Last Minute Christmas Magic Tips From One Hot Mess to Another

Ho, ho, holllly crap it’s almost Christmas!

Is it just me or does it seem to sneak up now, even though stores push it as early as Halloween? Why is that? Why doesn’t December feel as magical as it used to? What happened to the big emotional build up with carolers and cinnamon-smelling house parties full of red-cheeked aunts and uncles?

Oh, probably because I’m the parent now and I’m a hot mess. But while the season may never be as magical for me as it was when I was a kid, it’s my turn, my job, to keep it magical for the next generation.

Thus, I dig down deep, through the layers of my consumer cynicism and stress around budgets, clutter, and travel; through my precious ambivalence about Santa and my paranoia of alienating those of other traditions, and I look for ways to keep the holiday spirit alive in my house because, by Jove, I still want kids to have a childhood.

The key to a truly memorable Christmas isn’t being a Super Parent. It’s simply engaging your kids’ senses. When they’re smelling, touching, tasting, and feeling, they’re building vivid memories – and asking lots of questions! You don’t need a ton of planning to try one or two of these kid-friendly activities. And there’s still plenty of time to make everyone’s Christmas unforgettable:

Play with fire

Most Christmas traditions are an adaptation of Yule, the Pagan celebration of Winter Solstice, when days stop getting shorter and the sun begins its triumphant return. Try some of the season’s oldest traditions in commemorating darkness and light:

Track the sunset as it gets earlier and earlier then later and later. Encourage your kids’ questions about the astronomical reasons for this, and why this pattern has been so important to cultures the world around.

Dial down artificial light and instead use candles after dark. Make a mess creating homemade candleholders out of carved apples or salt dough.

Revive the Yule log! The warmth and light of a fire draws people of all ages together for more intimate evenings. If you don’t have a fireplace, decorate a symbolic log with votive candles and let the youngest person have the honor of setting it alight. It’s also fun to task little ones with gathering an “ashen faggot” – a bound bundle of twigs burnt on Christmas Eve by the oldest person present.

Deck the halls au natural

Love festive décor but don’t have the space to store it year-round? Using nature’s found objects cuts your budget, clutter, and carbon footprint, all while familiarizing your kids with their habitat and its seasonal scents and textures.

Take family walks to collect pinecones, acorns, waxy leaves, and other seedpods that fall on the ground. Play botanist by researching or imagining what plants shed these knick-knacks, then paint or gild them to make ornaments for your wreath, mantle, and tree. Usually they don’t even need a thread – little hands can just place them among the boughs.

Did you have to trim the bottom of your tree to make it fit? With the right tools you can slice that stump into discs perfect for decoupage. Drill a hole in each to add thread loops. At the end of the season you can compost or burn them with the rest of your tree, but save the one with your annual family portrait and have everyone sign the back. These make great heirlooms.

Yard art

Kids love to see their neighborhood transform from familiar to festive, but it doesn’t happen by itself! Encourage their patience, humor, and personal flair by giving them temporary control over your, ahem, curb appeal.

Got snow? If so, you don’t need to spend any money on outdoor decorations. Use chilled Kool Aid as dye and sculpt that stuff into reindeer, piles of presents, or even a nativity scene. A little time in the cold grows hardy souls! Plus, it’s always a laugh to watch those masterpieces melt.

Warmer climate? You probably still have critter friends around. Why not make some edible ornaments from peanut butter, birdseed, and suet? Crafting these makes the best kind of mess, hanging them is a party unto itself, and meeting the non-human neighbors is an educational thrill.

Eat and be merry

Repeating family recipes every year ensures that Christmas won’t just live forever in your kids’ minds, but also in their tongues, tummies, and noses. 

Host an annual cookie party for their friends. Tell everyone to bring something to decorate with – some kind of sprinkle, candy, or frosting. You provide the dough and cookie cutters (or blank store bought cookies, NO SHAME IN IT). Let each kid nominate one creation for the prize of taking home the leftovers.

Ever wonder what it means to go a-wassailing? Wassail is essentially mulled cider. As far as cocktails go, it’s easy to make, fragrant, alcohol-free, and infused with vitamins that combat the common cold. Wassail is used for the ceremony of Twelfth Night to toast the health of the orchards. Have the kids soak a piece of stale bread in the punch to place in forest branches, and serenade the trees in thanks for the fruit and fresh air they provide throughout the year.

Just like Twelfth Night, the under-observed holiday of Epiphany, which marks the arrival of the Three Magi to Bethlehem, stretches Christmas season into January in its own yummy way. The best-known commemoration is the King’s Cake. Recipes vary around the globe, but the most important ingredient is a dry bean or other small, food-safe inedible baked right into the treat. The person who finds this fève in their portion gets to wear a paper crown and be king for the night! To make sure there’s no cheating, portions are assigned by the youngest person present, who hides under the table where the server’s out of sight.

Make some noise

Probably the simplest way to ring in the season is to do so literally. Familiar melodies always evoke the times they’re tied to, but there is more than one way to play a tune.

Turn your family into an amateur handbell choir! Color-coded handbell sets often come with holiday sheet music (no musical literacy necessary), and best of all, these bells can only get so loud and never go out of tune or strike an offensive note.

No need to buy instruments if you have a little creativity to spare. Kids can learn a lot about the physics of music by building their own percussions. Pots, pans, pumpkin seeds shaken in a plastic cup – these are the makings of quite a band. Add a set of spoons and a few glasses filled to varying degrees for lighter chimes.

How long will it take to make something sound like “Little Drummer Boy”? Why don’t you let them figure that out while you go upstairs and take a nap.