So, this is Christmas.

   I can remember many times growing up, right around the holidays, that I would daydream of a time in my life when I would host a "fun, old fashion family Christmas".  It would play in my mind like an old movie reel and I would soak in the nostalgia of memories that hadn't actually occurred yet.  I could see myself painstakingly unwrapping every ceramic treasure, every glittering ornament, and placing it just so.  And following my husband bullying the strings of lights into submission, everyone would come from their little corners of the world and gather in our home.  We'd spend our days in the living room playing board games while the little ones run in circles.  The evenings would start in the kitchen- all the women busy and scurrying around while the men stood in the next room staring back into the kitchen wondering when dinner would be ready- and end by the fire where everyone lays around with full bellies and listens intently to a reading of The Night Before Christmas.  But of course, we know nothing ever goes as planned, now does it?

This is, by far, the most beautiful version!  Buy it here!

     Prior to becoming an actuality, I realized that no Christmas could/would ever look like that, especially if my uber-dysfunctional family was involved.  With a few turbulent holidays under our belt and an unsuccessful go at family counseling we began to celebrate our flaws.  Each and every year we would gear ourselves up for the inevitable outpourings of Pandora's box by watching Christmas Vacation right after Thanksgiving dinner.  It is the consummate holiday movie.  The makers really thought of everything in this film.  Every inflated dream and the many preparations surrounding the magic and joy of the holidays are built up, then crushed and decimated, leaving behind little more than a laundry list of home repairs for Todd and Margo, and a cat-shaped crater under the armchair in the living room.  The Christmas tree, the shopping trip, the outdoor lights, the afternoon in the attic, the cat in the box, and the jelly-of-the-month club are all of the finest pedigree of comedy.  Only, I think if you really want to include every paradigm of holiday torture in the equation, they forgot one thing: the stomach bug.

   Our first attempt at a Griswold family Christmas was after Little Girl was born.  My husband and I were trying to think of something extra special, extra Christmas-y to do with the family while his parents were in town for the holidays.  After weeks of deliberation, we made a decision.  As our gift to the family, we would rent a limo bus and take the whole family to look at Christmas lights in a neighborhood famous for a spectacular display called Interlochen.  We invited everyone and began talking it up.  "It'll be so fun!  We'll grab some hot chocolate after dinner, bundle up and load the bus, chat and sing Christmas carols, and look at some fantastic lights!  Oh, it will be a blast!  And what a great way to spend some quality time together!" 

   A few ridiculous price quotes and a sleezy stripper pole-centric party bus later, we finally found a great company to hire for our big gift to the family!  I asked all the right questions and made all the preparations.  "I've emailed you a detailed itinerary with physical addresses and specific instructions...please make sure your bus has the lightest tint possible on the windows so we can see the Christmas light displays easily...please be early so we have enough time to gather and load everyone...will you stock the bus with ice, cokes, and water bottles?  Have you planned out the best route?"  Blah, blah, blah.  They were more than understanding with every request and reassured me that everything would be taken care of in a timely and professional manner. 

   We were one week out.  The gifts were purchased, the house was decorated, and I had just begun going over recipes and making my grocery list.  Then, Phil brought a stomach bug home from the fire station.  He got it first, then Little Girl, and then me (Baby Girl wasn't born yet).  There we were, three days out from having his parents stay with us and I was frightened that we would get them sick too.  Surely not.  We still had three whole days before they arrived.  They won't catch it.  Well, let me scrub every light switch, bathroom surface, doorknob, and remote control with bleach and run every piece of fabric through the wash, just in case. 

   Two days away from their arrival, and three days away from the Christmas lights limo bus, I couldn't do it.  I thought seriously about cancelling.  But then my husband had a great idea to protect everyone from our germs: a hotel.  He booked a room for us and one for his parents at a brand-new, pet-friendly hotel in a great location and we packed up.  Whew.  Smooth move. 

   So, we checked in at the Aloft and geared ourselves up for some family fun!  The day came to take our Christmas lights tour and we all met for dinner.  Everyone was on time, the food was good, the mood was calm and festive.  Perfect!  We headed over to Starbucks to grab some coffee and hot chocolate and to await the arrival of our limo bus.  My military-time father-in-law and my like-father-like-son husband were checking their watches every two seconds while I remained unruffled with every passing minute and tried to distract everyone with my cute baby (left).  Honestly, I was starting to get nervous.  I stepped outside and made a few calls.  Thirty minutes and several loaded threats later, the bus finally arrived...with black-tinted windows, no ice, and a teenager behind the wheel that stepped out and asked where we were headed.  Good.  God.

   A few more phone calls later, a stop for ice, and the realization that it was too late to fix, I pulled myself together, smiled, and we headed toward Interlochen.  The champagne and conversation were flowing.  We were finally on our way!  I gave the driver comprehensive directions and sat nearest him on the bus, just in case he needed a refresher along the way.  I fed Little Girl a bottle and started to relax.  All of the sudden, the bus stops.  We were stuck in traffic.  Traffic?  On a Saturday night?  It must be a wreck.  I scrambled, peering out the jet-black windows, trying to find a highway sign to let me know where we were, when I spotted one.  I was shocked.  As it turns out, the driver thought he had a better idea than mine of which route we should take.  We were now stuck in Dallas Cowboys game traffic.  Not just any game traffic, the last game of the season and the last game ever to be played in Texas Stadium before they tore it down.  Great.

   Then, can you imagine?  Things got worse.  My husband lost his brand-new iPhone in between the crack of the seats.  The men on the bus actually had to dismantle a large part of the interior of the bus with their bare hands to retrieve it.  Little Girl started fussing and cried the rest of the way, through the traffic, and during almost the entire tour of Christmas lights- which I never got to see because I was sunk down beneath the windows trying to hold her in a comfortable position on a boppy so she could stop rattling everyone's brains and fall asleep.  The champagne ran out fast, I yelled at the whole bus (including my in-laws and my niece) to "shut up" so Little Girl would fall asleep, and those that could see the lights only saw them for about fifteen minutes because we were so late getting there and had to hurry back or they were going to charge us extra. 

   Luckily, we dodged signing the agreement when we got to our drop-off location and it only took an email or two for them to knock 70% off the price.  But the worst was actually yet to come.  We all parted ways and his parents headed back home to celebrate actual Christmas Day, but not before stopping in Fort Worth to pick up my husband's elderly grandmother who was going to stay with them over Christmas.  Soon after, our phones started ringing.  Each member of his and my family were calling.  First one, then another, and another.  They were dropping like flies with...the stomach bug.  Even though we hadn't been sick in days, had disinfected and then abandoned our house as to protect everyone from any lingering germs, all but one from the bus (and including my husband's poor grandmother) were sick, very sick, on Christmas.  The "gift" we gave everyone that year, and the entire holiday, can be summed up with the two little words we use to describe it now, "Hell Bus".  It makes me shudder and laugh.  We did actually smile for a few pictures despite the mess.

   Fast forward four years, and we're going to give this "fun, old fashion Christmas" another go.  We coordinated everyone's schedules and began preparing the house for our family's Christmas gathering and for my in-laws to stay with us for a week.  Professionally-hung outdoor lights: check.  Real Christmas tree: check.  Any and all Christmas decorations out of the attic and displayed properly: check.  Schedule of events planned and confirmed with all family members: check.  Menu planned and grocery lists made: check.  Baby Girl catching the stomach bug and recovering from it two weeks out: che....crap.  Here we go again

   By some chance of luck, my husband and I never caught it, but Little Girl did.  And the symptoms returned three days later.  We were a week away again.  I got out the bleach, washed everything we owned, and just waited.  [Note to self, buy more mattress covers immediately.  If you've ever wondered how to clean vomit/pet mess out of carpet, mattresses, etc. click here.  For invaluable information about the stomach bug including how to kill the germs and its incubation period, read "How to keep a stomach virus from spreading through your house."]  I assumed having the same germs from three bouts of the stomach bug in the house would catch up with my husband and/or me soon enough.  Only, it never did!  Hurrah! 

   My entire family (well, except for two) and my in-laws all made it to our Christmas where we ate gumbo (recipe below) and bread pudding until we reached dangerous levels of discomfort and then exchanged crappy gifts.  We stopped buying gifts for everyone years ago and started doing secret santa.  But each year we wondered why we spent all that time drawing names, emailing our wish lists, and buying the gifts instead of just buying ourselves whatever we wanted.  Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus and rejoicing in all of our blessings.  It's not about fighting mall traffic, buying someone a trinket off an end cap, and believing that that little something is going to be symbolic of the love you have (or lack) for someone.  Conversely, Christmas is about scouring the clearance aisles and secondhand stores for the most obscure, most horrific items you've ever seen, and then opening and trading them in a white elephant crappy gift exchange.  Now that's a party!

We pulled the kitchen table into the dining room to fit (almost) everyone!
Buy White Trash Cooking here!  LOL.

The previously unopened box of tanning lotion from the 1970s took the prize!

   In the interim phase between Christmas Eve and Christmas Day (we had to do our Christmas Eve celebration a few days before the 24th this year), we had planned another event that would add to our "fun old fashion family Christmas"- candlelight service at church and dinner at Maggiano's.  They really deck the halls at Maggiano's during the holidays and we couldn't wait to pack our whole family in there to clank our wine glasses and pass giant bowls of pasta across the table. 

   The morning of, Baby Girl started wheezing a bit.  We didn't think much of it because she only suffered through one other instance of strained breathing before, which we fixed quickly with a little albuterol from our home nebulizer.  (Little Girl used the nebulizer on a regular basis from about 10 months-18 months old.  She was hospitalized four times for strained breathing because there was absolutely no way we were going to attempt deep suctioning, which was mandatory for her recovery, at home.)  A couple hours later, we noticed Baby Girl wasn't improving as she should be and we started to worry.  We thought maybe if she would be calm and lay still during a nap that she would have a moment to recover.  We were wrong.  An hour prior to leaving for church, my husband and I rushed Baby Girl to the ER while his parents stayed home with Little Girl.

   If you've ever heard a fireman/paramedic tell you it's time to go to the hospital, then you know the brick of angst that came smashing down on my heart.  Long story short and three differing opinions later (she didn't respond to the most common methods of treatment and the Physician's Assistant, Doctor, and Respiratory Therapist did not agree on her diagnosis), we were transferred to Children's Medical Center for an overnight stay.   

   Baby Girl beamed with strength and patience all those hours filled with different medications, checking and re-checking of vital signs, sitting still for x-rays (and turning toward the "camera" to give the most tender and sweetest, "Cheeeese!" ever that melted the hearts of all ten people in the room) the IV insertion, and the ambulance ride.  We already knew she was tough but it was nice for her to get so many compliments from strangers. 

   Unfortunately, we missed Christmas service at church completely and Baby Girl had to be poked and prodded beyond a level even my rugged, tough-as-nails husband was comfortable with.  On a brighter note, Baby Girl and I got to ride in the nicest ambulance ever!  (I was on the phone with family the whole ride or I would've snapped a picture.  It was basically an Escalade with medical equipment compared to the boxes my husband is accustomed to tolerating.)  Also, if you're ever in the hospital on actual Christmas Eve and/or Christmas Day, you get a special visitor and are showered with handmade and store-bought toys, games, books, and blankets from all the volunteers at Children's.  We were blown away!  Although, we were so pampered I felt like we needed to hurry out of there before the bill got worse.

  At last, we were discharged and made it home just in time to put cookies out for Santa!  Even though Christmas vacations are sometimes like these, including the Griswold's and Hell Bus, we always come out of the haze stronger and better for it.  Whether you get the stomach bug, end up in the ER with a broken limb or for breathing treatments, or bad weather and rescheduled flights throw a wrench in your schedule, it always makes you appreciate what you do have, doesn't it?  Despite the inconveniences, little health scares, and even family disagreements, Christmas is always the best time of year.  We are so very grateful to end the year with our health and family (almost) intact.  We hope you enjoyed your vacation and we wish you a Happy New Year!


Wait.  What's a Christmas post without Santa photos? 
We found the best one this year, finally!

   My small gifts to you this year, as a big thank-you for all your support, are the recipes for the two gumbos I make for Christmas Eve dinner.  (I do traditional dishes on Thanksgiving and my mom does our traditional Christmas day dinner, so I allowed myself to experiment.  Now, it's a tradition.)  I found the recipes on the back of a pamphlet from the Gumbo Shop back in 1997.  The Chicken Andouille is the better crowd-pleaser of the two.  But, if you're feeding a large group, make both and the Seafood Okra will help cut the heat from the Chicken Andouille.  (I made a vegan version of the Chicken Andouille as well, but take note- because there is so much less fat, it doesn't need to simmer as long and uses much more vegetable stock than chicken stock.)  Enjoy!

Chicken Andouille Gumbo

1 chicken (2.5 lbs)
3 qts water
1.5 lbs fresh okra
1/2 cup flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 gloves garlic, minced
1 (16 oz) can tomatoes
1 lb Andouille sausage, sliced
1 bay leaf
1 tsp thyme
1 tsp basil
1 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
1 tsp file

Cut chicken into eight pieces; cover with water and simmer approximately 1 hour until chicken is tender and easily removed from the bones. Pour off stock and set aside. Allow chicken to cool; remove from bones and set aside.

Meanwhile, slice okra and sauté in about 2 tablespoons of oil until all ropiness is gone (about 1/2 hour).

In a heavy dutch oven, combine 1/2 cup oil and 1/2 cup of flour. Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently to make a dark brown roux. Add onion, bell pepper, celery and garlic and sauté until vegetables are tender. Add sautéed okra, tomatoes and sliced Andouille sausage. Cook for about 15 minutes. Add bay leaf, thyme, basil, pepper and salt. Add the chicken stock, mix well and bring to a slow boil. Simmer for approximately 1.5 hours with the pot loosely covered, stirring occasionally.

Add cooked chicken and simmer an additional 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Skim off excess fat. Slowly stir in file. Do not reboil after adding file as this tends to make the gumbo stringy. Serve over steamed rice.

Seafood Okra Gumbo

1 qt okra, cut into 1/2" pieces
2 tbls oil
2 qts water
2-3 lbs shrimp
2/3 cup oil
1/2 cup flour
2 medium onions, chopped
1 bell pepper, chopped
2 ribs celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
1 (16 oz) can stewed tomatoes
2 bay leaves
2 tbls Worcestershire
2 small boiled crabs
salt to taste
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper

Peel and devein shrimp. Set aside in refrigerator. Boil shrimp shells in 2 qts water for several hours to make a stock. Set aside.

In a heavy skillet, heat 2 tbls oil and sauté the okra until all the ropiness is gone, about 1/2 hour. Set aside.

In a large (6-8 qt) heavy dutch oven make a dark brown roux with the oil and flour. Add onions, bell pepper, celery, garlic and parsley and sauté until tender. Add tomatoes and cook 15 minutes. Add sautéed okra, shrimp stock, crabs (broken into quarters), bay leaves, Worcestershire sauce, black pepper and cayenne. Bring to slow boil and simmer for about 2 hours, stirring occasionally. Add salt to taste. Add the peeled shrimp and continue cooking until shrimp are done.

Serve over steamed rice. This dish is best if cooked a day in advance and refrigerated overnight.

Happy New Year!!!

Tom Wang.  Shutterstock.

Make it your best year yet!!!



  1. Erin Koskan RaughtonJanuary 1, 2013 at 1:48 PM

    What a great story from a great story teller! Love reading your blog, it's always funny, interesting and full of love. Glad y'all had a Merry Christmas, here's to 2013!

    1. Thank you so much Erin!! Your kind words make my heart smile! Hope you and yours had a wonderful holiday! Happy 2013!!