From The Heart
December 14, 2019

Magic & Magi

Christmas is...magic. Sparkling lights, glistening greenery, beautiful packages wrapped up with bows. Read on for some of my favorite holiday things.

15 min read

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes Christmas so magical.  What creates that feeling of wonder and whimsy - full of light, and joy, and anticipation that something wonderful is just around the corner - and how do we share it with others?  For me, embracing that feeling and wrapping others in it, despite the busyness of life, is where the magic is.  So sending a little magic your way with some fun family traditions and party ideas in the hopes they inspire...and simplify...your season.


Frocked Christmas tree

As a party game at a Christmas gathering I recently attended, the hostess asked each of us to share a special childhood Christmas tradition, and it was so much fun to hear the different holiday rituals...and to discover some friends had the same treasured traditions. They were shared with such joy and passion...and a lot of laughter.  It struck a chord, especially since my husband and I, recently married, are sifting through new traditions and old to see what made Christmas magic when we were little, and how we will make it magic for our family for years to come.  Keeping and creating traditions definitely plays a part for both of us.  If you are looking to create new traditions, or merely curious whether your zany family is the only one that does a thing, here are a few favorite traditions to consider:

Trim-a-Tree -  Early in December, friends and family gather together to share a meal, decorate the Christmas tree, sing carols, and play games.  It’s a tradition that’s been held in my husband’s family going back as long as he can remember (we recently found a photo of the family with baby Ian, less than a year old, and his great-grandmother True, gathered for the trim-a-tree) .  The tradition embodies the season and kicks it off right!    If you’d like to host one, check out the party ideas below and my ‘Talking Turkey’ post for more details.

Christmas Lights - For years, we have donned festive pjs and piled in the car with hot cocoa to go see Christmas lights on Christmas Eve (yes, we go out in public in pjs - sometimes matching ones - not ashamed).  We have favorite streets we love to visit every year, because they go all out, and if you are one of those homes, thank you for sharing the spirit and making our holiday brighter!

Cinnamon Rolls -  Many families have traditional dishes served to ring in Christmas.  For us, Christmas is ‘cinnanonymous’ with cinnamon rolls.  My mom has baked cinnamon rolls for breakfast on Christmas morning every year since we were little, and now I do, too, in the baking dish she gave me one Christmas, especially for making them.  My husband’s family has a long-standing tradition that centers around Christmas breakfast, too, with their PaPa’s english muffin’s served in his memory taking center stage.  Do you have a favorite dish or meal as part of your Christmas tradition?

Christmas stockings on display

Sinterklaas - When we lived in Aruba, we celebrated Christmas twice, once when Sinterklaas came on his white steed to fill wooden shoes on December 5th, and then again when Santa Claus came down the chimney to fill stockings on Christmas Eve.  It‘s a tradition we clung to (what kid doesn’t argue for Christmas twice?).  To this day, Sinterklaas leaves goodies, including a large chocolate initial, in your shoe if you’ve been good...or switches if you’ve been naughty. Anyone know where I can get a very large switch for a certain someone?

Christmas Movies - As part of our Christmas traditions, my family often includes a movie night, heading to the theater to see a new release, or sometimes taking in a classic, like White Christmas in a historic theater.  Whether in the theater or at home, we also have a list of movies that must be watched to commemorate the season, including: Die Hard (it IS a Christmas movie), White Christmas, and Muppet Christmas Carol.  Sometimes we get crazy and throw in Elf, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Christmas in Connecticut (you have to watch the one with Cuddles - “Catastrof!”).

Christmas Shootout - Ok, our southern may be showin,’ but don’t knock it ‘til you try it.  For the last dozen years, my husband’s family has held a target shooting competition to test the skill of their kin.  Thankfully, there are no live rounds or live targets, but it does give a thrill of hope to see if arrows really know how to fly.  

Notes to Santa - this last one I’m sharing is a twist on a classic borrowed from a friend, but it’s so cute, I think it’s going to become part of our new traditions.  Her little one leaves Christmas cookies for Santa on a paper plate, but what’s unique is they write a note to Santa on it telling him where he can find the cold milk (because who wants milk left out all night?).  Santa always leaves a note back and nibbles the cookies.  While my sisters and I often woke to notes left by Santa and excitedly exclaimed about the half eaten cookies he left, the idea of the note about the milk tickled me - such a thoughtful, practical kiddo!

Party Ideas

I love any excuse for a party.  I also love any excuse to pick out invitations, decorations, menus, music, favors, and all the little touches that make the day and your guests feel special.  Whether you love to do the same, or dread it and are looking for a few pointers, here are a few festive ideas to try:

Trim-a-Tree party - invite guests for an evening of tree decorating, chestnuts roasting, and caroling out in the snow.  You can have tables displayed with ornaments ready to go, or create a station where guests can decorate their own - twine, popcorn, and wooden beads for stringing and clear ornament balls to fill with items like holly, greenery, tinsel, or music sheet clippings (paint and glitter, if you are very brave), etc. Once the tree is decorated, gather guests around for a tree lighting ceremony.  To round out the evening, play Christmas Charades and sing carols by the fire. As a favor, give a personalized ornament (or have guests make their own) to take home.  

Christmas tea - host a quiet coze, serving Christmas blends and mulled cider (wassail) with chicken salad sandwiches, cranberry scones, figgie pudding, mini cheesecakes with gingersnap crusts, and eggnogg flavored petit fours and cream puffs (I like to add ginger and cranberries to the chicken salad, cranberry jam to the petit fours and hide cranberries in the cream puff for an extra pop at Christmas).  Send guests home with a mug or mason jar with a personalized label filled with a tea blend, scone mix, or infused honey (see my Countdown to Downton post for a recipe on infusing honey).

Cookie exchange - invite each of your friends to make a few dozen of their ‘signature’ Christmas cookie and bring them to the party to ‘swap’ with those baked by other guests.  You’ll all learn new recipes and have a ready supply of festive treats on hand to last you through the season.   You can display the treats on a table or sideboard of tiered cake plates and platters labeled by place cards for a beautiful and festive effect, and create a “Packaging Station,” complete with cardboard boxes, tissue paper, twine, markers and other embellishments, where guests can decorate a cookie box or tin to fill and take home, along with a copy of each recipe.  (Tips: I recommend each guest  bring a dozen of their cookie for each guest attending.  Ask guests to send a copy of their recipe about a week before the event so you can make copies for each guest, ensure everyone is making a different cookie, and manage any allergies. I also recommend starting your baking about 2-3 days in advance of the party and setting up the display and packaging stations the day before your event).

Cookie Decorating Party - A fun twist on a cookie exchange is to host a cookie baking or decorating party where guests can share recipes and decorating tips.  Sugar and gingerbread cookies are easiest with this twist, but I recommend leaving it open to any cookie guests like  - you might find a new favorite cookie to frost!  And since nothing goes better with cookies than milk, consider setting up a milk and hot cocoa station with decorative straws and cups, spoons made of peppermint or dipped in chocolate, and marshmallows in various flavors and Christmas shapes. Monogrammed aprons or clear Christmas ornaments filled with a cookie mix make nice favors for this twist.

Holiday table display

Favorite Things Party - last but most definitely not least is hosting a Favorite Things Party.  I had not heard of this version of a gift exchange before, but everyone absolutely loved it when my dear friend Brenda hosted one recently. Each guest is invited to bring ~3 identical gifts, unwrapped, to the party.  Gifts are intended to be a few of your favorite things - tea towels from Magnolia or Anthropologie, Tocca hand cream, rose and champagne baths salts, Starbucks gift cards, etc.  All of the gifts are beautifully displayed for guests to peruse, and each guest is provided a ‘shopping’ bag for the evening’s festivities. At different intervals throughout the party, a jingle bell is sounded to invite guests to shop, at which time they can select one item from the gift table to add to their bag to take home.  It’s a wonderful way to share a few of your favorite things with your friends, and find some new ones!


I love the feeling you get when you find that ‘perfect’ gift for someone - something meaningful, seemingly designed just for them, that you know they’ll love.  For some, it’s a gift to spoil them because you know they’d never splurge on themselves - like something from Kate Spade or Kendra Scott, Barr Co. bath salts and a gift certificate for a spa day, or a tech toy like air pods.  For others it’s something they mentioned wistfully in conversation months ago that you remembered they’d love, and for others, it’s something sentimental like an heirloom passed down, a precious photo in a frame, a chacuterie board engraved with a hand-written recipe from a relative.  

For on trend gift inspiration, I like to check out Pintrest, Etsy and NYMag, but on the quest for the perfect ‘thing’, I try to remember these words, so in the hustle and bustle out there, I don’t miss the true meaning.

They “...sacrificed for each other the greatest treasures of their house. But in a last word to the wise of these days let it be said that of all who give gifts these two were the wisest. .”  - O. Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’

Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn't come from a store. What if Christmas...perhaps...means a little bit more!”

― Dr. Seuss, How the Grinch Stole Christmas!  

O.Henry and the Grinch got it right.  These stories always make me tear up because they remind me there’s so much more to Christmas than what’s under the tree.  I love how the ‘The Gift of the Magi’  points to what the season is all about: the birth of a child who wise men still seek and seeking to put others first.  And the Grinch reminds us that Christmas comes without presents at all. After all, the people in our lives are the true gifts. As I plan for the third Christmas party this week, with several more to go, in this season of giving, it’s easy to get caught up in the ‘gifting’ instead.- of picking the perfect presents, the perfect decorations, the perfect party dress...and yet the joy is in the people, not the perfection.  A kind, encouraging word to a harassed waiter harangued by a customer,  a smile to a stranger as you pass on the street, a gift to a child who may not have Christmas at all - these are the true gifts, to me as much as them.  And the moment of Christmas I look forward to most isn’t unwrapping things for me under the tree, but seeing the faces of my loved ones cuddled in our pjs, watching the tree glisten and listening to their laughter on Christmas morning.  So while I’ll worry about finding a gift that shows how much I love them, I’ll try giving them a little more of me  - present, rested, non-stressed “best self” me  - this Christmas.  

Wishing you and yours warm wishes this Christmas!