Surviving the Holidays: Celebrating the season with Lillie Suburban employees

Much of what can make the holiday season so great can make it really tough, too. It’s a busy time full of planning, lists, food, family, deadlines for the post office and anticipation of what’s to come. The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas — maybe it pushes out to New Year’s Day is a sparkling prelude to the dreary drudgery of High Winter. We pack our hopes into the holiday season, but the stresses are real.

With all that in mind, the Lillie Suburban Newspapers editorial staff, along with some familiar contributors, wrote about “Surviving the holidays.” Each vignette touches on a handful of through-lines — the food, the shopping, the poorly timed illnesses and getting together — perhaps shedding light on how to get through these hopeful holiday times.


 

Famous last words — Mike Munzenrider

With little left to prove in life — we’d navigated purchasing a home, getting married and having a child, in that order — my wife and I took on another daunting task. 

About a year ago we said we’d host Thanksgiving for my side of the family. 

For various reasons, in the near decade Amelia and I have been together, Thanksgiving had always been reliably predictable.

If we were to be in the Twin Cities — an Amelia year — it meant attending two celebrations, always capped with a beef tenderloin and crazy corn dinner at her aunt’s place in the Prospect Park neighborhood of Minneapolis.

For Munzenrider years, we packed our bags for Thanksgiving and headed to Arizona, where my dad had taken to riding out his retirement years in the warmth of the desert.

Children, first our nephew, and then our daughter, changed the rotating holiday dynamics, and so as Christmas for the first time in Kentucky wrapped up at my sister’s home, Amelia and I threw our hat in the ring for Thanksgiving in Minnesota.

For the unaware: hosting a holiday is stressful. 

And so for the better part of the three months prior to this November, Amelia and I had running conversations after the kid was put to bed about what to cook, how to navigate family dynamics and all the other intangibles that come with the time of cheer.

By the time we’d alighted on a plan — turkey and a beef tenderloin, Amelia’s dad brings Cajun corn bread stuffing, etc. — made the guest bedroom habitable and even done all the shopping, Amelia uttered the magic words.

“I’m excited for Thanksgiving.”

It was Wednesday morning, T-1, when it became very apparent Amelia had been brought low by what we’d later figure out was the norovirus. 

For the lucky and unaware: norovirus is a devastating stomach bug I’d wish on no one.

Incoming family members were left to Uber from the airport as I headed to the newsroom to assemble newspapers. Amelia slept.

My sister, her mettle proven by Xmas 2016, leaped into action and spared us major holiday disruptions by taking the lead on preparations — she proved indispensable when it came time to pick up our daughter from daycare when she became sick, too.

We survived Thursday, Thanksgiving, with no more signs of viral infection and relative health for those who’d been struck down, but come Friday morning my stepmother was sick. 

By Friday night it was my turn, rushing home from a Timberwolves basketball game in the nick of time, bed-ridden for the next 16 hours.

I emerged Saturday afternoon still gun-shy, stomach-wise, but knowing I’d already suffered the worst of the virus.

My daughter, sick and also tired of all the intruders in our home, had timed out on the holiday and demanded snuggling. I obliged.


 

Slow down, don’t stress — Marjorie Otto

I’ve never liked the term “surviving the holidays.” 

I’ve tried to pin down why it bothers me and I think it’s because it’s never been an accurate description of how I feel about my holiday experience. 

I enjoy the time spent with my family, which, from eavesdropping on conversations at local eateries and elsewhere the past few days, seems to be the exception, not the norm. I also acknowledge that many families do not have situations that lead to this enjoyment, and that for some the holidays can be a lonely or sad time. 

However, I think the other thing that bothers me about the term “surviving the holidays” is that the madness of the holidays is something we created, through our rush-rush mentality and the value we put on material things. 

We rush trying to travel, we stress about the obligation of giving a gift, we just don’t make the holidays intentional enough. We don’t value the stories and time spent with our families and instead spend more time taking pictures to make it look, in our social media lives, as though we are having a great time.

So instead of creating a list of things to “survive,” I’m going to share what I believe may be some ways to change our holiday culture to make it more enjoyable and less stressful.

Put the phone away. It’s okay to have one fewer photo on Facebook of your family’s Christmas tree. Instead, sit and listen to grandpa tell his stories. Laugh and be excited with your kids on Christmas morning. Hang out with your cousins and share memories. Do this all while being present, without a phone.

Take the time to listen to stories from your elders, because you never know when it will be your last chance. Make cookies and treats with your mom because you know it will make her heart swell. Practice traditions because they make you feel good, not because they look good on social media. 

Know that holiday travel is going to be awful. Everyone is trying to get somewhere else, so don’t be surprised by the lines at the airport or the traffic on the roads. Slow down and give yourself some extra time — we go through this every year. You’ll help yourself, and everyone around you get to your destination safely if you just slow down and relax. Make a playlist with your favorite holiday tunes, start singing, and before you know it, you’ll be there. Make the inevitable livable.

And remember that if something goes wrong during dinner, know that not everything is going to be perfect like a Hallmark holiday movie. I would argue that holiday mishaps make more memories.

I remember a year when my grandma insisted on hosting a holiday at her apartment in a senior living complex. 

Everything was going fine until something in the oven — I can’t remember what — began smoking and set off the fire alarm. The entire complex had to evacuate and stand in the cold while the fire department came to give the all clear. Grandma was mortified, but we now laugh when we think of that day, and miss Grandma all the more. 

You shouldn’t have to stress about the gifts you’re giving and if they’re good enough, because that’s not the point. We’re all trying to make ends meet while shopping and gift giving. If someone really has a problem with what you give them, maybe next year they get a lump of coal. 

I think hand-made gifts or treats are much better than something bought. Because in the end, it isn’t about what you got, how you got there or if the smoke alarm goes off because that the holiday roast is burning. It’s giving and receiving because of your love for your family or friends. So take a breath, sit back, drive slow and enjoy.


 

Cookies and Controversy — Aundrea Kinney

Five years ago, one of my aunts started a new holiday tradition: girls cookie baking day. 

It involved getting all the extended family members together and kicking the men out of the house so the women could slave over sugary batter and a hot oven to make enough cookies for each family to take home.

Although I missed the first year of cookie baking because I was away at college, the latter years were always something my sister and I felt obligated to “survive.”

The feminist in me raved behind closed doors about the insult of stereotypical gender roles, but when cookie day came around each year, I went anyways. I smiled and engaged in conversation. I baked my share of the cookies because I knew it made my aunt feel good to have brought everyone together.

Still, my sister and I decided we couldn’t tolerate the matching pink, ruffled aprons we were all required to wear, so one year we hid our ruffled aprons in the back of our closets. Instead, we brought a couple of our own — one printed with an image of Michelangelo’s “David” and the other printed with an image of Botticelli’s famous “The Birth of Venus.”

When the aprons were worn, the nude bodies from these iconic works of art overlapped our own bodies proportionately. 

We, as young adults, thought it was hilariously clever. Our culturally conservative relatives thought we were wearing pornography.

A series of angry calls rippled through the family phone lines. Aunts told their husbands; they called my father. “How could those girls dare bring such inappropriate items to a family function?”

The following year my girlfriend joined me to attend girls cookie baking day, and although we begrudgingly wore the ruffled aprons, that year’s event wasn’t much better.

The host welcomed my then-girlfriend, now-wife, with open arms, but my other aunts were offended that I would bring my “sin” into their presence. They wouldn’t let my young cousins near us for fear we would infect them, and again, after the event, phone calls flooded the lines.

The following year my sister, my girlfriend and I were uninvited because of who we’d voted for in the 2016 presidential election. 

Part of me was relieved, because every year girls cookie baking day had been a struggle. How could it be true that my relatives are genetically more similar to me than anybody else on the planet, yet our world views clash so furiously?

Still, despite our differences, I always participated. I had refused to slump sullenly in the corner or find an excuse not to attend. This was one event when all the women could spend time together, even if it was over sugary batter and hot ovens. 

Those aunts had to tolerate me as much as I had to tolerate them, because the point was togetherness, and it hurt that they let something like politics get in the way. 

This year there is no cookie baking day. 

The aunt who always hosted is spending the holiday season at her husband’s bedside as he lays hooked up to machines waiting for a kidney transplant. Her entire life is on hold as he tries to survive the holidays.

It’s a reminder to me of why it is so important to participate in moments of togetherness, despite disagreements. 

We all have limited time in which events like this are possible, and I wish from the bottom of my heart that this year my family’s biggest worries were over what scandal would occur at cookie baking day.


 

The busiest time of year — Hannah Burlingame

The middle of November marks the start of a special time of year for us retail workers: the holiday season. 

Getting through it while remaining sane is key to surviving the busiest time of year.

I’ve been working at a clothing store part-time for almost three years. For the majority of the year I am literally getting paid to play dress up, so I would say it’s a pretty good job. 

However, every year from mid-November until the end of December, I find myself questioning why I’m still there. 

Once the holidays hit, the customers change. It’s almost like there is a full moon every shift. For every five great customers there is one who is just a Scrooge — like the customer on Black Friday who doesn’t seem to understand there are only so many of us working to help a store full of people. 

I can’t count how many times I say, “I’m sorry, you can’t use a coupon with this other store promotion,” in one shift. Asking five times and getting annoyed with me is not going to make me want to find a way to get you a better deal. 

Every year, people come in looking for gifts right up until Christmas. Guess what — the chances are high that we are going to be out of the size you want in that blue velvet blazer, since those things fly off the shelf. 

“I’d be happy to order it for you, but shipping is eight to 14 days, unless you want to pay for expedited shipping.” This statement is almost always met with mixed reactions, and nearly always with glares.

Then there’s Christmas music. I used to love Christmas music, but only beginning Dec. 1. Working retail now means Christmas music starting at the outset of November, where it has no place. 

There are the original songs, remixes and new songs. There are the strolling carolers walking around the mall. There are concerts taking place right outside our store, bringing back memories of when I was in orchestra playing some of the same old songs. 

After the fourth rendition of a time-tested tune, it gets a little old. Luckily, this year our store’s CD with holiday music never showed up ... oh darn.

Despite the annoying music and crazy customers there’s still a silver lining. The music doesn’t last forever and for every one crazy customer, as mentioned above, there are five shoppers after who are a gem to help. 

People come in every shift with holiday parties or weddings to shop for. Helping them find the dress or outfit that makes them feel the best and most confident is one of my favorite things about my job. We also get plenty of husbands in shopping for their wives. Many of the wives have taken pictures of what they want with the size they need, making it an easy holiday shopping trip for the husband.

Others are left to their own devices. Seeing a husband walk around the store examining clothing, trying to figure out exactly what his wife will like, is entertaining to say the least.

There are just some customers I click with, and before I know it, I’ve spent an hour helping them. These people — the husbands, parents shopping for a daughter’s big event, the fun clients — are what help make the holiday season survivable. 

Venting with coworkers and my parents about the craziness doesn’t hurt either. 


 

Eat a cookie — Solomon Gustavo

If, during any other time of the year not categorized “the holiday season,” I idly stand in my living room, casually grazing on a plate of cookies, any family member who might walk through the door would be like: “ ... dude.”

During the holidays? I could stand atop a toilet chewing on a gingerbread house built on a cherry pie. No one would flinch.  

This must be due to some necessary psychic transfer, a sedentary, sugary trade-off to alleviate holiday stress. 

This truth must be widely known, and we accordingly adorn every end table and open flat surface with enough confected patience to satisfy a small, early 20th century village.

On the big day, the moments that got away from my fam, moments that ended in shouting under starry, blinkering Christmas lights, baroque against the candle-lit, manger-scene-darkness of a random Christmas night, were ignited by little, silly forgotten things.

I can recall one constant for holidays that went perfectly, though. As an uncle or someone asks me why I don’t have seven children yet, or something, I stuff cookies into my mouth. My jaw hinges simply remain moving and chewing, like a machine, tilling through a pastry field.

This is really, really poor advice. Turning to a pile of sugar bread when things get tough isn’t great. But that’s my move during the holidays. 

Here’s hoping that yours, if nothing else, are tasty. 


 

Countdown to ‘perfection’ doesn’t follow real life — Mary Lee Hagert

Whipped potatoes mounded in an heirloom bowl; platters heaped high with turkey and ham; salads tossed in crystal dishes, and apple pies still warm from the oven. The holiday meals at Aunt Clara’s house were always a wonder to behold. 

As a child, I always knew the food would be scrumptious; what I didn’t know was the amount of expertise and careful timing that went into these unforgettable feasts.

You see, Aunt Clara made it all look so easy.

After years of hosting my own holiday gatherings, I’ve learned that I don’t have my great-aunt’s skills and finesse when it comes to preparing big dinners. 

This year was no exception, but not for a lack of trying.

I clipped a newspaper article titled “Hosting the big dinner? Here’s your to-do list” and kept it close at hand. With a “little planning and some tips,” the event “can be successfully tackled” — or so the story asserted.

Filled with newfound confidence, I followed the article’s daily countdown of things to do.

For instance, the story recommended tidying up the house days in advance, and then, four days prior to the big meal, purchasing the turkey and placing it in the refrigerator to thaw.

But what the author didn’t anticipate is that my bird would still be mostly frozen despite those four days of “thawing” in the refrigerator. Because we were having a smaller-than-average guest list this year, I purchased a 12-pounder. 

How, I wondered, could this scrawny-looking bird still be frozen, but there was no ignoring the icy crystals in every crevice. My husband, Karl, glanced at it and dryly observed, “Hope that frozen bird doesn’t give us food poisoning tomorrow.”

Panicked, I decided to brine it in a salt bath to speed up the thawing. I reached in a cupboard for the salt, only to discover the box was nearly empty. 

I dashed to Cub Foods, grabbed two boxes of salt, and took note of the time — 10:30 p.m. 

The next morning I was getting ready to roast the bird when I realized I was out of garlic, an essential ingredient for the turkey. At 11 a.m. there I was back at Cub, buying fresh garlic and rosemary.

According to the countdown schedule, by this point I was supposed to be finishing the veggies and stuffing; not still prepping the bird. So when my husband offered to help, I gave him the task of massaging the turkey with softened butter and chopped garlic. 

As he lifted the slippery carcass to coat its back, it escaped his hands and landed on the floor with a thud. We stared in horror at the skinny bird sitting upright on the floor, and I muttered, “At least the floor is freshly scrubbed, thanks to following that countdown list.”

Could anything else go wrong? 

Well, yes.

The guests arrived just as I was pulling the bird out of the oven, and my friend Deborah offered to carve it. Noticing she seemed unusually tentative cutting the meat, I asked if anything was wrong, and she tactfully replied that she was trying her best to only trim off the ... cooked ... parts and not touch the RAW sections.

Eek! 

My husband shot me an “I told you so” look, as I crumpled up the countdown article and pitched it into the wastebasket.

When we sat down, the dining room looked appropriately festive, there were plenty of side dishes, and people raved that the turkey was exceptionally moist, even if they only got a few bites.

I still don’t know how Aunt Clara was able to pull off such fabulous holiday tables. All these decades later I’m still hoping to just once achieve her level of perfection. 

Maybe it will happen next year, when I will be sure to get the bird in the refrigerator thawing a full week ahead of time. ... Or, better yet, I’ll serve ham.


 

Remembering noisier holiday times — Pamela O’Meara

I was just flying home from San Antonio with my daughter and asked her for some recollections of past Christmases so I could write this holiday vignette. We had fun talking about old times.

Years ago when my kids were little and we regularly had about 40 people over for Christmas dinner, this daughter, or maybe one of my other kids, inevitably came down with strep throat on Christmas Eve, just before the pediatrician’s office closed for the holiday. Off we rushed to the doctor’s office, with my other kids in tow.

The doctor checked her over, gave her antibiotics and checked out the other kids, too, since strep often spreads from sibling to sibling.

My daughter remembers feeling really sick and throwing up, her head hanging out of the car window on the way home — fortunately she missed the inside.

By Christmas day, of course, she was feeling a bit better and was ready to open Christmas presents. Such was life with five kids.

After opening gifts, we had a mad scramble to get all the wrapping paper cleared out, the opened presents set aside and new ones set out for guests who would be arriving soon.

It was time to get the ham in the oven, finish preparing lots of other food and fill the punch bowl. I had learned to make non-alcoholic punch since it’s difficult to monitor what 20 kids are drinking. Our kitchen was a busy place.

We placed extra tables around the family room and made sure to have a fire crackling in the fireplace. As people arrived, the whole house hummed with activity and conversation.

Later in the afternoon, when everyone was done eating and the second round of gifts were opened, I could finally relax and chat with everyone. Many of the kids went ice skating on the pond behind our house.

Everything came together and I felt good about the day well done with family and friends all together. My sick daughter was recovering. Penicillin shots work fast.

My daughter and I had fun reminiscing about past Christmases as we flew home to finish preparing for another Christmas, thinking about what we had left to do.

Nowadays, my holiday is far quieter with family and friends spread out in many places; it’s shared with in-laws and my house is no longer a gathering place.

But I appreciate the quieter times.


 

Pampers for Jesus — Vonny Rohloff

In the early 1980s, my almost three-year-old niece, Julie, received a big, life-size doll from Santa for Christmas. It was perfect for her, as she was a little-miss-mother who learned all about babies while watching her mother care for her four-month-old baby sister. 

Julie observed very closely when cloth diapers — not the more modern Pampers — were changed and learned exactly how to do it.

Because the doll arrived on Christmas, the birthday of Jesus, Julie named the doll Jesus. It seemed the perfect gift; however, the doll did not come with diapers. My niece dressed the doll using her baby sister’s clothes, but seemed disappointed and complained that there were no Pampers for the doll.

Not to disappoint his daughter, Julie’s dad secretly drove to a nearby town, bought a box of Pampers and left them in the snow at the end of their driveway. A short time later, he took the kids outside for a fun, but short, snowmobile ride.

In no time, to the delight of my niece, she spotted the box of Pampers lying in the snow. “They must have fallen out of Santa’s sleigh,” her dad said.

Julie scooped up the Pampers and seemed very happy that now, Jesus finally had proper, up-to-date diapers.



 

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