The time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s has never exactly been what I’d call “relaxing.” Not only are a bunch of holidays thrown in there with all of their trappings, but also Ella and Annie’s birthdays (see again: I’m terrible with The Math).

Still, the month of December is, for us, the perfect bookend to the year – because the girls and I so love the traditions that that come with it. Cookie decorating, RACKing, Advent crafts, Santa meet-n-greets, watching movies, driving to see the lights, and the bazillion other things that make up our Christmas season aren’t chores we dread but the framework within which our month is built.
This Santa remembers everything and is absolute magic, I tell you.

Most years, although the weeks go by at a breakneck pace, the mere presence of these traditions ensures order and stability. On Tuesday*, the decoration bins shall come out. By noon on the 8th*, the homemade wrapping paper shall be complete. Sixteen hours before the winter solstice*, we make our holiday donations.
*exaggerations. Mostly.

It’s a little like our own, special holiday “Camelot” – where the rain can never fall till after sundown and the moonlight appears by 9 p.m. – except without the grandiose costumes or singing.

Actually, we wear some crazy things in December and always have music playing, so scratch that.

I’ve liked it that way, having the checkpoints and guideposts to provide much-needed scaffolding in an otherwise chaotic month. This year, with Thanksgiving occurring so early (and, thus, nearly an extra week between it and Christmas), I’d assumed that I would be well on top of things and actually be able to let go, float away, and appreciate our traditions, rather than breathlessly going through the motions.

Instead of providing a jump-start to the fervor, though, those extra days seemed to slow everything down. Why start prepping the Advent calendar when there’s still so much time? Who needs wrapping paper if we’ll ship direct from Amazon? Do we really have to choose the birthday cake theme when there are still 10 days to go? It felt like wading, not floating, but that was okay.

Then, as December unfolded and I barely managed to squeak in the Advent calendars and dust off the Elf on the Shelf, a dear friend suffered a terrible tragedy. While the community rallied together to support her and her children, I left wading behind and began to tread to keep my head above water. I missed deadlines for mailing packages without forking over the mortgage-payment-esque rush shipping fee. Ingredients that I’d planned to procure for holiday treat-making were forgotten. One afternoon, I literally drove right by the location for Ella’s swim practice until I heard her concerned voice from the back of the car, “Uh… Mom? Isn’t practice at the Y?”

Why, yes it is. Let me show you how to pull a U-Turn.

By then, I was no longer even treading. Instead, it felt like I was underwater, everything a rushing blur, popping my head up only long enough to take in a breath and get my bearings before dipping back beneath.

I began prioritizing the things with hard deadlines; everything else waited. New games? Saved for later. RACKs for our postal workers? Another time. Gingerbread houses? Christmas cookies? Setting out the Christmas village? Not today.

And I hated it. It wasn’t struggling to get things done that bothered me as much as the disappointment over what was falling by the wayside. It wasn’t necessary to send out holiday cards on time but I wanted to, damn it, and each day they were put off added more stress to what was already overwhelming.

By mid-month, I had to face reality: the scaffolding wasn’t there this time around and it wouldn’t be, period. Barring some kind of true Christmas miracle, there was simply no way I could “catch up” and put the guideposts back in place. Instead, I had to just be where we were, taking every day as it came rather than following a plan. What would happen would happen.

So we put things off. We waited. Our annual holiday movies stayed in their DVD cases. The Christmas village remained boxed. The cookies were baked but not iced. Rush, blur, beneath the surface.

I learned that being underwater has its advantages, though. See, when you’re working so hard just to keep from sinking, there is little time for anything beyond what’s necessary in the moment. This meant relinquishing control and asking for help (*gasp*), which were major ego-busters but turned out to be soul-savers. For the first time in 23 years, I asked Nick to take charge of finishing up shopping for our extended family. I asked for help with cleaning and said screw it about everything else. The girls decided on the design for our cards.
They did turn out pretty cute…

Spending so much time beneath the surface made the moments when I did pop my head up to breathe all the sweeter. Since I was no longer relying on guideposts and was, instead, trying to get my bearings, I really noticed what was happening around me – and when I paused in those moments, it was ridiculously delicious. Somehow, Annie and I made reading our daily holiday books a priority; it became my nightly salvation. When the girls and I finally – less than a week before The Big Day – put up the Christmas village, everything else melted away for that hour.

And so it went – remaining just barely underwater as the holiday crush sped by, reveling in the brief moments when I’d pop my head above the surface long enough to be sure of my surroundings – until three days before Christmas, when the girls’ school break began and my dad and stepmom arrived. Every instant until December 22nd had been spent assuring that What Needed To Be Done Was Done… meaning, amazingly, that – sweet fancy Moses – nothing essential remained. No bills to pay. No presents to buy. No groceries to stockpile. Instead, on December 22nd, I realized there were two entire, empty days between then and Christmas to focus on everything we’d ignored for three weeks: movies, cookies, gingerbread houses, games…

Basically, everything that I’d wanted to be doing all along.

I cleared the surface, stopped treading, and let go of the overwrought water metaphor I’d been indulging all month. Let the traditions begin! We made tray after tray of cookies. We played enough games to buy stock in Milton Bradley. We watched all of our favorite movies and went to see new ones in the theater. When the girls didn’t complete their gingerbread houses right away, I finished them myself on New Year’s Eve – because I love me some gingerbread houses, by gosh.

Sequence was our new favorite game this year; highly recommend.

This relaxing revelry did not occur only on December 23rd and 24th, but for the remainder of 2018 and a good ten days into January, as absurdly cold weather caused school closures and we were blanked with snow. We wore pajamas. We ignored bedtimes. Heck, even now, as February dawns, there is still a stack of games six deep on the living room ottoman.

Basically, Christmas lasted for a month and I loved every minute of it.

I had assumed that we needed our “usual” structure to create the scaffolding that enables us to honor our holiday traditions. Turns out, the traditions create the scaffolding, timetable be damned, however rickety and below code it may be.

I guess the point I’m trying to make is now that I know that Nick is pretty swell at selecting gifts for our siblings and that watching Home Alone on Christmas day is actually more fun than fitting it in beforehand, I will work at enlisting help and ditching the timetable a bit. LET THIS BE A LESSON TO US ALL. Maybe the structure isn’t so important as just doing what’s important.

But the holiday cards still need to be ordered earlier. Some things just need to happen on schedule, y’all.

Is it bigger than a bread box?

Recently, Annie and I (and occasionally Nick) have been playing epic rounds of Disney Hedbanz, which is just like regular Hedbanz except with only Disney characters. Or things. There are sometimes things and those are really hard (like the rose from Beauty and the Beast, the pumpkin coach from Cinderella, etc. HOW DO YOU GUESS THAT YOU’RE A POISON APPLE??).

The object of the game is to determine what character is pictured on your headband (which you cannot see, because it’s, you know, on your head) by asking questions about it – essentially Twenty Questions, except the number of questions isn’t limited; you can ask as many as you want until the sand runs out of the hourglass. Or, in Annie’s and my case, you can ask questions for all of eternity, because it’s exceedingly rare that one of us gets the answer right our first go-round, so we decided that you can just keep asking questions about the same character when it’s your turn again until you finally get it right or become so frustrated, you debate lighting the card on fire, and give up instead.

Playing Hedbanz can be challenging, period, but it is made especially so when you’re playing with someone who is of a different generation than you. Or who does not recognize half of the characters. Or who says “Maaaybe?” when you ask if your character is a boy. Very helpful.

It certainly keeps the mystery alive, because you never know how each round will go. To wit:

When Annie had Eeyore…
“Am I sad?”
“Am I grumpy?”
“Am I the sad and grumpy guy from Winnie the Pooh who’s always sad and grumpy?”
Yes. All you need is his name.
“I need his NAME? Come on, what kind of game is this?”

When I was Captain Hook…
Am I a bad guy?
“Yes, mom. Ohhh, yes.”
Do I have a beard?
“Ummmm… Nope.”
You hesitated.
“I was just thinking!”
So I don’t have a beard?
“No! I just said that!”
Hmmm. All of the villains I’m thinking of have beards.
“Then you’re not really thinking very hard.”

When Annie was Tinker Bell…
“Am I a boy?”
“Am I a girl?”
“Am I a person?”
Well… You’re kind of a person.”
“Am I an animal?”
“I can’t be kind of a person.”
Actually, you can. You’re also something else.
“SOMETHING ELSE? I don’t even know what that means, ‘something else’.”
That’s why you need to keep asking questions.
“Man, you’re really tiring my hands here.”
I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means, either.

When Annie was Squirt…
I’m not sure you’ll know this character’s name, but that’s okay. If you can just tell me about him, I’ll count it.
“Great, mom. You’re giving me characters I don’t even know.”
I didn’t say you don’t know him. You just might not know his name.
“So, he’s from Nemo?”
“But he’s not a fish?”
“And he’s not a frog?”
“There’s nothing else in all of Nemo!”
I beg to differ. We saw a character like him in Disney World.
“Walking around??”
No. On one of the rides. Or, to be more specific, on one of the attractions.
“WAIT. I know! Am I a turtle?”
“Am I related to CHUCK THE TURTLE??”
I think you mean Crush.
“Whatever. You said names don’t count.”

When I was Prince Naveen…
Am I a boy?
“Yes, mommy.”
Am I human?
“Not right now.”
Um… Okay. Am I an animal?
Am I furry?
“NO! Not at all, Mom!”
Could you fit me in your pocket?
“You could. I mean, it would be kind of disgusting, but you could.”

When Annie was Simba…
“So, let’s reveal. I’m a boy.”
“I’m an animal.”
Yes. And I think you meant ‘let’s review’ instead of ‘let’s reveal.’
“What? You’re revealing the answers, aren’t you?”
Fair point. Carry on.
“I sing songs.”
“I’m the main character in a movie.”
“My name is actually THE TITLE of the movie.”
“And I’m a lion.”
“So… I’m a lion. I’m a boy. I sing. My name is the title of the movie… 
Nope. Can’t think of anything. Can you help me out here?”
Actually, at this point, I think you’re beyond help.

They say that the family that plays together stays together, but in our case, I think the phrase is more like, The family who survives a dozen rounds of Hedbanz together earns a beer and a Xanax.
That is, when I stop laughing long enough to look for the bottles.

“Am I an animal?”
“Can I fly?”
“Can I swim?”
“Am I blue?”
“Am I another color, too?”
“Am I yellow?”
“What? I HAVE to be Dory.”
“I don’t think you know how to play this game!”
Time’s up.

The family that plays together

My family has always been into playing games. My brother and I preferred classic board games like Life (oh! to land on the twins space and fill that plastic car with two more pegs!!) and Monopoly (my brother was always the banker; it took me until I was in college to realize that this might have contributed to his winning every single game). Given how rarely I could claim victory, the simple act of playing the game was what drew me back time and time again.

When my extended family would get together, our focus turned away from board games and toward dice (Yahtzee) and cards. Our perennial favorite is Cad, a less-intense version of the card game Thirty-One, which is so basic in concept that Ella and Annie have already begun to play. Do not mistake simplicity for a lack of intensity, however; even the most hastily thrown-together Cad games require a monetary ante-in, and the “simple act of playing a game” is not what draws everyone to the table. No, my extended family possesses an innate desire to wipe the table with the other players, and showing mercy is definitely a sign of weakness. (We still talk about a Spoons game from years back when my cousin wrestled my then-80-odd-year-old grandmother to the floor because neither of them would relinquish the spoon and concede defeat.)

It was a happy fate, then, when I discovered that Nick and his family are also game lovers, with Monopoly and Life as childhood favorites, too, and cutthroat rounds of Hand and Foot as today’s game of choice. Many moons ago, when my brother turned twenty-one, Nick and I got our collective game geek on and created an alcohol-themed board game called Chug It — laminated board, logo-printed game cards, instructions page, and game pieces — and shipped it off to him at college, where, I’ve been told, he and his fraternity brothers got quite a kick out of it (and, yes, chugged it). Not wanting our gaming legacy to end there, when Nick’s middle sister reached the legal drinking age, we created Absolut Game – whose layout was shaped like an enormous bottle of vodka (duh) – and shipped it off to her, too. (Alas, we tapped out after that and so Nick’s youngest sister got the shaft… When she turns forty, we’ll really have to step up. Chardonnopoly, anyone?)

Last weekend, as Nick and I were relaying the wonders of these games to my youngest cousin (who turns twenty-one next year; BOOYAH), we realized, with all of the inane and crazy extended family quirks, surely there was an awesome game in the making. And so, combining our childhood love of boardgames, my extended family’s love of cards, and inspired by our Chug It and Absolut Game masterpieces, we created The Lake Game.


The premise is very straightforward: move your piece around the board, complete some assigned tasks, and be the last player holding any (poker) chips. In reality, the game verges from slightly odd to downright absurd. While it’s true that “all” you have to do is move your game piece around the board, you probably don’t want to get too comfortable because The Lake Game makes you work for your victory. Land on “Hugs Not Drugs” and you’ll give every other player a squeeze… or lose a chip. “Who’s Sleeping” requires that you find someone who’s asleep (human or canine), take a photo with your phone, and send it to the other players… or lose a chip. You might find yourself throwing away a mystery item from the fridge (we collect leftovers like we’re preparing to stock a bunker) or running outside and up the driveway to touch our converted-garage/ storage space/guesthouse (aka “Up Top”), a feat which elicits monstrous groans because of its propensity to reduce you to a gasping-for-breath heap.

up top
The view of Up Top from the lake house. It’s difficult to get an accurate photo, but I can assure you that going Up Top could be included as an end-of-session, now-you-will-die Boot Camp activity.

“Up Top” aside, it’s the “Draw a Card” squares that are the most arduous… and hilarious. Some are just annoying:

or lose a chip.
Pretty self-explanatory.

Others require dexterity and getting off your duff:

Go do the to the beach. Stand on the shore and throw a piece of shale at the raft. If you don’t hit it in three tries, lose a chip.

Given that we often play at night (and you never know who’s had a cocktail or three), this is more challenging than it seems.

Others demand little physical exertion but do test your mettle (and your iron stomach):

Take one bite of leftovers from either fridge, or lose a chip.

When the choice is between losing a chip or consuming a mystery food – that may have been in the fridge since this morning or since last month (just tonight, I threw away some soup we’d brought home from a restaurant that, I kid you not, bore the date 07/01/13) – it’s not an easy choice.

And still others are both a combination of exercise and game-long torture

Go get one from the shed. Wear it for the rest of the game.

THERE ARE SPIDERS IN THAT SHED, people. Losing a chip may be vastly preferable.

So, clearly, The Lake Game is not for the faint of heart… which makes it perfect for those of us who, say, enjoy scuffling with our grandmothers over a spoon and playing card games that require six year-olds to ante up.

We began working out the kinks to the game, trying to determine just how many chips each person should begin with, which squares were the most fun/embarrassing/absurd, and asking other family members to contribute their ideas. During our practice games, Annie somehow managed to win every time, despite the ridiculous scenarios she found herself in.
She was stuck wearing a life vest, holding an old family jacket, sitting on a clam pot, and having to utter an infamous family phrase at the end of each turn… but that didn’t stop her from becoming the victor.

After the children had gone to bed, we invited my grandmother to play the final game of the night, but weren’t sure if she’d actually join us, given the craziness of the game. In true family style, however, she was totally in – but we gave her a whole bunch of extra chips, assuming that she’d forgo many of the more arduous adventures in favor of simply giving up a chip.


No matter what was thrown her way, Phoofsy was up to the task.
“Throw out a leftover? Oh, this minced ham is at least two weeks old!”

When faced with the exhausting challenge of having to go Up Top, and given that she might not have trekked there yet this summer, we knew – of course – that she’d hand over one of her chips. Instead, she looked us straight in the eye and said, “If I don’t do this, I lose a chip? Well, certainly I can go Up Top. Why would I waste a chip for that?”
It took her about five minutes, but by God, she touched Up Top.
The Force may be strong with Luke, but the Competitive Drive is strong with this one.

After well less than an hour, and despite our very best efforts, there was nothing we could do: Phoofsy was the champion. We have since introduced The Lake Game to more of my family members and have taken great pleasure in watching one another make fools of ourselves. To make it even more competitive fun, we think we’ll now require an entry fee (because I’m far more likely to sing a Christmas carol – after having just changed my shirt and gone down the dock ladder in the dark – if there’s money on the line).

Money or no money, one thing is certain: Phoofsy is going down.
And, really, she can’t complain that I’m taking the game too seriously… As a true family grandchild, I learned from the best.