Amy Choate-Nielsen: Why I intend to repeat my greatest holiday failure this winter

Published: Tuesday, Oct. 1 2013 3:35 p.m. MDT

Christmas lights at Temple Square on Nov. 23, 2012.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

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I bought a planner recently that has the potential to organize my whole life. It has monthly calendars, weekly calendars, empty lines for meal planning, and entire pages of blank checklists of things to plan and do for every holiday, big and small.

There's a section to plan how I'd like to celebrate autumn, another for Labor Day, another for Halloween, another for Thanksgiving, another for Christmas, another for Presidents Day, and another for Valentine's Day. There are places to write what food we'll eat, where we'll go and what traditions we'll have on each special day.

And all of my pages are blank.

I suppose I could take a hint from the retail around me that I'd better get on the ball. One hot, sticky August day this summer, my children started squealing with glee as I walked through Costco in search of popsicles. There, to my right, were giant displays of Christmas lights, wrapping paper, ornaments and statues of Santa. They were delighted.

I was astonished.

I couldn't think about it then — it was August, for Pete's sake — but now that October, the gateway month to harder holidays, is here, I can acknowledge that I have a problem.

My problem isn't appreciating the holiday season. I love a reason to celebrate, and I love Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Eve. But maybe I love them too much. Maybe I love them so much that our relationship is unhealthy. We don't communicate well with each other; I have unrealistic expectations; and I am often let down.

I started thinking about holiday traditions soon after I got married in 2006, and I wrote about it then. Six years later, in 2012, I was every bit as fixated — only more so, because by then our family had grown to include children, and the pressure to give them amazing, memory-filled holiday moments grew that much more.

Last Christmas, I was frustrated. Torn between giving up completely and making magical memories, I haphazardly dragged my family to see the lights on Salt Lake City's Temple Square. We arrived later than I would have liked; it was colder than I expected; and it was much, much, MUCH more crowded than I remembered. But it was the one semi-traditional thing our family did, and so help me, if we didn't go then Christmas would have just been ruined.

As I recall, my husband and I were both in sour moods by the time we got downtown. Parking was a mess. We tried to buy the kids dinner at the mall, but it was a madhouse, so we gave up and bought one hot chocolate to split instead. Our hands were freezing, and I kept hollering at the kids to stay close because throngs of people were separating us. We could hardly see the candy displays in the windows of the stores, and my kids were too raucous when we went to see a replica of the Christus statue, so we promptly left. We heard the tail end of the story of Jesus Christ's birth in Bethlehem, then we went home, because everyone was so tired and hungry. We bought fast food on the way home; it was messy; and everyone went to bed too late.

I thought it was an epic failure.

I told myself I would not try that again this year, and then I forgot about it — until last week, when, out of nowhere, my 5-year-old daughter brought me a picture of herself sitting on Santa Claus' lap at preschool last year. And she said this: "Remember, Mom? I saw Santa Claus, and he gave me a candy cane, then we came home and I took a nap. You woke me up early so we could go downtown, and we had hot chocolate, and we saw Jesus and all of those Christmas lights. … Can we do that again this year, Mom? Can we go see Jesus and the lights and have hot chocolate and a candy cane? That was so fun."

I wanted to cry. Here it is, a year later, and the one thing I thought was such a disaster was one of my daughter's happiest memories. I wanted so badly — and still do — to create the same kind of magical experience my grandmother, Fleeta, who died before I was born, created for her children at Christmastime, with the taste of homemade cooking and the smell of nutmeg in the air.

But for my family, it'll just be candy canes and hot chocolate.

Amy Choate-Nielsen is a full-time mom and part-time writer. She spends her days at the park and her nights at the computer. She writes about family history and her quest to understand life while learning about her deceased grandmother, Fleeta.

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