7 Quick Takes about Christmas card love, bizarre caroling phobias, and a reminder that guests are more important than food

December 13, 2013 | 50 comments

— 1 —

Christmas is week after next! And I still haven’t done any shopping! And you know what the best part is? I don’t care. I’m not stressed about it at all, and this is a huge victory for me this year.

I always give lip service to the fact that presents are not the center of Christmas, and then I spend most of my mental energy thinking about presents. In my defense (and in the defense of everyone who has a lot of people to shop for), getting gifts for six kids when you’re on a tight budget really does require a lot of planning. When you add the issue of making sure that everyone gets roughly the same number and quality of gifts so that no one feels slighted, there’s almost no way to keep it simple.

This year my strategy is to not give it a second thought for most of the season, do all the shopping at once on the third weekend of Advent, and turn it over to God as to whether the number and type of gifts I get are the right fit for everyone. I honestly don’t know whether this is an intentional strategy or just me being a lazy procrastinator again, but wherever the idea came from, it’s working.

— 2 —

You may recall from previous years’ ravings that I love Christmas cards. LOVE. I love getting them, I love sending them out — I even love updating our address database and printing labels.

My friend Kathryn Whitaker is as much of a fan of the tradition as I am (which I like to point out because it gives the extremely inaccurate impression that she and I have a lot in common in the domestic arts). She wins Christmas every year with her beautifully designed, tri-fold family photo letter that arrives promptly on the first of December. And my favorite part is this:


Throughout the year, the Whitakers go through their Christmas cards one at a time to pray for the family who sent that card. I just love that tradition, and I think it speaks to the enduring value of Christmas cards, even in the online age. There’s something special about having a physical object that you can hold and feel, like a picture or a card, instead of pixels confined to a screen.

— 3 —

That said, I totally get why some people don’t send them. If I didn’t love it, I wouldn’t do it. We can’t do it all, especially during the holidays, and some activities have to go, even if they’re great in theory.

One of the things I’ve realized only recently is that I need to find as many liturgical year traditions as possible that are not work for me. Doing Christmas cards, for example, does not feel like work. Each evening I look forward to pulling up my basket filled with envelopes and pictures and our family newsletter and new pens and sharpies. I can’t wait to jot down little messages on the back of the cards and smooth labels onto envelopes, all with a favorite show playing in the background and a glass of eggnog at my side. It truly makes the holiday season more special for me.

Baking, on the other hand, makes me lose my will to live entirely. I know that it would bless my family if our counter were spread with warm cookies and pies throughout the season, but my children lost the mommy lottery on that one. I occasionally make some treats with them because they enjoy it, but you’ve seen how it tends to turn out, and then I feel like I need 10 hours in a Relaxman to recover. I have a friend who is the opposite (hates Christmas cards, loves baking) which makes me realize that the key to maintaining sanity during holiday seasons is to find activities that you genuinely enjoy.

I think that one of my projects for the New Year is going to be creating a list called Fabulous Liturgical Year Activities that Don’t Ruin Jen’s Life.

— 4 —

Once again, I’m living in fear of Christmas carolers showing up at my door. No, wait, it gets weirder: I love the idea of Christmas caroling. In fact, I submit that the health of a civilization is directly tied to the percentage of its population that goes Christmas caroling. I think it’s a beautiful and important tradition, and if I were rich I would donate money to charities that fostered Christmas caroling organizations in neighborhoods…on the condition that they gave me a 10-minute warning before they showed up at my house so I could hide in the closet.

I can already hear my mental dialogue if I opened my door to encounter people singing at me.

Oh gosh…so I’m just standing here…they’re singing…should I nod my head to the rhythm of the song? I’ll try to sing along…okay, that’s going well…WHAT? Who knew that Jingle Bells had a third verse?!?!?…I wonder if they can tell that I’m just moving my lips now…hopefully they’ll be distracted by the fact that there is a dismembered Ken doll wearing a dress on the doorstep.

I mean it in all sincerity when I say: Christmas carolers, the problem is me, not you.

— 5 —

As much as I love the way our Christmas card turned out this year, I fear I shall never beat my parents’ Christmas card shot from 1981:


— 6 —

A super-talented designer whom I follow on Instagram came up with a fantastic idea for a Christmas gift: a beautifully-decorated certificate that offers to let a child choose a memorable experience for 2014 — things like going to the circus, enjoying a night at the theater, and so on. She generously offered to make a printable available through her website, and I was just about to snatch it up for my own kids’ stockings. Then I mentioned it to Joe, and he pointed out that we should be careful not to make promises we can’t keep right now. We started thinking about things that we could actually commit to in this season of life, and we laughed until we cried when we realized our list was something like:

  • Extra hour of Minecraft.
  • Mommy doesn’t yell when you get snack without asking.
  • Mommy keeps your two-year-old sister from attacking you while you watch TV.
  • Play with ball on back porch (if we have one that’s not deflated).
  • You choose whether mommy does Twitter or Instagram when she stares at her phone in a sleep-deprived stupor all afternoon.
  • Doritos for dinner.

— 7 —

Here is something I really need to be reminded of this time of year: guests are more important than food (via Abigail). Because I’m not a natural chef, it’s all too easy for me to get in over my head by attempting to create dishes for guests that are easy for other people but overwhelming for me. So it really resonated with me when the author wrote:

The only cooking technique that everyone needs to master is being ready on time. If you’ve reined in your ambitions and planned a reasonable menu, you’ll be prepared when family arrives. Because the second they walk through the door, your guests — not your dinner — need your attention.

Families often lose out on the hospitality we offer to strangers. But when your cousins come in out of the cold, pumpkin pie in one hand, toddler in the other, they appreciate having someone take their coat. And get them a drink.

Close family members require less ministration. New family members and boyfriends and girlfriends who aren’t yet familiar enough to put their feet up on the sofa may feel less comfortable. They deserve extra attention.

What they need, what we all need, is to feel special.

Wise words for the holiday season.



  1. Leah @ Unequally Yoked

    Don’t worry, I’ve done caroling, and we try to keep things short to not put you on the spot too much. Actually, this is why it’s a lot more fun to do it by subway entrances, so people can stick around if they want to but aren’t trapped. (That way I don’t feel too bad for the people walking past when we decided to see if we could remember/sight-read the Hallelujah Chorus)

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      I am extremely impressed by anyone who would try to sing the Hallelujah Chorus off the top of their heads. And yeah, subway entrances are totally different. That’s singing in public, not caroling (right?). 🙂

  2. Julie

    I’m right where you are (maybe worse) on number 1 this year: Not at all ready for Christmas, and oddly peaceful about it. I’ll get it all done this week. (I’ve got to, right?)

    And on number 4: I’m super excited to be going caroling again this Christmas for the first time in years. From my experience, the people whose houses we hit take up part of our singing time by gathering everyone from within their homes. You’ve got lots of kids, so that gives you at least a solid minute or two to focus on that task. Then they stand there, arms around their family, and smile at us. Maybe they take a couple of pictures – all constructive things you can do. When we finish, they either just thank us and wave, or they hand us some cookies first. (Now I’ve really messed you up, haven’t I? You’ll be stressing about not wanting to bake cookies for the carolers you hope won’t show up anyway!)

  3. Erin

    You’re picture looks so Texan!

  4. Joanne

    I am super into sending and receiving Christmas cards too! I send out over 100 and it drives crazy that we only get about 15-20 (better to give than receive?). Love the idea of keeping the cards and praying for the family!

    If you would like a laugh at a good Christmas card outtake here is our’s from 2012


    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      Oh my gosh I LOVE that picture. That looks sooooooo familiar!

    • Lynne

      What a cute and funny picture!! It reminds me: last year a friend entered a “scared of Santa” photo contest. I’d never heard of this before, but I laughed till I cried over some of the pictures in their online gallery. Apparently this is a common kind of contest; google “scared of Santa” and spend an enjoyable holiday morning wheezing over the results!

    • Kathryn

      Joanne, funny thing. When we started praying for people (and telling them that we were doing it), we immediately started getting more cards back. I guess people love prayers 😉

  5. mary

    I related to every single one of these, Well. except the super fly 80s pic 🙂

  6. Amelia @ One Catholic Mama

    Ha…I love that 80’s Texas pic!

    And I love your insight about doing hte traditions you like. I send out an email/blog post Christmas card/letter complete with lots of pictures and maybe even a video or two…because it’s cheap and easy. But, I hate writing Christmas cards and writing notes and spending money on stamps. And, I don’t really like getting Christmas cards in the mail because I never know what to do with them and it’s just more “stuff” in my alreayd too cluttered house. I do love baking though. Unfortunately my hips would be much better off if i did more Christmas card writing and less baking.

  7. Kathy@9peas

    The Christmas card idea is great! Some years I have the where with all to pull off Christmas cards and other years, I let it go.
    Christmas caroler phobia is hilarious, yet as much as I love it I also find myself wondering what to do when they show up and then panicking because I don’t have Wassail (does anyone) to serve them or cocoa and please, please don’t come in because we are in the middle of the arsenic hour.

  8. Theresa

    Jennifer…after a night of insomnia, it feels good to laugh with a cup of java in hand : )

    I think I am foregoing the cards this year…last year I got a great pic and was all into it…even my 24 year old son gave in and let me include his mug.

    I really feel I am simplifying this year…although got shopping done early…yay!

    Thanks for a great post.

  9. Jessica @ housewifespice

    If I shop early, my kids always do this third-week-of-Advent-change-our-minds-THIS-is-what-I-really-want. Honestly, I have spent many third weeks of Advent doing the Great Christmas Present Return and Re-purchase that I consider it an exercise in wisdom and patience to wait until now to shop.

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      YES. That is exactly why I never do my shopping too early. It drives me crazy when I get something nice and then hear that the kids now things it’s stupid. Arrrrgh!

  10. Nella

    #5: Texas for the win.

  11. Kris

    Oh. #3!! Love cards, hate baking. And can I add HATE extensive holiday decorating? I have lots and lots and lots of inherited decorations that never see the light of day. It was very freeing a few years ago when I realized that my kids were totally happy with a nativity, the stockings and a crazy Santa head that lets them count down the days until Christmas morning. Done and done. My Mom’s house is something out of a decorating magazine, but the thought makes me want to stab myself!

  12. Kathleen Basi

    We would be those Christmas carolers you dread. 🙂 Sorry!

  13. Smoochagator

    In your defense, baking when you’re gluten intolerant is a little more difficult/expensive. I have to say that I do enjoy cooking & baking immensely, and I like Christmas cards in theory, but where I really fail is decorating for Christmas. If I get a tree up, it’s a miracle. Not exaggerating. And it’s kind of embarrassing that I’m so bad at it because I’m an ARTIST. Like, you’d think making my house pretty would be easy. Not so much.

  14. fierceCatolica

    I have recently become a Christmas card sender! This is my second year, and I’m officially addicted. 🙂 I like to play around with paper crafting, so I made all of my Christmas cards. I’m excited about how they came out this year! And ditto to the carolers. McAwkward.

  15. Lynne

    If there was a photo that could encapsulate 80’s Texas, wow–this might be it. You could win a contest with that one! And aren’t you so adorable as a child? I love these “early Jen” pictures.

    Let me encourage you by saying that you are way, and I mean miles!, ahead of so, so many people in the Christmas card department because you pick up a pen and write a simple message on it. It’s a grinchy fact that every year I complain upstairs and downstairs about the people I haven’t seen in ten years who send me a Christmas card (not even a photo one) and include no signature, no personal message, but merely an imprint of their name. At least with a photo I can see that life has happened to you, but no photo and no message leaves me hollow. No signature just makes me want to spit blood. So yea for you for having common sense and common courtesy. For that matter yea for you for even getting a picture made, knowing where your address book is and making time to actually mail the cards. As a would-be friend, I can say your card would be very meaningful to me.

  16. Amy

    Oh Jen, this is one of my faves! (I had to type that three times to keep my computer from autocorrecting it to “one of my faces”). The caroling commentary, the 1981 pic, the list of special “memorable” experiences… you’ve got me laughing so hard this morning. And I absolutely LOVE the Christmas card idea from your friend. I love getting Christmas cards too, but never know what to do with them. And please, please do make the liturgical year list! I need that.

  17. Jenny

    LOL at #6…and I’m pretty sure I’ll be stealing that idea, too, although perhaps doing it for my husband. He’d probably consider a certificate for Doritos for Dinner to be one of the best things he’s ever gotten 😉
    I’m fortunate that so far my kids (ages 3.5, 1.5, and 2 months) don’t know that they could ask for presents or specify what they want. Long may it continue.
    Also, love the reminder of #7. Thanks for sharing!

  18. Leila@LittleCatholicBubble

    “Baking, on the other hand, makes me lose my will to live entirely.”

    Thank you, my sister, for being the voice for us voiceless.

  19. Joan @ Everything is Yours

    Oh my goodness, I cracked up at your, “In fact, I submit that the health of a civilization is directly tied to the percentage of its population that goes Christmas caroling,” comment…so hilarious!

  20. Claire

    That 1981 photo is hysterical!

  21. Maeve

    I made a change this year because I was tired of the stress of presents interfering in my advent time. I decided to have ALL gifts purchased before Dec 1st. This probably wont be possible every year but I am going to strive for it because it has been awesome this year.

  22. Janet

    You will never beat that 1981 Christmas pic. NO ONE will ever beat that Christmas pic. In fact, you could have a very profitable part-time job by just having the props available and letting people rent them and stage that pic.

    PS, my baking skills amount to buying a tube of sugar cookie dough at the store and letting my kids put colored sugar sprinkles on top. Fun times though. They turn out inedible, but not un-gift-able… perfect for the holidays! Like fruit cake, but lots easier. 🙂

  23. Anne

    Ooooh I loooove that article! My husband and in-laws were just teasing me the other day about my penchant for throwing parties like I’m a part of them instead of hiding in the kitchen stressing about food and clean up. Now I see I’m onto something.

  24. Natalie

    Thank you! I haven’t done any shopping yet either, and I am trying hard not to get overwhelmed. My husband and I are singers, so on top of Christmas preparations, we’ve got concerts and church services galore this time of year. We don’t even have time to go caroling! 🙂
    It was interesting to read your reaction to carolers. I never considered that people who answer the door feel such awkwardness. Honestly, we just love to sing and share music with people, so don’t sweat it.

  25. Caitlin

    I REALLY want to enjoy sending Christmas cards, but I don’t. Thinking about addressing all of those cards makes me hyperventilate. Primarily because I am a complete psycho about handwriting and it has to be perfect. Baking on the other hand, is my happy place.
    I completely agree with you about spending time on things that you enjoy during the season, and skipping those things that are extras which just add stress. I haven’t done any Christmas shopping either, but I’m shockingly not stressed. I am concerned though, because being pregnant makes me SO DUMB (not in a charming cute way, in a way that my husband looks at me like, “who are you?”) so I’m worried that this year’s gifts might not be the greatest. 🙂

  26. Joy @ Caspara

    This is one of the funniest 7 QT’s I’ve ever read!! I never had a Christmas caroller phobia… Till now! You’re so right! That’d be totally awakward!!!
    Such good stuff!

  27. Julie @ Connecticut Catholic Corner

    I haven’t started my Christmas shopping either and you are the only other person I know who has admitted to not starting either!

    Love the 1981 Christmas photo… I actually looked around for one of the Ewings in the background. 😉 Takes me back…

    Happy Christmas shopping… I am off to Amazon.com now. 🙂

    Julie- late in Connecticut

  28. Kathryn

    High-fiving you from north Austin on the Christmas cards – it has always been my thang. It’s lovely to know a kindred spirit. Having said that, however, I’m not sure I will ever attempt to beat that 1980s pic – seriously awesome. #texasforever

  29. Jenna@CallHerHappy

    Yes on all things Christmas caroling. Holy awkward. But lovely. But awkward.

  30. Sarah

    YES to the Christmas cards! I LOVE them… designing them, getting them in the mail, looking at them over and over again – its like getting a little present in your mailbox. Also, you’re never going to beat that Christmas card picture of your parents’. So much win in that picture.

  31. Rakhi @ The Pitter Patter Diaries

    I loved everything about this post, especially the Whitaker’s tradition, which we are now stealing. I don’t have to confess that, right? 🙂 I love sending cards, and if we had more of a budget available this year, I love designing my own. However, a Groupon deal it was, and much like our family photo experience, the choices and experience were less than optimal. C’est la vie! It’s the thought I suppose.

    This year we also decided to scale back on the present buying, and have not bought much of anything yet either. This is our weekend to get ‘er done too. Not intentionally. More because we realized Christmas is less than two weeks away. Oops. Plenty of time for those Amazon boxes to meander on over to our porch. 🙂

    Did you read Bonnie’s take on “un-doing” Advent? Really gave me food for thought on the fact that I make it too “doing” based and not “resting” based. Lots to ponder for the next liturgical season…perhaps sand bags for Lent is too much.

    Happy shopping!

    • Kathryn

      Rakhi, if we stole the original idea from friends, then it is TOTALLY fair for you to steal it from us! Bonnie’s post was awesome. I loved it. Merry Christmas.

  32. annT

    A solution to your Christmas caroler issue… Always have an uncorked bottle of wine with an empty glass sitting next to your front door. When you hear the bell ring, pour yourself a nice big glass of wine and down it! Answer the door and by the time they have finished singing you will find yourself with a nice little buzz. Just make sure you only chug a glass of wine when the bell indicates carolers otherwise you may find yourself tipsy throughout the greater part of advent 🙂

    As far as gift giving goes… My husband and I only by one gift per child and fill their stockings. I grew up this way and we’ve decided to carry on the tradition with our children. Christmas morning has always been peaceful and joyful for us. Keeps the focus on Jesus, family and simplicity. Even if we had lots of money to splurge we would continue this tradition. I know this approach isn’t for everyone but it works wonderfully for us!

  33. Elise

    As a singer who enjoys caroling, your no. 4 had me cracking up, Jen! And what a cool idea of Kathryn’s in no. 2 – thank you for sharing! Love it.

  34. J.R. Baldwin

    I loooooooooove Christmas cards. I love sending them and receiving them. Mostly receiving them, but I did buy 120 stamps today AND I ordered them last week from Shutterfly. Let’s see if I can get them sent out before February this year!!

    I’ve never had a Christmas caroler, so I cannot commiserate. (I was one once, though – Brownies in the 3rd grade!) However, Amy Poehler was running around NYC trying to get people to sing Christmas carols with her, and hardly anyone knew them! That made me sad. We all need to sing along!

    This was a really fantastic post, Jen – as usual!

  35. Rebecca

    Yea, not much shopping done here either. It’ll get done eventually, I suppose.

    I LOVE the idea of picking a card each night and praying for that person throughout the year – I think I’ll float that one past The Man – thanks for sharing it!

    Happy Advent Jen!

  36. Maia

    Ha! I get the the same way about carolers! Love them. Love going. Think it’s SO important. When they knock: stare at them awkwardly and wonder if they are expecting fresh baked cookies…that I don’t have…

  37. Jess@Cathofeminism

    I love sending our Christmas letters! We began sending them because we moved so often, and wanted to let our large family know where we were. It turned into a funny tradition, and now we include crazy photos of the kids. It is one of my favorite parts of the year! The hard part is topping the funny from the year before. Have a Blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas!

  38. Laurie

    I have to share this idea about Christmas card photos that has panned out exactly as I hoped it would.

    When cards come I display people’s family photos on our mantel. But in years past when I would “put Christmas away” I never knew what to do with all the photos. Organizing them into an album pretty much meant that I would never see them again. And I hated throwing the photos away because I knew how much time, effort, and money people put into sharing the perfect shot.

    Several years back I was inspired to get a couple “floating” picture frames (the ones that don’t have a designated template for quantity, size, and location of photos – just two pieces of glass to sandwich the photos between). Every year when it comes time to un-decorate the house, I enjoy the process of preparing all the photos for framing and then I collage them all into my frames and hang them right at the front of our hall. We keep the photos displayed the whole year until next year’s photos arrive to take their place.

    I love that I can look on all the faces throughout the year. We also use it as an opportunity to pray for everyone. And my kids get to know the names and faces as they pass them everyday and pause to question and discuss from time to time.

  39. kharking

    There seems to be this great divide between those who love to bake for holidays and those who send cards. Anyone in both camps? I’ll admit that I am in the baking group although I love to get cards, especially with updated pictures. I keep telling myself that one of these years we will make the investment in it. One thing holding me back right now is our current inability to get all of the kids looking minimally pleasant at the same time and the resulting fear of ending up on awkward family photos.
    I have never had anyone come caroling but we have done it quite a lot and are planning to do it this year as well. The most fun is when the household really gets into it and starts singing along–way better than cookies or treats that I can’t let the kids eat anyway.

    • Mary Therese

      Me! I’m in both camps…and sad this year because it seems all our friends and relatives have ceased sending cards. 🙁 I will continue to send mine out though, and I enjoy doing it. I’ve also devised a way to save all the great photos & letters we’ve received in the past…I simply stick them on decorated 8×11 sheets and put them in a 3-ring binder. It’s fun to pull out each Christmas and watch how friends have grown. Have also been able to bake more than ever this year–maybe because the youngest is now 14, and also a willing helper in the kitchen. Jen–I’d send you a card if I knew where 😉

    • Jessica

      kharking, I just love to look at photos of our family and friends on their Christmas cards, regardless of whether the picture is “perfect” or not (and let’s face it – family photos with young children are rarely perfect, but that’s what makes them so memorable!)

      Our card this year features our two little ones sitting in front of our fireplace, dressed to the nines in their Christmas outfits . . . sounds lovely, but now I will add that the one year-old is in the midst of blowing a kiss, so her lips are all puckered, and the three year-old is giving a big, silly grin with his pointer fingers stuck by his lips, imitating my husband (who was standing behind me trying to get him to smile.)

      It was the best photo option we had.

      Yeah . . .

  40. Amanda

    Love Kathryn’s prayers for all who send Christmas cards! Such a sweet idea! And, your weather posts re: Texas weather and your love for all things instaweather had me loling. Love it! Love it all! 🙂

  41. Carrie

    I laughed and laughed and laughed about the Christmas carolers and the do-able promises for your kids. I so relate to each. 😀

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