What’s better than an Elf on the Shelf? Traditions from the heart.

Elf on shelf closeupWhen the hugely popular Elf on the Shelf hit the, er, shelves all those years ago, my kids started bugging me to get one for our house. I was — and have remained — firm in my refusal. Hey, I have no problem with YOU having one. Go for it! It’s just…well, the rosy-cheeked critter isn’t for me.

First of all, I was slightly irritated with having this fabricated tradition thrust upon me just because a bunch of people sat around a conference table and decided one mom’s fun idea was the New Christmas must-have. I like my traditions to be, you know, traditions. (I know, I know, all traditions start somewhere, but remember I’m just talking about how I feel. You are free to have different feelings.) I also get really tired of having these fads sweep through my house that my kids demand I spend money on. (And I don’t buy into those, either. Except the Rainbow Loom. I like the Loom. It reminds me of the thousands of hours I spent in my youth weaving friendship bracelets from embroidery floss. Good times.) I am really irritated by the have to. Well, I don’t want to.

Scary Elf on the Shelf

Another reason I’ve refused the Elf entry to my house, let alone any shelf on it, is the thing kind of freaks me out. It’s some kind of weird mashup between Chuckie and that clown from Poltergeist. I see an Elf on someone’s shelf and know that at any moment it’s going to POUNCE! With a meat cleaver! (This is why I never use the bathroom at a house with an Elf.)

Elf on the shelf

That’s right. You just go to bed now…

But more than anything else, I know myself and what I can handle as a parent. I knew that I would just drop the ball when it came to clever elving after the first few days of December. I mean, the Tooth Fairy has been known to not show up until a kid has eaten his breakfast. Or not at all. Not only am I not a Pinterest mom, I can barely get permission slips signed on time, never mind moving some doll hither and yon to entertain my kids and shame them into behaving well during the holiday season. This time of year is so busy and stressful, why create more by throwing the Elf into the mix? Christmas is supposed to be fun, not a pain.

The kids were okay with it after a while. “My Mom doesn’t like the Elf,” they’d say and I’d nod. Nope, not for me.

Then last year, this weird thing happened. I have this goofy Santa decoration that I think I picked up at CVS during a January half-price sale about 12 years ago. (It’s a nice IMG_5486decoration because it’s kid-friendly — meaning, when kid knocks it on the floor, Santa won’t break. I have a lot of that kind of thing.) I put the Santa in the upstairs bathroom because the room is very small and crowded and there’s not much you can do to decorate it for Christmas. And Santa wouldn’t break on the tile floor.

One night, we had another of our Elf discussions, and the little girls were a little bummed I wasn’t giving in. (Had they spent time trying to butter me up before they asked? I think they had.) After I tucked them in, I checked on the older two, reminding them to brush their teeth before getting into bed to read. There was much whispering and giggling between them and some sort of agreement was reached. Then they ran off to the bathroom.

The next day, Ellie came running downstairs, squealing with delight. “SANTA MOVED! HE’S IN OUR ROOM!” We all had to go and see. Sure enough, goofy Santa had relocated to the little girls’ dresser.

“We have a…a…SANTA ON THE SHELF!!!!”

And there was much rejoicing. Especially by the older two, who exchange half-smiles and a subtle fist-bump.

And I spent the rest of December moving that danged thing around the house. Every. Single. Night.

And now he’s back for more. Ellie couldn’t wait to get Santa out of the box. She writes him notes every day and he writes back. (Le sigh.) She loves Santa. Except — the other night she made me take him out of her room because “he’s giving me the creeps, Mommy.” This morning, she wanted to go downstairs to see where he’d moved to, but wouldn’t go by herself. ‘Cause of the creeps. (Can’t say I blame her.)


So, Santa on the Shelf is here to stay, I guess. He’s kind of a pain, a little demanding, mildly creepy. But he’s a tradition now — our tradition.  Which is what makes it better than any store-bought Elf.

The things we do to keep the magic alive for our kids.

That’s what I remind myself when helping Santa write his daily letter to my daughter, with his special handwriting, using his special pen.

At 5:30 a.m., because Santa forgot the night before.



Holiday cards — boogers and all

For a lot of us, right now is the most wonderful time of the year — Christmas carols playing on iTunes ’round-the-clock, hours spent bedecking the house from ceiling to floor with greenery and shiny baubles, evenings passed by watching favorite holiday movies while snuggling with those you love the most.

Then it comes. The inevitable hiccup in the season, the one thing that can send you running for the adults-only egg nog faster than you can say “down with the Whos!”.

Posing the kids for the Christmas card.

It’s like herding cats, but with a lot more hissing and clawing.

First, one kid complains that another is standing too close. Then someone steps on someone else’s foot. Bunny ears are hovered over the unsuspecting first-rowers. An elbow is jabbed into the tummy of the bunny ear maker. A hair pull, a finger poke, a ripple of scowls.

Someone bursts into tears and can’t focus her camera.

Mommy retreats in search of a tissue and kids scatter.

Another holiday card effort bites the dust.

This is what happens, every year.

Possibly you are someone who doesn’t leave this to the last minute of the holiday season.  Maybe you are one of those amazing parents who is able to snap dozens of photos of your kids — all together, all smiling, all sparkly-clean with cover-model teeth and well-accessoriezed outfits — over summer vacation or while picking pumpkins or at a family gathering earlier in the year.

I am not one of those people.

My children are notoriously rebellious when it comes to getting their picture taken as a group. Oh, individually, they love it — mugging for the camera, they pose like models on a fashion shoot. I can even photograph them in pairs, and, on a good day, trios.

But all four? Together? All smiling? Fat chance.

So, every year I send out holiday photo cards with a collage of individual shots of each child, and every year I get dozens of cards featuring lovely full-family or all-children pictures.

I am jealous.

For once, I’d like to take that group picture, if not for the holiday card, then just for posterity, so when we all look back on our family photos in 20 years, we won’t think, “Gee, weren’t we ever together?”

Of course it’s not a big deal. The people on the receiving end of my holiday cards don’t give a whit about the perfection of the pose — they delight in the way the kids have grown and changed, the way each child’s individuality is increasingly evident in the contours of his or her face.  Also, thanks to Facebook and other social media, most of them have seen pictures of my kids throughout the year. A fancy new picture of them at the holidays is really redundant more than anything else.

Every year when I express my angst over the failed holiday card pose, a dear friend reminds me that the outtakes — the so-called disaster shots — are the best pictures of all. And, looking back, I know he’s right.

The failed Christmas card attempts include pictures from the beach — sand-covered kids licking dripping ice cream pops — and in front of the Christmas tree — the silly poses with eyeballs rolling, monster faces growling, tongues thrusting — and in the backyard during autumn — scarlet cheeks, runny noses, mouths howling with drooly laughter. And a thousand in between. There is not a portrait-worthy pose among them.

Still, looking through these “failed” shots, I see my children. They are messy and boogery and crafty and creative and always, always, on the move. Their insides are alight with energy and enthusiasm and they don’t have time to stand still long enough to pose for a Christmas card picture.

In these outtakes, they are alive and real. They are themselves.

And that’s what the holiday card should present to the world.  A snapshot of a moment in time, with all its failures and foibles and awkwardness and yet-to-bes and mess. Because that’s who people are, really. Each of us, a dorky work in progress.

Today I accomplished the impossible — after the usual griping and grousing and tantruming, I managed to take a very nice picture of four rosy-cheeked children in winter fleeces, set against a backdrop of bare trees and pre-snow winterland. If you’re on my mailing list, you’ll get your own copy.

I’m glad to have a nice picture to hang on my wall. If only as evidence that, you know, my kids were sometimes tidy and well behaved. With sparkly white teeth and all of that.

Because Moms like that sort of thing, from time to time.

Ah, but the outtakes from today were hard to say no to. Joanna’s growly, grumpy face in the first few shots. Mitzi’s pre-teen meltdown evidenced by puffy, red-rimmed eyes.  Ellie’s glittery-eyed, gap-toothed shouting of the words “Merry Christmas”, followed by an off-camera, surprisingly strong right jab to her sister’s side after a snide comment. Cooper’s head-shaking, shoulder-shrugging resign in the face of sisterly drama.

This is who they are — who we are — right now, December 2011.  Sometimes perfectly in place, sometimes not.

Kind of just like the rest of humanity.

Which is also kind of the message of the holiday season we are in the midst of celebrating — how we love each other not despite the flaws, but because of them. Cherishing each other for the totally perfect imperfect selves we are, always on our way to being something better, ever improving.

We send holiday cards to share the love we feel for others, born from the love we feel for ourselves.

Boogers and all.

Sunday Gravy

There is no better food in the world than Sunday gravy.

Before I tell you why, let me clear up a few things.  There’s a lot of debate about what to call tomatoes cooked to serve over pasta.  Is it sauce?  Gravy?  Something else?  I won’t tell you that you’re right or wrong, whatever you think, but in my world here’s how it breaks down:  Tomatoes cooked with Italian spices and served over pasta is marinara (I think adding “sauce” to “marinara” is just redundant).  When you add meatballs, sausage and a stick of pepperoni, that’s gravy.  There are, of course, plenty of sauces — clam sauce (white or red), cream sauce (any variety), and many others.

But gravy is what we had on Sundays.  And, apropos of the day, it was heavenly.

For many people, Sunday was — and is — family day.  Playtime with friends is limited, which is to say your backyard is where you play with your friends who had different schedules.   In some areas, Sunday is a visiting day, though when I was young my extended family lived too far away for a day trip.

Sunday gravy.  I don’t know when Mom made her meatballs, only that they were made in advance, as she is a proponent of chilling them before cooking (this helps them to not fall apart when frying).  On Sundays, we’d wake to the glorious smell of frying meat, the air thick with garlic and onions and basil.  We’d all head off to Sunday school and mass, and when we came home around noon, a thick gravy was already simmering.  I don’t know how she did it, since she also taught Sunday school classes and drove us around.  Another of Mom’s brand of magic.

The gravy needed to be ready because our Italian family’s tradition was to have a midday dinner, around 2 or 3 o’clock.  I guess we had a light supper or snack later before bed — I remember a lot of PB&J crackers while watching the Disney movie that showed weekly at 7 p.m. — but gravy was the main meal every Sunday.

After putting on play clothes, you’d wander through the kitchen as much as possible, eyeing the heavy pot.   Whenever you dared, you’d grab a slice of bread (white, not wheat in those days, and this makes a huge difference in taste), slather on some gravy, and dig in.  Mostly, Mom would yell that it wasn’t ready yet, but it was.  Gravy bread is unparalleled in its deliciousness.  Sweet and spicy, and on a lucky occasion with a few pieces of meatball…you’d try to wait for it to cool but that was too hard.  Who cared about burning your tongue, anyway?

When Mom put the water up to boil, Dad would get the unwieldy cheese grater out.  This mammoth device clamped to the side of the countertop, reassembled with every use.  A block of parmesan was cut and a lucky kid got to crank the handle.  Said lucky kid also got to snack on the sharp, pungent cheese while doing the job.

The six of us gathered for dinner, possibly with a good friend, or, later, the lucky boyfriend or girlfriend who had achieved that special level of acceptance (everyone was welcome for Friday night pizza, but only a chosen few made the cut on Sundays).  Thick, fresh bread and an amazing salad rounded out the meal.  Dad served us heaping portions — and when it came time, offered seconds, which we called a “Grandpa spoonful”, which was a heaping ladle of macaroni, far more than you could ever eat, but Grandpa and Dad seemed to agree that all of us needed to be fattened up.  Have another meatball!  More sausage?

Another pause.  We called it macaroni.  I still do, though most of the world refers to it as “pasta,” something I’m still getting used to.

This meal a tradition that I am trying to continue.  Ray and the kids love my cooking, though I am partial to my mother’s gravy and meatballs.  I leave out the pepperoni, though, as it gives me agita (which you know as heartburn).  My brother Stephen also cooks a gravy on Sundays.  Harry and his family do from time to time.  Michelle joins in.   

The kids help me make meatballs and they wander through the kitchen, sniffing eagerly as the gravy simmers.  We crowd around the tiny kitchen table, bumping elbows and knees, and dig in.  Family time over Sunday gravy.

Gravy.  “Sauce” is far too ordinary for this kind of meal.