There was a time when I would host 25-plus people and felt like everything had to be perfect. I had to use the car like a cooler because there was no room in the fridge, and by Christmas morning I’d end up feeling completely fried.
Since then, I’ve been reinventing the holiday based on what’s important to me, and these are a few other things I’ve learned along the way in pursuit of a better, brighter, and totally stress-free holiday season:
1. Mix it up! Be open to new traditions. My favorite Thanksgiving was all women —my daughter, friends, and their daughters— three generations of mothers and daughters. We didn’t plan it that way, but even then we recognized that it would probably never happen again our Lilith Faire Thanksgiving. It was so relaxed. Recognizing that every holiday is different helps me stay in the moment.
2. Spend time with people and animals you love—they don’t have to be family. One of the fun things about spending the holidays with friends is that you get exposed to their traditions.
3. Spend $39 on a counter-top oven and $10 on a pair of onion goggles. I’m serious. The big challenge with a holiday meal is oven space. You have to keep all the sides warm and figure out what’s going in when. I don’t have double ovens, but I spent $39 on a countertop oven and it’s genius on holidays. It lives in the cellar the rest of the year, but it heats up quickly and you can use it to cook anything. I could cook a turkey in there. It totally eliminates the need for double ovens. As for the onion goggles, I use mine all the time. No more tears!
4. Set the table, like, days before. I love to set a beautiful table, so I allow myself the time to do that – and I get lots of inspiration on walks with the dogs. Mother Nature is the best designer – read my tips for foraged centerpieces here.
I also lay out all my platters and serving pieces in advance, and each one is labeled with a sticky note as to what it’s for. That way, people can help with set-up and serving.
5. Allow yourself the time to look forward to the holiday. I care about the food and enjoy the alchemy of it all: reading recipes, thinking about which dishes will go well with others. I like to ruminate on the menu, and I’ll ask all my food and garden friends about what they have planned. My new favorite dish is butternut squash tossed with cranberries, panko, garlic, and thyme.
6. Experiment – in advance. One year I was watching Julia Child use a cleaver to de-bone a turkey before filling it with stuffing. She made it look so easy! So I bought a cleaver and tried myself – on Thanksgiving. Whack, after whack—it was impossible. This was before YouTube tutorials, and it was unspeakably messy. There was turkey on the ceiling! It tasted good, but it looked… So, needless to say, it’s probably better to do a dry run.
7. Check off your list with a single gift bought in multiples. This year everyone’s getting yoga mats. Some years I give everyone robes. If you find the right thing and it’s nice, why not simplify the process?
8. Figure out what lights you up and let everything else go. Yes, I want to make really yummy food, but sometimes the Béarnaise fails. The important thing, for me, is sitting down, holding hands, and talking about what we’re thankful for. That’s what truly matters.