The tree is glowing. The table is set. Amy Grant's "A Christmas Album" is playing in the background. The smell of warm apple pie and molasses cookies drifts through the house with such purpose you can almost hear it whispering, "It's Christmas!"
In the Conlin household, Christmas has always been our favorite time of year. For us, Christmas isn't just a day. It's an entire season, beginning the second Thanksgiving is over and ending a few days into the New Year. Our love for the holiday has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Some of the very best memories of my entire life took place in the jolly season between November and January: Decorating the tree with my mom as a little girl; Marathon shopping days with my mom and grandmother at the mall, a yearly tradition that I associated with pride that I was the one they trusted to keep all the gifts a secret from "the boys"; And Christmas Eve, staying up as late as I could with my older brother, Justin, fighting to keep our eyes open and straining to hear the slightest sound coming from the living room, wishing with all our might to hear Santa come down the Chimney and leave surprises for us under the tree. To many people, Christmas is associated with presents, huge crowds, and the stress of finding the right gift for the ever-expanding list of people we feel we just have to buy for. To me, it was never about the presents. Sure, as a kid, I loved that part. Who didn't? But my memories of Christmas Time aren't centered around the toys I received. When I think of Christmas, my memories flood my mind and transport me to another time. A time when the whole family is together, laughing loudly, soaking in every moment of our time together because, let's face it, getting the whole family together is a rarity as you grow older. Christmas is a time for putting the world aside and focusing on what is in front of you. It is a time to reflect on all you have to be thankful for. It's a time for family.
For us, a lot of our Christmas season is spent in the kitchen. Helpers come and go throughout the day but the kitchen has become my domain. Somewhere along the line, I became the cook of the family and have magically taken over the role of planning our holiday meals and making them come together. My mom and I spend hours together in the kitchen baking and cooking. When my nieces are in town, they are right there beside us, asking what they can do to help, and taking their roles as sous-chefs quite seriously. I think they get it from me.
A Christmas tradition for us has always been a lasagna dinner. This recipe was passed down from my grandmother to my mom and then to me. It takes days to prepare - cooking the homemade sauce and making the luscious ricotta filling the day before so all of the flavors can marry and bloom. The smell of homemade spaghetti sauce fills the house as it cooks for hours and hours in the crock pot. I can remember walking in the door after school and knowing immediately that mom had been cooking spaghetti sauce all day. Justin and I would fight over who would get to lift the crock pot lid and soak in the first smell of bubbling sauce, and more importantly, who would get the honor of the first dip of bread into the steaming pot of deliciousness. Mom's lasagna was such a special treat, we usually only ate it once or twice a year: one of those times being Christmas.
What is Christmas without some traditional holiday desserts? Apple pie and molasses cookies are our family go-to's. If one of these items doesn't make it's way to the Christmas dessert spread, you can be sure there will be some moaning and groaning coming from someone. The apple pie is my specialty - another tradition passed down from my grandmother. I remember sitting at the dining room table together, peeling apples and talking about life. She would always opt for a knife over a peeler. She could peel an entire apple with a pairing knife - one, single, swirly strand of skin falling to the table when she was done. (I know you've seen Sleepless in Seattle - I swear Meg Ryan learned how to peel an apple from my grandmother. I can't ever watch that movie without thinking of her.)
In our house, a Christmas meal wasn't complete without a beautifully decorated table. I was raised by an event planner, after all. This was a task I was always able to help with - even when I was too little to help with a lot of the cooking. I was taught how to set a table properly and helped my mom gather flowers and plants from our yard to create a centerpiece for the table. She has always had the green thumb out of the two of us. I try, but it just comes so naturally to her. Every year, I continue to be amazed by the tablescapes she puts together with nothing but what she has in the house and in her yard.
This year I will celebrate my 29th Christmas. The holidays certainly do change as you get older and they can easily lose their magic. We begin to feel the stress of the holidays more than the joy. It's easy to get bogged down by the craziness that surrounds the holidays, but it continues to be my favorite time of year. It may take more effort now that I'm older to take the time away from work and be fully present with my family, but as you get older you realize how incredibly important that is. My husband laughs at me and says I act like a kid around the holidays. I get giddy over Christmas decorations, squeal over cheesy holiday coffee mugs, and still love to drive around to see neighborhoods glowing with twinkly lights, sipping a cup of hot chocolate as I take in the beauty. That happiness is a choice I make. It's allowing myself to live in the moment - and often in the past, as well. It's putting aside the stresses of every day life and allowing the spirit of the season to completely surround me and carry me back to a time when life was simple and family wasn't so far away. It's knowing that at least once a year I will get to see my brothers and their kids all together in one house, and we will continue to pass down the traditions we were taught as children. To me, Christmas truly is, the most wonderful and magical time of the year.
From our family to yours, we wish you all a very Merry Christmas!