Back in November I read something by Dr. Phil that, well, disturbed me. Rather than sum it up myself, here’s a passage from Get Rid of the Have-tos and Should-dos, an article about the holidays that appeared in the November edition of O Magazine.
“In the real world, with our fast-paced lives, the holidays usually mean stress. We’re scrambling to make shopping lists, fretting about our budget, driving long distances so we can endure together time with toasted Uncle Bob and distant cousins whose names we can barely remember. My dad used to say… that this time of year is when we feel compelled to be with family we don’t really know for too long a time in too small a space – and spend money on things nobody needs.”
The good doctor went on to suggest that we give ourselves permission to let go of any sense of obligation when it comes to the holidays this year. Rather than buy a gift for every extended family member, for example, he suggested drawing names so that everyone would only have to shop for one gift. Rather than squeeze in visits with everyone over a single holiday, he suggested we change our definition of “family” to include only our nuclear family members. “I’m not saying you should blow off the grandparents,” he explained, “but maybe you can have a FaceTime visit now and plan a trip for the summer, when you’ll be able to enjoy more relaxed one-on-one-time.”
As I read the article, I wasn’t sure if Dr. Phil’s words irked me because, like his father, he was sounding like a Scrooge, or if it was because he might actually be making a little sense. I was really on the fence, until he said something that pushed me right over the edge. In a passage about cooking he suggested making reservations at a restaurant instead of preparing a holiday meal: “People may love your food,” he wrote, “but no one is giving you extra points for sweating over a hot stove.”
Oooooh you’ve done it now, Dr. Phil; you’ve brought out the Italian in me.
Christmas means different things to different people but, as most Italians will tell you, for us it’s all about the food. But that’s because food means so much more than a mere meal.
I hate to disagree with a Ph.D. but, no Phil, it’s not about “48 hours of cooking and 15 minutes of eating,” as you said. It’s about parents teaching their children recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation. It’s about the smile that your extra special mashed potatoes bring to your daughter’s face, the face that looks forward to them every year. It’s about the memories of past years and laughter that are shared as a mother and her children bake Christmas cookies together. It’s about being considered old enough to carve the turkey and being handed the knife by a grandfather that has had the honor for 50 years before you. It’s about the new memories being made, the funny stories shared and the support family members give each other when they sit together and eat a lovingly prepared meal of items that are only made on that one very special day each year.
Please excuse my passion (as we Italians tend to get that way) but that’s precisely the point: A holiday should be about what’s important – to you. Whether it’s the food and what that food represents, or more time with your loved ones and less time cooking, or a vacation with your kids or spouse and not having a holiday meal at all – the holidays could, and should, be about what has meaning for you. Ultimately, at the end of his article, even Dr. Phil came to the conclusion that “you can’t have a holiday with meaning until you decide what means the most to you.” So in other words, if spending more time with your kids who are home from college is your priority, it might be wise to not host your annual party for the neighbors so you can do that. If giving to others is a must for you, maybe asking your relatives to make a donation to your favorite charity in lieu of a gift, or volunteering at a homeless shelter would be a wonderful way to spend your holiday.
So what do you want for Christmas this year? My Christmas wish list includes a month filled with brightly twinkling lights; decorating a tree with years of memory ornaments; festive music; an annual pilgrimage to Rockefeller Center with my daughter; smiling at strangers; baking cookies; good wine with great friends and family; finding thoughtful gifts (not necessarily expensive ones) that say “I love you” and – oh yeah – shrimp scampi, pizza rustica, pecan tarts and torrone… definitely torrone.