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Stripping Down The Holidays

Early December rolls around and the enormity of both holiday expectations and the accompanying to-do list descends like the darkness shortening our winter days.

Christmas is right around the corner: presents must be purchased in person and online, even made by hand, if you’re a far more talented and craftier type than me. Celebratory menus require planning, special ingredients hunted down, Christmas cookies baked and other favourite treats made.

Holiday cards need to be sent, wrapping paper and tapered candle stockpiles refreshed, wreaths hung and a mid-sized tree redolent in freshly cut pine scent selected and trundled home.Let’s not forget the four plastic bins of festive fairy lights, chains of gold beads and stars, dozens of ornaments collected over a lifetime – along with the weight of their accompanying memories – plus the holly-shaped candy dish, wreath hangers of more recent vintage, and myriad holiday decorations that must be hauled out of storage and deposited in the living room to await the arrival of the aforementioned aromatic tree.

Did the painted sand dollar ornament from South Carolina, nestled in protective bubble wrap, survive the off season? What about the set of white boxes with decorative gold trim picked up in a Christmas market in Paris, the hand-painted eggs from Prague, or the set of colourful Murano glass icicles my husband stumbled upon in Venice when the kids were younger?

Discussion begins in earnest as to which tree topper to go with this year: traditional angel in flowing white garb or the majestic modern gold star that joined the ornament menagerie a few years back? Each has its proponents, despite my wish for familial unanimity.

Speaking of menageries, has anyone seen the box containing the Nativity crèche, and did we ever find the missing donkey always placed to the left of Mary and baby Jesus in the manger? It’s bad enough one of the Wise Men – my favourite, dressed in purple robes and purportedly bearing frankincense – lost his right arm when a beloved pet’s tail knocked it to the floor a decade ago.

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Unwrapping the ornaments unleashes a lifetime of powerful memories of not merely where we were when we acquired them but who we were at the time. The ages and stages of every family member contributed to a slightly different vision of our holiday wishes for each Christmas season, a reflection of what we hoped and dreamed and aspired to.

So many tasks, so much to do, so little time. No wonder it usually sends me into a panic.
Except, of course, when you aren’t in a position to do most of the aforementioned activities.

This year is different.

Instead of celebrating our fourth Christmas cosily ensconced in our Dutch rijtjeshuis in The Netherlands, we will be back in the US for the holidays. Weaving our way among myriad individual needs and broader family responsibilities, our nuclear family will be together for a few days by ourselves. Our daughter and I will be joined first by our son once university exams are completed; my husband follows a few days later.

We understand and accept the need for change this year, but it feels a bit jarring nonetheless. For the past two decades we have always spent Christmas at home. Precisely where ‘home’ was has changed several times over the years, but we’ve always been there and we’ve always been together.

Keeping in mind the need to remain mobile while staying within baggage limits, and without the benefit of the aforementioned treasure trove of ornamental finery, this year we will put together a far more streamlined holiday than ever before.

We’ll be stripping Christmas down to its bare essence, employing creativity and a seasoned bargain hunter’s eye to identify those precious few items which, when put together, add up for us to Yuletide spirit.

I don’t know what all this will entail, but I sense at least a miniature tree, a couple strings of inexpensive lights, a box or two of tiny ornaments scored on sale, a few candles and freshly cut pine boughs in my future.

Gifts will be exchanged, but they will be smaller, lighter and fewer than usual. We’ll figure out how to make several must-have dishes in a far less outfitted kitchen, and find some new recipes to incorporate into the mix.

It will seem different, look different, feel different.

It is different. But as long as we’re together, it doesn’t matter. And that’s in keeping with the real ‘reason for the season’.

A writer and American expat living in the Netherlands with her husband and two teens, Linda pens articles on expat life and blogs at Adventures in Expat Land sharing the good, the less good and the just plain odd with a twist. She is also a co-author of the recent bestseller Turning Points: 25 Inspiring Stories from Women Entrepreneurs.

You may also follow Linda’s adventures on Twitter @in_expatland.

Read Linda's other Expat Focus articles here.

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