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(And They’re All Screen-Free!)

During lock down my kids are spending monumental amounts of time in front of a screen, and it’s not just Netflix and video games. Now it’s Zoom classes for school. By the end of the day, we’re all screen exhausted, and our favorite unwind–movies and popcorn–is just, ugh, more screen time. 

I started to wonder how to turn this dilemma to my advantage, just as I was unpacking the Christmas boxes from storage. I found an old puzzle that used to belong to my grandmother. It has irregularly shaped pieces with little surprises hidden in the ice skating pond and snowflake riddled skies. Two or three pieces will come together in the shape of a heart or a penguin or a galloping horse. It’s fun when you find one. I laid it out on the table, and pretty soon, the whole family was hooked, and we never even thought about turning on the TV. It gave me an opportunity to talk to the boys about their great-grandmother, about how she and I liked to work this puzzle together. 

And that got my little brain a-churning. It’s time to return to the old ways, young padawan. And I will share these old ways with you, dear reader. Here are my top 12 pandemic-friendly ways for your family to enjoy unwinding with holiday flair.

  1. Christmas jigsaw puzzles. OK, You already knew about this one, but let me say there is an art to choosing a good one that will engage rather than frustrate. Stay under 500 pieces. Choose a scene with tons of details, so when you look at a piece, you pretty much know exactly where it’s going to go. If it has a rectangular border, fit edge pieces first; then move to the most obvious elements, finishing with the inevitable background. If your family is like mine, you’ll be hooked until the last piece is in. All the while, it’s a great time to actually talk to each other. Especially about family memories.

2. Board game night. Have you unnoticed that once the xbox descended the board games ended? Go through the closet and drag out all the board games. Let the kids choose. Our family has rediscovered cards; our favorites are Hearts and Rummy, and we’re learning to play Trash. Cash Flow, Connect 4, Mancala–all have found a resurgence in this pandemic. We pop the Pentatonix Christmas station on Pandora and turn on the Christmas lights while we battle–you know, for that homey holiday end to the day. (I win! Take THAT, sucka!)

3. Bake from scratch. With plenty of time on our hands, refrigerated cookie dough seems kinda boring. I take down the ancient Betty Crocker Cook Book off the shelf for the full sugar, full fat, gluten-chocked sugar cookie recipe. I let the boys read the recipe out loud, gather all the ingredients, run the mixer, lick the beaters, roll the dough, cut out the Christmas snowflakes, bells, and Santas, and take the trays out of the hot oven. White frosting and colored sprinkles finish the job. It’s not a good idea to exchange homemade cookies this year, so darn. We have to eat them ourselves.

4. Craft night. My boys were never big on crafts unless they were making something they could use, like a rubber band gun or felt covered playing boards for Magic the Gathering. Even if no one in your family really likes crafting, if you choose something YOU like–such a scrapbooking keepsakes while you reminisce–chances are they’ll catch on to your enthusiasm. Alternatively, your family can assemble toiletry kits or snack bags for your homeless neighbors. You can’t beat those kind of feel goods to make the season a little brighter.

5. RAK. And speaking of the feel goods, try out a random act of kindness, family style. We like to stand in line at the bagel shop or cafe and put $20 toward the customers behind us. Then we pick a spot where we can watch nonchalantly as the folks behind us hear their order is paid for. Sometimes the pay-it-forward goes four and five orders deep! It makes that everything-bagel-with-cream-cheese that much more delicious.

6. Street busking. This one is kind of silly, but hear me out. (Ha, ha. See what I did there?) It’s fun if it’s not too cold. Grab your instruments, hit a down town corner and start playing. If you can’t play, then just sing. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. You might even get a few dollars for a bagel.

7. Phone caroling. If weathering the winter isn’t your idea of fun, then stay toasty with this play on good old fashioned crank calling. Call your friends and family and say nothing–just burst into your favorite (and hopefully rehearsed) holiday carol. Trust me; people who have been shut in will find your off-key harmonies the brightest spot of their whole day.

8. Rough house outside. Being indoors all day makes my boys restless and antsy. That’s when we need to take it outside. Remember Kick the Can? It’s a great game for kids who need to run AND get away from each other. If you have snow, split into two teams, give each a bread pan, build forts with snow bricks and let them work out the tension of the day with an age-old snowball fight. One caveat: we make it a rule no hitting in the face.

9. Out on the town like a tourist. You are probably familiar with your local history, but kids often are not. Take in a walking tour; your local visitor center will likely have a brochure to guide you. Stop and read the plaques. Linger in historical spots. Grab a hot chocolate and peppermint stick along the way, and be sure to get in some window shopping. If you see any buskers, toss ‘em a dollar.

10. Fire pit star gazing. If you have a way to build an outdoor fire, take advantage of the early darkness to huddle around the crackling flames and look up. How many constellations can you identify? How many planets can you see? This year, solstice night will be magical as Jupiter and Saturn fly close enough to one another to create the illusion of a super star–remind you of anything? Be sure to make a holiday wish.

11. Santa Sorting. With new things coming for Christmas, it’s time to make room. In our house we have a giant box full of hats, coats, gloves, boots and snow pants. This is the perfect time of year to sort it out, keeping what we need and washing/mending the rest to donate to a coat drive. A missing button or a few missing seam stitches are great project for kids to sew themselves. The same sorting goes for our books and toys! There’s a joy in rediscovering the oldies and goodies from under the bed and in the bottom of the toy box, and passing the rest for someone else to treasure.

Aaaaaaaand, finally…

12. Christmas lights drive by. Our 2020 downtown holiday parade was cancelled, but that doesn’t mean we can’t bring the parade to us! This year, folks are putting on especially festive holiday light displays from human-sized letters spelling J-O-Y to tear-drop icicle flashies to inflatable snow globes for giants. We drive through a different neighborhood every week for oohing and ahhhing. And speaking of holiday decorating, join the crowd and go all out. You may not see it by the glare of Rudolph’s nose, but the hearts of the people driving by are–thanks to you–glowing twice as bright. And…a partriiidge in a pear treeeeeee!

Admit it. You sang that last line in your head.

What are your favorite no-screen, pandemic-friendly family holiday traditions? Tell us about them below! We love hearing from you. And from our home to yours, may you have a safe and merry holiday season full of all your favorite full-sugar, gluten-chocked, old-fashioned things.

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