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by Julia Sneden

Oh dear. I have once again blown last year’s resolve to approach the holidays in a calm, well-organized fashion. At my age, it should be getting easier to figure out how to navigate the season with equanimity, but somehow things always spiral out of control.

Like many families in these benighted economic times, we and our sons have agreed to scale back on holiday excesses. But for a grandparent, that is easier said than done. It’s simple to send off for the expensive, fancy doll, or to order a new and well-advertised video game via the Internet, or to hand a teenager a hefty gift card for Target. What’s harder is actually going out to shop: that takes physical stamina of a kind that arthritic hips and knees don’t like.

In theory, one could sit down and turn out something charming and handmade, but of course that needed to be begun weeks and weeks ago. It also takes planning and know-how, never mind a shopping trip for the materials.

I was all for the idea of scaling back, but carrying that out has been a bit more difficult, and as Christmas grows closer, I find myself struggling hard to control my panic. Oh, we’ll look Christmas-y all right. My husband and I have accumulated 43 years’ worth of Christmas décor, so making the house look cheery is a snap. However, hauling out decorations, dusting them off, and setting them up took a couple of days when no present-gathering could take place, and those presents continue to worry me. Would a tree with a pitiful pile beneath it be a letdown for the youngsters?

If I were a good seamstress, I would just have dived in early and made dresses for the girls, but my granddaughters are well-past the forgiving age when wobbly seams and uneven trim were not noticed on their toddler clothes — and besides, who can outguess a teenager’s tastes? My grandson is into sports, all and every sport known to man or boy, which means that he already has just about all the athletic equipment he needs.

But — wait a minute! What do I do when I run out of dinner fixings? I heat up a batch of leftovers. Perhaps it’s time to dig out a few leftovers of a different stripe.

My oldest granddaughter is in college. I could pass on a gold bracelet I dearly love but no longer wear. And her younger sister loves to cook. Maybe I’ll find time to copy recipes for some of the things I cook that I know she likes, and make a little book of them. And the grandson has a voracious appetite for ginger cookies: he might like his own small tin of them. That reminds me that I can give a gardening friend a piece of errant ginger root that’s starting to shrivel in my vegetable drawer, along with instructions on how to sprout it (Lay it flat on the surface of soil in a flower pot, and bury it only partially, so that the surface is exposed. Set the pot and its saucer on a heating pad or atop a radiator until the root shows signs of life. That takes a few weeks, but once the shoots appear, you can turn off the bottom heat and enjoy the plant).

My daughters-in-law are easy: it’s time to pass along some nice (but definitely not spectacular) pieces of jewelry and china. “Spectacular,” alas, belongs to some other family.

Finding presents for my sons is harder, although I think I finally dug out some family items of interest. There is a leather “writing desk” (more like a small portfolio) that their great great grandfather was given when he was in the Wisconsin State Legislature in the 1860’s, along with a note explaining that the he was a Democrat who sat in an aisle seat directly opposite his younger brother, a Republican who was also a Wisconsin State Senator...this, just in case the boys think that bi-partisanship is a new concept.

There is also a thick volume about the legal woes of great-grand uncle Otto, who was tried (and acquitted) for improprieties during his term as Insurance Commissioner of the State of New York. Along with it goes a picture of the man himself, standing next to Teddy Roosevelt, who was said to have stated: “Otto Kelsey is the only man I really trust.”

And there’s also a small, leather box that holds the same great great grandfather’s gold-nibbed straight pen, again, part of a state senator’s equipment in the mid-nineteenth century.

It’s a good thing my grandmother and mother never threw anything away. Maybe they believed in leftovers, too.

My husband is the real puzzler. I cannot understand why finding a gift for him, the person I know best in the world, is an annual anxiety. Now that Pendleton no longer makes the “Topster” jackets that were his signature garment for years, I am stumped. The best I can come up with is a solemn promise to put the photos of our grandchildren into a photo album — something I’ve put off for more than a decade — and a jar of green tomato pickles that I put up on the sly last summer. They’re his favorites. Oh, and I will splurge on a copy of the new book entitled The Man Who Invented Christmas, about Dickens’ writing of A Christmas Carol.

So instead of over-indulging ourselves this year, we will pass along homemade things and/or family items that have interesting histories, and a book or two (gifts of books are sacrosanct at Christmas). We will also make donations to local organizations that feed the hungry, and fill some of the stockings that the local mall sets out for needy children, hoping that what is a small sacrifice for us will be a blessing to others.

But still, even with simplifying things, there is no question that I will find myself gasping in the coming days. Just getting the cards out and the dinner planned has been enough challenge for my holiday-panicked brain.

I tell myself that it won’t matter if things don’t go smoothly because they never, ever do. Somehow, no matter what, the dinner always gets to the table, and the children seem happy, and we’re all together around the Christmas tree in the living room.

I just wish there were a way to get to that point without all this angst!

©2008 Julia Sneden for



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