only downside? Kidwoods now asks every single day when we’ll have pancakes again for breakfast. Uh, next Christmas?
There Is No Perfect Parent Here
It is magical and wonderful and emotional to celebrate Christmas with tiny children. However, I’m uneasy with the superlatives I see used in marketing and on social media to describe this season–or any consequential “this is supposed to be fun” event with little kids. As I wrote a few months back, “the wonderful is so closely twined with the overwhelmed.” Yes, magic is there, but it is bedfellows with migraine-inducing frustration.
There’s a prompt to always love parenting. To always say that it’s the most important, most incredible job we’ll ever do. And while I do think it’s the most important job Mr. FW and I will ever do, I can’t say it’s the easiest or the most fun. It’s the most fulfilling and the most soul-gratifying, but that’s different than “fun.” These feelings are valid and they don’t mean I don’t love my kids and do my best for them. They mean I’m real. I’m a human person. With needs. Primarily for sleep and coffee.
When I talk about parenting–with my friends, here on Frugalwoods, on Instagram–I keep it real. My life is already too cluttered with expectations and insecurities. I don’t need to pretend that my children are ideal or that my experience as a parent is nonstop bliss. Because it’s not. I think we do a disservice to fellow parents when we gloss over the raw challenges because it makes other parents feel like they’re the only ones. Like they’re the only ones who have to peel their child off the floor in order to put on her boots to leave preschool (that was me last week). Like they’re the only ones who crave time away from their children in order to recalibrate and recharge (and/or eat a muffin in solitude). Like they’re the only ones who question their choices of book/toy/activity for their child. Like they’re the only ones who had to put a toy hedgehog through the dishwasher because he fell into a puddle of pee that the baby dumped out of the toddler potty (no comment).
It’s tempting to only show the fleeting, glamorous moments of parenting, such as the photo at right.
I mean how good do we look? Did you notice my nails? Please say you noticed my nails.
But you know the back story of this cookie baking fiasco episode and you know that the above photo represents a fraction of a second in what was a many-hours long endeavor. So no, I don’t just share that photo and say something like “baking cookies with my girls is a dream come true.” Because that’s not fair and that’s not honest.
Why You Should Laugh About Life With Kids
I didn’t write about parenting all that much before Littlewoods was born because I didn’t know what to say. I was drowning, frustrated, and struggling with undiagnosed postpartum depression, so yeah, I fell back on those hackneyed interpretations of what parenting is “supposed” to look like. All the while feeling worse and worse and worse that my actual life wasn’t anywhere close to the idealized version.
Well, well, well. Once I finally had my PPD diagnosed, and got into therapy and onto medication, my perspective shifted. My view of my life as a mom cracked open and I was ok with admitting that I struggle to parent in the way that I want to.
Mr. FW and I get to the end of the day and, instead of berating myself for each and every thing I should’ve done better (which is what I used to do), we just laugh. We laugh about the ridiculous things our kids do, such as Kidwoods announcing to me (in total seriousness) that, “hopscotch is very healthy for your bum and your nose.” We laugh at our frequent ineptitude as parents. We laugh at the videos we take, such as a recent rendition of Kidwoods reciting Humpty Dumpty, which seamlessly transitions into This Little Light of Mine followed by her silently waving her hands in front of her face while looking dead serious straight into the camera.
Mr. FW and I have a philosophy of never laughing at our children because in their minds, what they’re doing is serious and important. So after they go to bed, we recount the day’s antics and crack up. We laugh WITH them all the time, but laughing AT is not allowed because it diminishes the learning and growing they’re doing–they can’t help that they’re hilarious and awkward.
This levity didn’t come easily to me. It took having a second child and, most of all, it took treatment for PPD. But it’s been one of the best coping mechanisms we’ve discovered. It’s our release and our reset for the next day. It lets my husband and I emphasize what was sweet, tender, and encouraging about the day. It lets us talk through the day’s pain points without dwelling on them. I’m not in the business of offering parenting advice, because I clearly have no idea what I’m doing, but I will suggest this: try to find that levity. Make it part of your day if you can. If you have a parter or co-parent, make it a bonding moment. If you’re a solo parent, call a friend or post in a parents’ group online–they will appreciate the humor.
In conclusion: laughing about your kids after they’re in bed is highly cathartic. Also, “healthy for your bum and nose?!” Really?
How was Christmas with the kiddos in your life?
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