“Tis the Season – Keeping it Real” (photo by Veronica Sherman)
Christmas can be a stressful time of the year. There’s the pressure of finding the perfect presents for everyone, the house has to look neat and Christmassy because the relatives coming, there’s work parties and school breakups and swimming parties and graduations and BBQs and family get-togethers and Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Years to prepare for… And if you have special dietary needs in the family, things only gets crazier because you also have HEAPS of cooking to do so your family can enjoy special treats like everyone else!!
Does it really have to be this way? So crazy and stressful?
Christmas really should be a time to relax, reflect, slow down, have fun, and take a step back from the craziness of the year. Ok, sometimes I have to work right up to Christmas (like this year – that’s what happens when your cookbook goes to print in January!), and yes I do have to cook for special diets… but we still manage to have a relaxing Christmas Day and Boxing Day, and the few days til New Years’ are super chilled. I love it.
We don’t go crazy with the decorating or hosting Christmas parties, and my Christmas cooking is pretty simple (we share the cooking amongst family and friends). It’s too hot in Far North Queensland at Christmas time to fuss too much – we’d rather go swimming. And I grew up with the idea that the happiest Christmases are those spent with loved ones, making awesome memories, and is not dependant on what is under the Christmas tree.
Our favourite pastime during the Christmas holidays – swimming at the lake!
Some of my happiest memories of Christmas from my childhood are:
- The year we packed our old station wagon with presents and food and drove up to Cape Tribulation on rough dirt roads for a beach holiday Christmas. The presents were covered in dust from the road (and so were we) by the time we got there, but we loved the adventure! We couldn’t swim at the beach because of the crocodiles and stingers, there was no air conditioning, but we still had fun. Just our family, no one else.
- Spending Christmas day with the family at our favourite swimming spots – rivers and creeks where there were big rocks to jump off, rope swings, rapids to float down, and no one else around. We’d stick the drinks in the sand in the edge of the water to keep cool, have sandwiches and summer fruits for lunch, snack on treats from our Christmas stockings, and play and swim all day.
- Christmas lunches at home, with anyone invited that needed a family for the day and a good feed. (Dad had a tendency to pick up hitchhikers and homeless people and bring them home, so we met lots of interesting people!)
- Mum’s amazing homemade peach ice cream, which we’d all take turns churning in an old wooden churn every Christmas for years! I still think that was the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted.
Cooking with my mum and sister
As we got older and started our own families, my favourite part of Christmas became getting the family all back together again at Grandma’s house, and cooking in the kitchen with my mum and sisters. There’s nothing better than a kitchen crowded with family – cooking, laughing and telling stories; the kids running in and out, playing cricket and having water fights outside.
Think back to your favourite Christmases. What made them so special? Lots of expensive presents, perfect table settings, fancy decorations and gourmet dinners? Probably not. It was more likely the fun of catching up with friends and family you rarely saw; twinkling lights; favourite dishes your mum or dad or Grandparents made; a noisy, happy family meal with lots of silliness; camping trips and swimming (if you’re in Australia!)… things like that. Good memories are made by being with the people you love. It doesn’t have to be fancy.
I asked on my Facebook page for your tips to make Christmas stress-free and simple, so here’s some ideas along with my own best tips!
- Prepare ahead. I spread the baking and gift making over a few weeks if possible, and get the kids involved so it’s not a last minute rush. Lots of things can be made ahead and frozen (especially desserts and baking). And one reader suggested that if you have a canapé/grazing style Christmas meal of cold meats, veggies, fruits and cheeses, most of it can be prepared a couple of days before! That way you just have to get it all out of the fridge and onto platters on the day. Ideas: Pork & pistachio terrine, smoked salmon, crackers, pate, meatballs, ham or other roast meats, cheeses, fruit, pies, jellies, olives, veggies sticks.
- Share the work. If you’re having a big family lunch, get everyone to bring something to contribute to the meal. The host can cook the ham/turkey/main dish and veggies, and everyone else can bring snacks, drinks, sides, salads and desserts. This is how we do our family Christmas dinners – there’s too many of us for one person to do all the work, and besides, we all enjoy pitching in!
- Keep it simple. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen, keep it simple and special by having a favourite family meal served up on a beautiful big platter, with a couple of platters of finger foods alongside (as above). It will look lovely and you’ll know the kids will eat it!
- Only make as much food as you need. Small children often don’t eat a lot, so a big buffet of fancy food may be wasteful. One reader said they choose simple foods like a nice ham, some prawns and a couple of simple salads so they don’t end up with lots of leftovers, and they spend the rest of the time with the kids rather than in the kitchen sweating it out.
- Write out a timeline. If you are hosting and cooking, write down a timeline of when everything has to go in and out of the oven, and work backwards from serving time. This is also a great idea if you have a long list of baking you want to do for gifts, as well as Christmas cooking – write out your list, then divide everything into the days you have left.
- Begin early if cooking a roast turkey. As mentioned above, you need to have your timeline in mind when cooking a roast turkey as they take hours to cook! Many people cook them in a very slow oven overnight, well covered, so that they are moist and soft the next day for Christmas lunch. Or you can have the turkey stuffed and ready in the fridge, and get up early and get it into the oven before the present opening begins. (If you have kids, it’s sure to be an early morning!) See my recipe for a Christmas turkey with grain free stuffing here.
My mum carving up the roast turkey. A big platter with plenty of roast veggies looks amazing!
- Simplify family gifts by buying one each. This idea is great if there’s lots of family members to buy for – everyone draws a name out of a hat, and buys a gift for that person. That way you can afford to buy something a bit more special. A reader commented that they also have a secret Santa gift swap in their family, where the gifts must come from an op shop or charity, or be a gift to a charity.
- Make a gift list and stick to your budget. If you’re going to buy a few gifts, plan what you are buying before going to the shops. You can use an app to track the gifts and to help stay within your budget. Some apps will also record your budget and track if you are over or under. If you can’t think of anything, use the classic gift guide, “something they want, something they need, something to wear, something to read”.
- Stay away from major shopping centres. Shop local at smaller shops and markets; focus on meaningful gifts that will be different and special; instead of the usual chocolates and junk food, spend money instead on quality local produce!
- Buy one large family present instead of lots of small ones. A swing set, pool or trampoline; a family pet; a holiday… these are all great ideas for a large family present! One reader says, “A few years ago we decided we needed to change our outdoor dining (entertaining) table. Instead of buying each other Christmas presents we all put in to get our family home a nice table. Used it often for get-together parties and Christmas every year. Best present ever.”
A gift from friends this year – freshly picked produce from their organic garden, free range eggs, home dried fruit and herbs, and homemade herb salt. So special.
- Don’t get caught up in the frenzy of ‘stuff’. Share the holidays with people you love and don’t over plan. Allow space for spontaneity to spread its magic.
- Don’t be afraid to say ‘no’. One reader says, “The last two years we have politely been saying ‘no thanks’ to most of the thousands of pre-Christmas events and catch ups that arise at this time of year. This has left us with so much more time and energy to do the things we want to do, and so much more energy for cooking!!”
- Relax together. Have a special buffet breakfast, then pack a lunch and spend the day at the beach or lake and truly relax.
- Have a picnic somewhere beautiful. (The lounge room if it rains!) Walk the dog. Play together. Have dessert for dinner. Spread the food most would have on one day over the entire Christmas period, and savour each dish.
- Make lunch the big thing. Place emphasis on the family being together for lunch and not on presents. After lunch, Skype any family that couldn’t be there.
- Gather the gold moments. Slow down and really see the beauty around you. Take a deep breath, relax, and watch things unfold. Let the time together be a gift to you. Lower expectations then lower them again. As one reader says, “I want my kids to remember a laughing joyful mum, not a stressed mum putting a complex meal on the table then being too tired to enjoy them afterwards.”
I wish you all a happy, relaxed, holiday season, and I hope this Christmas will always be looked back on as a beautiful one for your family.