The problems started when I tried to make Martha Stewart’s bûche de Noël. Perhaps I was feeling like a sloth in the holiday-preparation department, as all around me families were up to their ears in decoupage and glue guns, stringing the tree with organic popcorn and fashioning dazzling ornaments out of bottle caps and leftover scraps of felt. How hard could it be, this bûche de Noël?
After a day in the kitchen, wrestling with wet tea towels, an armada of pans and enough eggs to feed the Russian army, I collapsed in exhaustion. My bûche de Noël, which I was now calling an [expletive deleted] de Noël, did not resemble a classic French holiday dessert so much as the kind of brown deposit a large mammal leaves behind on the forest floor. And I hadn’t even got to the meringue mushrooms.
Last year, recognizing that I will never live in a house where there is such a thing as “leftover scraps of felt,” I kept the domestic chores to a minimum. I bought a prefab gingerbread house that you glue together with icing in order to satisfy yourself that you are not, in fact, the most indolent, Grinchy mother on the planet. By the time we were ready to eat the thing, it had hardened to such a kryptonite consistency that we had to smash it apart with a hammer.
Actually, I highly recommend the act of smashing something with a hammer as the climax to a holiday dinner. At that point, you’re so fed up with everything you’ve had to make – and the insane demands you’ve placed on yourself over the past month – that a spot of destruction is just the thing to calm frazzled nerves. If I’ve learned anything from my time on the planet, it’s this: There’s room for only one martyr at Christmas – and it isn’t you.
Yet I am clearly in a minority: Most people do not view the making of seasonal crafts as a terrible blight on their lives, an incursion into the time when they might be watching Mad Men and drinking brandy. How else to explain the proliferation of websites, magazines and books devoted to creating the most celestial holiday ever? Why else would people spend their time making pasta menorahs and handcrafted Advent calendars, which require that you glue together 24 paper stockings? Do they not know you can buy an Advent calendar stuffed with waxy chocolate at Shoppers Drug Mart? Or that a menorah made of pasta is a bit of a fire hazard?
I recently found myself alone with a pile of magazines published five decades ago – and it was an eye-opener. Some things have certainly changed. You would not, for instance, buy your lovely wife a bathroom scale for Christmas, as an ad in Ladies’ Home Journal recommended in December 1961. (“It tells you the moment you gain or lose a single pound!”) You might not buy your husband a Vise-Grip on the grounds that “It’s the favourite man’s gift!” And if your festivities include a yule log, it will likely come from Martha Stewart’s magazine and involve Belgian chocolate, not the devilled ham, cream cheese and pimento in the Frosty Yule Log abomination featured in LHJ.
Beyond such quirks, though, it’s surprising how much has stayed the same, despite the rise of labour-saving devices and feminism. In 1961, a woman was encouraged to make a smoking-jacket robe for her husband to wear Christmas morning; today, she’s encouraged to make holiday side plates featuring photographs of her children’s faces (this is an actual project I found in an actual magazine – and not in hell’s waiting room, either).
In 1961, women were expected to make Star of Bethlehem crackers, in which a slice of American cheese is carefully cut into the shape of the biblical heavenly body and placed on a Triscuit; now, Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop recommends that your holiday purchases include a wooden cutting board engraved with your children’s names (in case you forget them, presumably). In those days, it was ballotine de dinde; aujourd’hui, it’s turkey osso bucco, but the labour’s the same.
Should you ever find a moment during the holidays to flop down, exhausted, between the mountains of glitter glue and festively dyed quinoa, don’t even think about relaxing: As Goop suggested a few years ago, you should instead be reading Dr. Wayne W. Dyer’s self-help manual Excuses Begone! “when you have a moment to yourself (on a plane, on a walk, while cleaning up).” Or, I might add, “while sobbing yourself into a coma behind a locked bathroom door.”
This year, I intend to avoid the holiday guilt trap by treating the whole season as a party, a time to actually talk to the people I love, instead of barking “hey there” as I whiz between dishwasher and stove. This year, I’m going to pour myself a brandy, put on Christmas Eve at Home with Joan Crawford and Her Children (available on YouTube) and crack my favourite guide to a good time, Andy Warhol’s Party Book. As Andy, in his infinite wisdom, says, “True parties and true love are similar. With true love, you get nothing out of it but love, and with true parties you get nothing out of them but fun.”
That’s my holiday wish: May you have all the fun you can handle – and none of the mess.