Clearing Our Plates (The Mogul Mom)

(Note: this post from me ran yesterday over at The Mogul Mom. If you’re visiting from there, welcome! Please scroll down for more content).

By Laura Vanderkam

Holiday season is upon us, which means a general feeling of too much to do creeping in with the tinsel. There are turkey dinners to cook, presents to buy and wrap, parties to orchestrate. And so, as the author of a time management book, I’m sometimes asked to give tips on how to save time during the holidays.

How’s this one? Cut raisins and dates with kitchen shears.

You may be re-reading that line a few times. Use kitchen shears instead of what? And why on earth would raisins need to be smaller than they already are?

Yet somehow that tip wound up on a list of 75 Ways to Save Time During the Holidays in the December 1965 issue of Good Housekeeping. I bring this up because holidays are all about traditions — things that stay the same — so sometimes it’s difficult to imagine how much the world has changed. But as I’ve studied how Americans, particularly women, have spent their time over the decades, I’ve learned just how much we’ve come to ignore, minimize and outsource. When it comes to the holidays, that’s a good thing, because I’d argue that as we’ve cleared our plates, we’re focusing more on what matters.

An “easy” solution

I love to collect old magazines and study them as artifacts. They show what people thought and did in their day-to-day lives, without too many attempts to hook anything into a larger historical narrative.

But they provide a narrative nonetheless. Reading through holiday issues of 1950s and 1960s women’s magazines, I’ve realized that “good housekeeping” used to mean something entirely different. For instance, the December 1958 issue of Good Housekeeping discusses what you should do if you discover to your “horror” that you have nothing to wear to a Christmas party. “Well, here’s an easy solution,” the text reads. “An outrageously flattering little party top you can make in a morning.” What follows is a pattern calling for stitching on four (and three-quarters) yards of Franken Trimming metallic gold and black braid to some wool squares of fabric, “mitering corners,” and securing the edges with seam-binding.

Spending all morning binding seams and mitering corners is an “easy” solution?

The recipes, likewise, involve domestic ambitions that seem like punch lines these days. A recipe for one “End-of-the-Rainbow Cake,” meant to be served with afternoon coffee, turns out to be a two-day ordeal that involves tinting crushed pineapple pale yellow, and brightening raspberry jam with red coloring. If your context for baking involves two-day recipes that deem raspberry jam insufficiently red, then cutting raisins with shears instead of a knife could actually seem like brazen carelessness.

But here’s what’s happened to this context. Over the past four decades, many more women have started working for pay. If you have a job that takes more than 20 of the 168 hours we all have each week, you begin to care a lot less about the size of your raisins. If we don’t have party tops, we go buy them at the mall on our lunch breaks. When friends come over on a weekend (we’re usually busy at 3pm on a Tuesday), we might quickly bake cookies, but even Toll House will get us points for effort. Many of us go to Starbucks instead.

Sometimes, when it comes to the holidays, we have mixed feelings about this change in standards — and about our use of money to save ourselves time. Perhaps there is something to be said for wrapping presents ourselves, rather than relying on Borders’ gift-wrapping service. We feel bad about giving cash or gift cards rather than something homemade (Don’t. They want the cash). We entertain fantasies of making all our own decorations for parties, even though Hallmark’s probably look better. Last Thanksgiving, I contemplated buying an entire meal straight off FreshDirect before deciding that was taking things a bit too far.

Remember Tip 35

However, then I reread that list of time saving tips from 1965. Number 35 is “Provide interesting toys or books for small children to keep them out of the kitchen.” Apparently, all this raisin cutting was far too serious a business to share with one’s offspring. Think about that for a minute. In that era, Good Housekeeping’s editors, reflecting their readers, believed that Christmas cookie baking was something that had to be done for its own sake, minus the kids, as opposed to something you’d do because your kids found it fun.

What we forget in our holiday nostalgia is that time spent on one thing is time not spent on something else. With massive housekeeping expectations (December 1958’s Good Housekeeping also gives us instructions on ironing electric blankets and brushing their nap), women didn’t have nearly as much time as we imagine for interacting with their families. Indeed, when you look at time diary studies, the number of hours women spend playing and reading with their kids has doubled since the 1960s. Even though many more of us have careers now as well.

So I think this decline in domesticity is a positive trend. Holidays are about families, not perfectly decorated homes. Kids will remember messy group cookie-making more than well-cut raisins. They’ll remember a take-out dinner eaten together more than one mom missed because she was stuck in the kitchen.

So that’s my serious tip for the holidays: only do what matters. Trust me, cutting raisins does not.

December doesn’t have to mean rushing around with a to-do list longer than Santa’s! Join Laura Vanderkam, author of 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think, as she discusses strategies for creating a memorable and fuss-free holiday season. Learn more and register for this special event here.


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