How to Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas

As soon as the scale of the pandemic became apparent this spring, I accepted that the rest of my 2020 was probably fucked: No enormous birthday party at my favorite wine bar in Clinton Hill, no Thanksgiving, no Christmas. So when my birthday rolled around in August, I saw some friends in the park and walked to Chinatown to eat my favorite wontons outside on Bayard Street. When the CDC all but cautioned against cancelling Thanksgiving last month, outside of celebrating with the members of your home, I was sad but I made peace with it and cooked a big dinner for four in my Brooklyn apartment’s kitchen. And when my dad and stepmom both contracted Covid-19 right before Christmas, I had already decided that I would be staying put at home instead of going back to Pennsylvania.

I am not really a “Christmas person.” My family, I would say, is not composed of “holiday people.” I mean, sure, we have our light-up Santa Claus that we put up in the front yard every year, and the tree, and the shrimp cocktail and baked pasta on Christmas Eve and my mom’s quiche on Christmas morning. I love all of that, but we’re not religious, so the whole “reason for the season” element is sort of lacking, and some of the magic of the holiday is inherently lost with you’re figuring out the logistics of splitting time between your parents’ respective houses or you’re working over the holidays.

My sister and I usually take Amtrak home together from the city a few days before Christmas and my mom is always waiting for us, standing next to her car at the Middletown, Pennsylvania train station, which is a generous term for a plank of wood next to the train tracks a stone’s throw from Three Mile Island, the nuclear power plant that famously partially melted down in 1979. When I go home I usually get goaded into going to one of several hometown bars with my friend Ben. If we go to Primanti Bros we might see someone who was nice to us in high school and is now married. If we go to the Penn Hotel & Sports Bar we might see someone who bullied one of us in high school and is now married. The actual fun bar in the vicinity of our hometown, which was confusingly called Gas Station, closed a few years ago. You would be forgiven for thinking we were actually hanging out at a gas station, because after going to any of these bars we do usually end up at Sheetz, an iconic Pennsylvania gas station-slash-convenience store, getting a sensible 11:30 pm made-to-order snack. Then I hang out with my mom and the cats for a few more days, sleep in as much as I can in my childhood bed, and eventually come back to the city.

For better or for worse, none of that is happening this year. Instead, I’ve been on a mission to establish new traditions, or at least try new things for the 2020 Christmas Experience.

Go see the Dyker Heights Christmas Lights

Last weekend, I did something I’ve been meaning to do since I moved to New York in 2014. I drove to Dyker Heights in South Brooklyn, where we bought $5 cups of steaming Swiss Miss hot cocoa from an ice cream truck and walked around and looked at the intricate and elaborate Christmas light setups adorning many of the houses in the neighborhood.

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If you look up the Dyker Heights geotag on Instagram you can see it for yourself. There’s a whole cottage industry devoted to putting up these lights on people’s houses, which is entirely foreign from my experience stringing up a strand of lights along the front of the house if we feel particularly ambitious one year. Some Gen Zers approached me to ask to take a picture of them, which is extremely flattering, since they’ve profiled me as someone who can take a grid-worthy iPhone picture, but also very high-pressure . It would be devastating to walk away from this situation to see them swiping through the pictures in disappointment. Anyway, I loved the lights and would go again literally tomorrow.

Purchase and wear a Lanz flannel nightgown

My friend Emma said she was buying one of these so I bought one too. Now we both look like adult-sized American Girl dolls. Yes, they’re completely sexless garments. But so cozy!

Buy a bunch of Christmas-scented Bath & Body Works candles

My friend Kate asked me if I wanted to go in on an order of the three-wick bad boys from Bath & Body Works after Thanksgiving. They came a couple weeks later. I have so far enjoyed having my apartment smell like “Merry Cookie,” “Fir Tree,” and now “White Eucalyptus & Sage.”

Trim a Christmas tree

In Decembers past I’ve gone to the bodegas in my neighborhood and purchased a paltry, Charlie Brown-esque tree—a true tumbleweed of a Christmas tree—and sort of propped it up in the corner of the stairwell in my old Crown Heights duplex where it stayed until I figured out where to dispose of it after New Years. This year I knew I had to go bigger, so I did what anyone in this situation would do and bought a tree from the very nice people at the lot across from Mr. Mango — I was promptly upsold on the tree variety that I was told was “the Cadillac of Christmas trees” — and had my boyfriend carry it home for me. My roommate and I have a bay window that faces the street, and it felt almost obligatory to put the tree in the window and keep it lit whenever we could, so we’ve been doing that all month.

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It’s a nice little tree.

Nicely wrap everyone’s gifts

I do possess some aptitudes, but wrapping gifts is not among them. Last year, I think I just gave everyone their gifts in the bags from the stores in which I bought them during Christmas karaoke in a private room at a Korean restaurant and karaoke lounge in Gowanus. I still can’t wrap presents, but I did splurge for nice wrapping paper and ribbons so everyone had nice-looking gifts to open.

Ball out on Christmas dinner

If we cannot go anywhere for Christmas, at least we can eat tremendously at home. So Christmas Eve dinner will consist of a dozen Duxbury oysters, enormous ribeye steaks, shrimp cocktail, and house-mixed and -bottled negronis and martinis from Hart’s. I realize that by cooking an elaborate steak dinner I’m technically going against my own exhausted screed from last month promising I wouldn’t cook again until the end of 2020, but in fairness, I have been eating a lot of sad frozen grain/vegetable/protein dinners this month and I would like a little treat.

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The woman at Hart’s was like “we didn’t expect the steaks to be this big either”

Bake 12 dozen Christmas cookies

I’m not really sure what compelled me to do this. I think it just didn’t really feel like Christmas in my apartment so this week I took inventory of my baking supplies, asked Twitter for cookie recommendations, and got to work. When I go home to my mom’s house, there are a few kinds of cookies we usually make. There are Snickerdoodles, which I recreated this year. There are pizzelles, Italian anise-flavored cookies you make in a special waffle-ish iron that my grandpa once sent two dozen of in a coffee canister to my dorm freshman year. (Lacking the appropriate equipment, I didn’t make these.) There are the Pillsbury sugar cookies we buy in tubes at the store and cut into shapes with my mom’s copper Christmas cookie cutters and decorate with sprinkles and bake, but I wasn’t going to go buy cookie cutters, so that option was out. And there are thumbprint cookies, which I kind of don’t like, so I freed myself from tradition and instead baked the following cookies:

I lost two days to these cookies. On Tuesday I made the dough for most of them and on Wednesday I baked them each. Mixing each batch of dough by hand reminded me of the one time a few years ago when I really needed to stop looking at my phone so I went to a pottery studio and just immersed myself in clay, a tactile distraction from the rest of the world, except this time it was several large molasses-based masses of wet cookie dough.

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The chewy Mexican hot chocolate cookies. They’re delicious.

This was the nicest thing I did, I think, because it’s largely for other people—I’ve been giving cookies to friends who are similarly staying in the city this week—and it reminds me the most of being home. Tomorrow I’ll open a few presents and FaceTime my family and feel grateful I can stay home on a day off to do all of it. Emma will come over with a peppermint schnapps-spiked hot chocolate-filled thermos and we’ll walk to see the Grand Army Plaza Christmas tree together and I’ll drop off some more cookies for friends. Doling out a trillion cookies — and creating my own traditions— feels like a very small way to take back a tiny bit of control from a very much still out-of-control world.

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i’m a freelance writer and editor. you can also read me in places like the new york times and vanity fair.

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