Our Gift to You!

A season-long, A-to-Z guide to fun, food, and family traditions. And all the good stuff that doesn't start with the letter F.


By Brandi Broxson, Emily Hsieh, and Nancy Negovetich
Photos by Becca Stadtiander

A

ADVENT CALENDAR

Let the countdown to Christmas begin with one of these DIY ideas from Penelope Dullaghan, an Indianapolis-based illustrator and crafter.

BROWN-PAPER PACKAGES

(Tied up with string: optional.) Stamp or handwrite numbers on brown-paper lunch bags (or mini-size versions, available in bulk at amazon.com). Fill with sweet notes, chocolates, or tiny trinkets—ornaments, card games, a bouncy ball. On a blank wall, tack up two lines of heavy twine and use small clothespins to attach each bag.

TREE BRANCH

Find a pretty branch outside, let it dry, and spray-paint it white for a snowy feel. Then place in a tall vase weighed down with colorful glass stones or sand. Use ribbon to tie on notes with numbers on one side and Advent activities on the other.

AS FOR THE ACTIVITIES…

Take inspiration from Jordan Ferney, blogger at Oh Happy Day: "I make a list of all my favorite things to do, eat, and experience during the holidays and print them on slips of paper that I put in our family Advent calendar. I started doing this when I was a newlywed, but it's become even more of a tradition since I had children and life is more rushed. Every day, we do one thing to slow down and celebrate. Sometimes it's big, like a trek downtown to visit Santa. Other times we will do something simple, like hang mistletoe and kiss under it."

B

Books for blended families

Celebrating both Hanukkah and Christmas in your home? The staff of InterfaithFamily, an organization based in Massachusetts supporting Jewish-Christian couples, recommends these kid favorites.

  • Daddy Christmas & Hanukkah Mama, by Selina Alko
  • Eight Candles and a Tree, by Simone Bloom Nathan
  • Nonna's Hanukkah Surprise, by Karen Fisman
  • Light the Lights! A Story about Celebrating Hanukkah & Christmas, by Margaret Moorman
  • The Latke Who Couldn't Stop Screaming: A Christmas Story, by Lemony Snicket

C

HOW TO ROAST Chestnuts

Alice Medrich, a baking expert and the author of Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies, buys and roasts chestnuts every holiday season. "They're great for nibbling with drinks before a family dinner," she says. "They have a sweetness and a starchy texture that's similar to a yam." Here's her method: Before roasting, cut an X on the bottom of each nut to help it cook more evenly and thoroughly. Spread them on a rimmed baking sheet and bake at 350°F for 40 to 45 minutes. You'll know they're done when the tip of a knife inserts easily into the flesh. Then wrap them in a thick towel for 5 to 10 minutes. This steams the chestnuts slightly and makes removing the stub-born shells and skins before serving a million times easier.

D

DECORATE THE TREE

A LITTLE DIFFERENTLY

Add some unexpected magic with one of these ideas.

"Growing up, we'd tuck dolls and small toys into our family tree, set deep into the branches, so it almost looked like they were playing peekaboo," says New York City–based craft stylist Blake Ramsey Murray. She also cuts paper stars out of origami paper, snips a hole in each center, then slips them over string lights. (Or use foil cupcake liners instead.) "That really makes your tree glow," she says. For a cool icicle effect, hang metallic straws (Murray likes gold and silver ones from Kikkerland) on ornament hooks all over the tree.

E

exchanging gifts

Try these ideas to make the handoff even more fun.

TREASURE HUNT

Take a breather after all the Santa excitement by hiding small wrapped gifts around the house for children to seek (while you sip coffee).

FINISH THE CAROL

This works for a family or friend gift exchange. Sit in a circle and pass each gift around to the tune of a holiday song. Designate someone to stop the song midverse. The person who is holding the gift has to finish the line. If she can, she gets the gift and sits out the rest of the game. If not, start the song again. Repeat until all the gifts are gone.

CHRISTMAS PICKLE

This charming tradition is a fun way to kick off gift opening for the kids. Hang a pickle ornament ($8, crateandbarrel.com) on the tree, and the first child to spot it gets an extra present.

WORD GUESS

Slow down the frenzy by taping a fill-in-the-blank holiday phrase on each gift and having children answer before unwrapping. For example: Not a creature was stirring, not even a _ _ _ _ _.

F

FA LA LA LA'ING

Don't be shy: Science says caroling inspires goodwill. A 2016 study published in the journal Psychology of Music found that choral singing fulfills a deep desire to bond with a group and promotes feelings of well-being. Another study, published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2013, even found that group singers' hearts begin to beat in unison.

G

Gingerbread-house makeover

There isn't nearly enough candy included in gingerbread-house kits to deck the walls (and the roof) to the nines. Here are some supplementary sweets to help get the job done right.

FROSTED MINI-WHEATS create a snow-covered thatched roof.

NECCO CANDIES build colorful shingled roofs or siding.

GOLDEN GRAHAMS pave a brick pathway.

MINI STICK PRETZELS turn a house into a log cabin.

ICE CREAM CONES (turned upside down and frosted) make Christmas trees.

SUGAR CUBES are excellent building blocks for an addition, like a balcony or a patio.

HERSHEY'S KISSES (still wrapped), glued along the peak of the roof, make turrets. The tags look like flying flags.

CHRISTMAS COOKIES (jam thumbprints, snowflakes, etc.) glued to the outside walls of your house give it an ornate Victorian look.

MINI CANDY CANES placed parallel with a graham-cracker quarter in between make a sleigh.

H

HAM, SPIRAL CUT

"The store-bought versions are often better than what I can make, a lot less work, and everyone loves them," says Camille Styles, the founder of camillestyles.com and the author of Camille Styles Entertaining. She offers two festive ways to serve it.

TROPICAL SLIDERS

Combine diced pineapple with chopped red onion, jalapeño, cilantro, lime juice, and salt to make a Pineapple Cilantro Relish to serve with ham slices on Hawaiian rolls.

SWEET POTATO BISCUITS

Combine 2½ cups biscuit mix with ½ cup softened butter; 1 cup mashed, cooked sweet potato; and ½ cup milk. Roll out dough, cut into circles, and bake at 450°F until golden brown. Serve with ham and cranberry mustard (available at specialty stores).

I

IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE

The beloved movie marks its 70th anniversary this year—cue the TV marathons!—and most of us can quote parts by heart ("Every time a bell rings…"). Real Simple talked to Karolyn Grimes, who played Zuzu Bailey when she was six years old, about her favorite scene. Says Grimes: "When George is on the bridge. He says, "Clarence, Clarence…I want to live again." And then he rubs his eyes and says, "Please, God, let me live again." The minute he says the word God, it starts to snow, and you know he's back. For me, he's discovered everything important in life—faith and family and friends." Grimes and her film family, the two other surviving Bailey children, will be appearing this year at the annual It's a Wonderful Life Festival in Seneca Falls, New York, a town that is said to have been the model for the film's Bedford Falls (December 9 to 11, therealbedfordfalls.com). The granddaughter of director Frank Capra and the daughter of actress Donna Reed will also attend. "We have tons of meet-and-greets, we show the film, we have receptions, a 5K run in the snow, and a parade," says Grimes. "It's a great time." (Check out Grimes's new children's book, Zuzu's Petals: A Dream of It's a Wonderful Life, available at zuzu.net.)

J

jelly doughnuts

Also known as sufganiyot, these deep-fried Hanukkah sweets symbolize the miracle of the burning oil lamps in ancient Jerusalem. Think you can't pull them off at home? The RS food editors came up with a shortcut recipe.

ACTIVE TIME 30 MINUTES TOTAL TIME 2 HOURS, 15 MINUTES SERVES 6


  • 1 lb. fresh pizza dough
  • 2 to 3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
  • Canola oil, for frying
  • ½ cup raspberry or strawberry jelly
  • ¼ cup powdered sugar

REST the dough at room temperature for 1 hour in its packaging.

ROLL the dough into a ¼-inch-thick rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Cut out circles using a 1½-inch cutter. Let rest 30 minutes.

HEAT the oil, poured to a depth of 2 inches in a large, heavy pot, to 350°F. Working in batches, fry the dough circles, turning frequently, until golden brown, about 1½ minutes. Transfer to a paper towel–lined pan.

TRANSFER the jam to a plastic bag and snip the corner. When the doughnuts are cool enough to handle, use a wooden skewer or toothpick to form a hole in the center of each, wiggling the skewer to create space for jelly. Pipe just enough jelly into each doughnut so that it appears in the opening. Dust the doughnuts with powdered sugar. Serve immediately.

K

KNOW YOUR TREES

Kathy Kogut, the executive director of the Connecticut Christmas Tree Growers Association (and a well-named source for this letter, we should note), helps you pick a winner. "The biggest mistake is buying a tree that doesn't actually fit your space," she says. "Otherwise, it's just personal preference."

L

Lights, outdoor

Clark Griswold wannabes, take note: "Hanging outdoor Christmas lights is all about prep work," says David Gray, a lighting-design adviser at Lamps Plus who created his own outdoor display for many years. You can spend an entire day planning before hanging a single light.

STEP 1 Print out an image of your house from Google Street View, then sketch where you want lights directly on the photo.

STEP 2 Measure out how many feet of lights you'll need, budgeting a little extra. There's no great scientific way to do this; Gray uses a tape measure, noting lengths on the photo as he goes. If you're short on power sources, use weatherproof ground stake outlet strips (like the ones you use next to your computer, only for outdoor use). These are especially good for lighting trees at the outskirts of a yard.

STEP 3 Consider remotes that will let you turn off the lights from inside your house. Most plug into a wall outlet and your first extension cord.

STEP 4 For lights along the roof line, permanently install galvanized or plastic hooks, one for every 8 to 10 feet of lights; this will make the job easier next year. To secure lights between hooks along gutters, Gray uses badge clips (available at office-supply stores).

STEP 5 For well-pruned shrubs, toss on net lights. On scraggly bushes, wrap string lights. (Nets will look sloppy there.)

STEP 6 For trees, don't try to coil lights around all the branches—that's a pro job. Instead, drape lights from each branch like a garland.

M

MINTY FOOT SCRUB

Marathon shopping—in an actual mall? Pamper your feet with this minty scrub from Angela Jia Kim, the founder of the organic Savor Beauty + Spa, in New York City.

COMBINE ½ cup raw coconut oil (or any oil you have, says Kim) with ¾ cup sugar. Stir in 1 to 2 drops peppermint essential oil. Massage into your feet, wrap in a hot, damp towel for 5 to 10 minutes, then rinse.

N

new uses for old holiday cards

BEFORE YOU RECYCLE, TRY ONE OF THESE REPURPOSING IDEAS.

GIFT TAG Cut a strip from the picture side of a card and fold it in half. Write the recipient's name on the inside.

JIGSAW PUZZLE Glue the front and back parts of the card together. (The extra weight will make the puzzle more durable.) When the glue is dry, draw puzzle-piece shapes on the back of the card; cut out and place in a plastic bag for an easy road-trip game.

POSTCARD For the extras of your own family card: Cut off the front picture flap. Add a quick note, the address, and a stamp on the other side.

O

Old-fashioned toys

You say you want to avoid screens, batteries, and soul-sucking sounds, but where to shop for simple gifts that your kids will still love? These are our editors' favorite sites for nostalgic—but still totally fun—treasures.
| sproutsanfrancisco.com | designlifekids.com | | ameliapresents.com

P

PUNCH FOR A CROWD

A Champagne concoction that works for New Year's, too.

ACTIVE TIME 5 MINUTES TOTAL TIME 1 HOUR, 5 MINUTES


  • 1½ cups chilled cranberry juice cocktail
  • ¼ cup amaretto liqueur
  • ¼ cup Cointreau
  • 2 (750-mL) bottles Champagne or Prosecco, chilled
  • Fresh cranberries, for serving

STIR together the juice, amaretto, and Cointreau. Chill for at least 1 hour.

COMBINE the juice mixture and Champagne just before serving. Garnish with fresh cranberries.

Q

QUICKIE BOW TYING

Skip the complicated looping and curling. Craft stylist Blake Ramsey Murray says a knot looks just as lovely. "With the tails trimmed at 45-degree angles, it can look really chic—and requires a lot less material. You don't need any special skills to tie it. A basic knot with tails trimmed relatively short looks crisp and deliberate," she says. "If they're hanging over the edges of the package, they look sloppy."

R

RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED…CARIBOU?

It's true: The European/Asian reindeer and the American caribou, once considered different species, are now known to be the same, says reindeer biologist Nicholas Tyler of the Arctic University of Norway. And, no, the "rein" part has nothing to do with Santa's sleigh driving. The word reindeer comes from the Old Norse hreinin, which means "horned animal."

S

SHOW GRATITUDE

EVEN FOR A GIFT YOU DON'T LIKE

"Whether or not you are ever going to wear the itchy cardigan your great-aunt knitted for you, be thankful for it—grateful people are happy people," says Real Simple's etiquette expert, Catherine Newman. As for expressing thanks, stick to what's true. Not "I love it!" if you don't, but "I can't imagine how long you spent knitting this for me! I'm so lucky. Thank you." It's harder, maybe, with the microwave potato-baking gadget but still possible, says Newman: "You're always thinking of ways to make my life easier. I love that so much."

T

traditions

Same stockings, same cookies, same music playing as you open gifts. What's the psychological reason behind rituals? "Back when families needed community for protection, traditions showed allegiance," says Joffrey Suprina, Ph.D., the dean of the College of Counseling, Psychology and Social Sciences at Argosy University, in Sarasota, Florida. Another theory: Markers of time make the stress of the season more bearable. "The simple observance that we've made it once more around the calendar offers comfort," says Marie Hartwell-Walker, a psychologist in Amherst, Massachusetts.

U

UNCLES AND AUNTS

Don't tell you to brush your teeth or sit up straight. Their love has few conditions. You just get the good parts. Like my Aunt Madeline making ravioli just because I love them. And my Uncle Mario, who took us up in his single-engine Cessna plane, with no hands on the wheel, to our squealing delight. (My mom and the FAA still know nothing.)

Then there's my Uncle Pat. When I was six years old, he made me the following offer: He would take me with my cousins to an amusement park in Queens if I would sleep over at their house on Long Island afterward. He had to work the next day, and it would be too late for him to drive me home. I promised with all my heart that I was a big girl, and I could do it. So I went to the fair, stuffed my face with cotton candy, rode the Ferris wheel, and got this tiny toy tin washing machine with a crank and a spin cycle. I came crashing down as we pulled into the driveway at 11 P.M. and, breaking my promise, cried to go home. Without a fuss, without scolding me as my parents would, Pat laughed and drove me home.

Years later, when Uncle Pat and my Aunt Jean were living in Southern California and I was there for work, I had lunch with them, then drove two hours away to my hotel—leaving my cell phone behind. I called Uncle Pat with my FedEx number and asked him to send it, that I could wait a few days. The next morning, I woke up to a flashing light on the hotel-room phone: You have something at the front desk. The clerk handed me my phone and said that an older gentleman had dropped it off at 5 A.M. He didn't even stay for breakfast.

Two years ago, I called their house to say "Merry Christmas," and my cousin Patti told me that her father was too sick to know what day it was. He passed the next day. Around Christmas every year, I miss him terribly but am incredibly thankful for his limitless love and support. Uncle Pat once gave me a cool pair of Mad Men–era binoculars, and I often sit on the dock with them in Marina del Rey, looking out at the boats, thinking of him, hoping to see myself without all the conditions, the way he saw and loved me.

V

Victorians

Speaking of traditions, we have the Victorians to thank for most of ours. "Though the effects of the Puritan suppression of Christmas had lingered for nearly two centuries, the marriage of German Prince Albert to Queen Victoria in 1840 helped spread the German tradition of Christmas trees in England," says Bruce Forbes, Ph.D., the author of Christmas: A Candid History. An illustration of the royal couple and their children (plus toys) around a decorated tree in The Illustrated London News in 1848 turned the Christmas tide, making the holiday a family-centric one that was less about religion and more about spreading good cheer—and presents.

W

wine, mulled

A festive recipe—with a white wine twist—to commit to memory now. You'll need it all winter.

ACTIVE TIME 10 minutes TOTAL TIME 1 hour, 10 minutes SERVES 10


  • ½ cup honey
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1 5-in. piece orange peel
  • 2 star anise
  • 4 black peppercorns
  • 2 (750-mL) bottles dry white wine, such as Chardonnay

BRING the honey, cinnamon sticks, orange peel, star anise, peppercorns, and ½ cup water to a simmer over medium in a large pot, stirring to dissolve the honey. Turn off heat, add the wine, cover, and let steep 30 to 60 minutes.

BEFORE serving, gently reheat over medium-low just until the mulled wine begins to release steam; do not let simmer. Serve in handled glasses or mugs.

X

XMAS

For people who find this common abbreviation crass, here's a salve: The X comes from the Greek letter chi, the first letter of the Greek word Χριστός (Christ). So using Xmas in place of Christmas is kind of saying the same thing. And that abbreviation dates all the way back to the mid-16th century, well before stores started using it to save room on signs. (XMAS SALE! 75% OFF!)

Y

YULE LOG

The glowing fireside scene we think of when we hear "yule log" has its roots in German and Scandinavian paganism. Yule is the celebration of the winter solstice, and burning a log brought good luck—not to mention light in the middle of a dark, depressing winter. The Vikings and the Anglo-Saxons took the tradition to England, where it became linked with the cozy feelings of Christmas, and the English brought it to America. Fast-forward to Christmas Eve 1966, New York City: TV station WPIX broadcasts a film loop of a yule log burning in a fireplace as a gift to city dwellers who live in apartments without hearths. Today you can stream a yule log (rent a flickering scene for $2 at amazon.com) and experience the warmth of the season through…your iPad.

Zzzz

MERRYMAKING IS EXHAUSTING.

So Real Simple exclaims, as you turn out the light, Happy Holidays to all, and to all a good night!