The Most Brutiful Time of the Year

The turkey has been eaten, and the Christmas tree has been chosen, cut, and forced into service in our living room. We decorated it last night and now it's twinkling merrily in our front window and filling the house with its lovely smell. The Christmas cards have been ordered but not addressed; I've brainstormed a decent amount of delightful, age-appropriate, unique gift ideas for most of the people on my list but not purchased many of them; we're fielding lots of lucky invitations for little parties here and family gatherings there but still not sure exactly when we'll celebrate Christmas with my side. All of this to say, the holiday season is upon us.

The most wonderful time of the year? Well, maybe. In the years when the girls were younger and needier and I barely had a second to eat my own food without getting up to do something, I'd be in the car in the weeks before Christmas and feel decidedly un-wonderful when that song came on. I'd be hauling two small, grouchy children to the grocery store for the 87th time, perhaps, or trying to track down one last gift with a toddler in tow, and it didn't really feel like "the hap-happiest season of allllll." In fact, I pretty much wanted to punch someone in the face when that song came on.

Even today, I don't know if I'd say it's the most wonderful. It has moments of great beauty, to be sure: the traditional tree-decorating/Elf-watching/fire-in-the-fireplace coziness; the gingerbread-scented, peanut-butter-fudge-making, sticky little hands in the kitchen projects; the delight on Christmas morning; the friends and family raising a toast to another year together. For me, it's hard to beat Christmas Eve, with its candlelight carols at church followed by a fancy fondue dinner and, eventually, tucking the girls in with their hearts full of anticipation.

But there's plenty of darkness mixed in with those twinkle lights. Lots of people face the holidays missing someone they love. I don't know a great deal about that, but I couldn't miss the cracks in my grandpa's voice as he said grace over the Thanksgiving table on Thursday. My parents are getting used to a holiday season without their mothers, and lots of other people in the world are missing loved ones, too. And the bounty of the holidays always seem to stand in such stark contrast to those in the world who are struggling to get by in difficult circumstances. Not to mention the way the list of obligations (cards! presents! a dish to pass!) seems to grow exponentially this time of year.

To borrow a Glennon word, I think it's the most brutiful time of year -- part beauty, part brutal humanity. A few years ago, at the height of wanting to punch someone in the face each time I heard the aforementioned song, I found myself in tears on Christmas night, so overwhelmed with busy obligations and frantic expectations that I had completely lost sight of the joy and light of the season. It had been so easy to let others set the agenda that I found myself at the end of what was supposed to be the best, most special time of the year feeling depleted and disappointed, bitter and exhausted. It was time to make a change.

I remembered one of my mom's best pieces of advice, something she cribbed from Ann Landers -- "No one can take advantage of you without your permission" -- and I had a stern talk with myself about priorities and pleasing others. I read the book Quiet by Susan Cain, and I remembered that being an introvert means I need to build time into my life for quiet, even (especially) in a world that wants to speed things up at the holidays. I read a blog post by Shauna Niequist called Present Over Perfect (go read it) that articulated my own thoughts and experiences almost exactly and gave me the permission I needed to say no to some things in favor of protecting myself and my family at Christmas. I took a step back and realized the saying "You can't please all of the people all of the time" applies to moms as much as to politicians. And I reminded myself that I was a grown-up, 100 percent responsible for the ways I spend my time and my life.

This is the best and worst possible news. On the one hand, being a grown-up means that when the furnace dies on the day before Thanksgiving, I'm the one who has to call the furnace guy and haggle over price on the phone. Ugh. It means I'm the one who has to get the babysitter, get the groceries, pay the bills, make the reservations, make the decisions. On the other hand, it means I'm responsible for the way I spend my time, money, and energy. It means nobody can hijack my Christmas without my permission, and it means that creating a sane holiday season is up to me, too.

Here's what our family has done since that Christmas night emotional breakdown. We've said no, thanks to a few longstanding traditions that weren't working for us. We've set aside time during Advent to find the still, small voice that reminds us why we're celebrating in the first place. We've been more intentional about seeking out opportunities with our family to give back a bit, both during the holidays and throughout the year. And we've created a few new, more meaningful traditions that work for our little family of four.

This year, we'll continue our Sunday suppers as a way to hit "pause" each week. So far, this little experiment has taught us the value of setting limits, being intentional with our time, and building more rest and connection into our life. Tomorrow, my brother and his wife are going to join us, and we're looking forward to catching up with them since we missed each other at Thanksgiving. Last week, Jason's brother and his family came for a long, lazy afternoon and a big hunk of pork. (And if you think that having a brother-in-law who owns a brewery means he brings great quantities of great beer to your house for Sunday supper, you're right.) 

This year, no matter what other craziness is going on (cocktail parties! staff celebrations! choir concert at school! cookie exchange!), Sundays will find me basking in the glow of our Christmas tree, belly and heart full of the bruty of the season, trying to tip the scales in favor of beauty.

Pork Fried Rice

I've loved Molly Wizenberg's winsome food blog, Orangette, for years, and I devoured her first book, A Homemade Life, a few years ago. I still make her banana bread regularly, and her writing voice is one I really admire. So when she came out with her second book, Delancey, (about the trials and tribulations of opening a Seattle pizza place with her husband) earlier this year, Jason got it for me for my birthday and I gobbled it up too. I liked it fine, but it really reminded me of my brother- and sister-in-law, Trevor and Lisa, who, two years ago, opened a sweet little brewery downtown Holland. I still remember the conversation we had around the table a year or so before the brewery became a reality, Trevor announcing his plans and us nodding politely, privately thinking what a terrible idea it was. I remember Lisa laughing a bit maniacally months later, her eyes wide: "We own a bar!" And so they do -- a successful, wonderful one at that. These days, I'm a fan of Our Brewing Co's coconut porter, Jason's partial to the Careless Whisper IPA, and we're pretty proud of their DIY brand of business ownership -- and their real-life example for our girls of one way to follow a dream and make it a reality. It seemed appropriate to make a Delancey recipe for Sunday supper with Trevor and Lisa, so we made Molly's sweet and sour pork, loaded with fish sauce and cooked low and slow for hours. It was good, but the star of last week's menu was actually the fried rice I made with the leftover pork for dinner a couple nights later. It's modeled after another Delancey recipe, Fried Rice with Kale, but I subbed spinach for kale and switched up the seasonings a bit too. Jason had seconds, and I'll make it again, but get ready to ruin a pan if you don't have a wok. (Deglazing immediately with water helps with the clean-up.)

  • 3 T. peanut or vegetable oil, divided
  • one bunch greens, such as kale, spinach, or chard, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 1 T. fresh lemon juice
  • 4 cups cold cooked leftover white rice
  • 4 oz leftover shredded pork
  • 1 dash each fish sauce, soy sauce, and sesame oil
  • 1 fried egg, to top, optional

Heat 1 T. oil in wok or large skillet until very hot, then add greens and sauté until charred and wilted. Remove greens to a bowl and top with fresh lemon juice. Add remaining 2 T. oil to hot skillet and add rice, smashing it to the bottom and sides of the pan in a single layer with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula and letting cook, undisturbed, for 30 seconds to a minute. Scrape rice up, redistribute, smash it to pan again, and continue cooking until rice is fried to desired doneness. Scrape rice up, stir, and add pork and seasonings, stirring constantly, just to heat through. Add rice and pork mixture to bowl of greens, season to taste with salt and pepper, and top with a fried egg.