Every August of my childhood, my family would take a two-week vacation to Colorado. This meant that the five of us kids and our parents would drive across Kansas in our very unhip van. (Once when on one of these infamous summer vacations we were hanging out in our van in the parking lot of a grocery store. A young girl came up and asked, “Is this the summer fun camp?” That’s how not cool our van was: it was mistaken for a summer fun camp vehicle.)

Momma’s task was to pack for seven people for two weeks. Dad’s job was to load the van. This meant squeezing suitcases and pillows and sleeping bags into every possible nook and cranny, a puzzle that would have foiled even the most clever engineer. Just when the last bag was crammed under the seat, my younger sister Beth would appear with three paper grocery sacks full of stuffed animals. Her essentials. As you might imagine, this never ended well.

I, too, have dragged along my metaphoric sacks of stuffed animals when traveling, although mine inevitably take the form of multiple books, which have the added bonus of weight as well as bulk. But the question of what is essential is worth pondering, particularly in this time of year when we are bombarded on every front with the too-muchness of the season: too many cookies, too many glasses of wine, too many chocolate truffles, too many Secret Santas, too many twinkling lights and blowup reindeer, too much to do.

The month of December is always a mishmash of seasonal routines and sacred rituals at our house. Many years, the rhythm of my teaching semester and performing calendar climaxes in November. I spend much of the final weeks cheering on young students’ renditions of “Jingle Bells” and helping advanced students begin their next big pieces and musical projects. Holiday concerts with their “Holly Jolly Singalongs” are a welcome break from demands of Brahms and Beethoven. I send out holiday letters, string cranberry lights across the mantle, throw an annual Christmas Tea for former students home for winter break. Stealing time from my practicing and rehearsal schedules, I fill my social calendar with lunches and drinks with friends; I go on walks after dark to admire my neighbors’ colored light displays; I read stacks of books while drinking peppermint tea. We light white candles in the fireplace, and every night plug in white lights that twinkle around the front door.

Meanwhile, the tempo of Matt’s work as a church musician shifts from his normal Allegro to a breathless Prestissimo. The first year we were married I was shocked and hurt to discover that we would not be spending Christmas Eve together in romantic bliss. In fact, we would not be spending Christmas Eve together at all. Having learned nothing, I was equally shocked and hurt the second Christmas Eve. And the third as well. Only now, twenty-five years later, have I learned to anticipate and even relish an intentional retreat of solitude and silence on Christmas Eve. I go on a long walk before evening services to see the luminarias. I enjoy a glass of wine in a hot bath and indulge in leftover Christmas Tea cookies. When Matt finally gets home after midnight on Christmas morning, the cats and I are snuggled up, sleeping soundly. It’s lovely.

This year all of the above normal holiday rituals were woven with the question: What is essential? We were not considering Christmas joys and excesses as much as the upcoming month-long journey that this year somewhat overshadowed any pleasure we might otherwise take in the sugar-coated season. In short, we could wallpaper our house with the to-do lists of the last few weeks. We made lists not for Santa, but for the housesitter, for the former student taking over piano lessons in the studio for a few weeks, for Matt’s colleagues generous and kind enough to cover choir rehearsals and other responsibilities for the month of January. We made lists of things to pack and household jobs that had to be done in the last week, last days and last hours before we left town. We debated the merits of roller-bags versus backpacks. We checked out books from the library on Paris and Vienna. I bought three paperback mysteries set in Venice to read on the plane and had my boots re-heeled. Matt cancelled the newspaper and on the last Saturday before Christmas braved the daunting lines at the post office to stop our mail. I taught my last lessons, went to my last yoga classes and swam my final laps of 2019. We ate the remaining Christmas chocolate and packed away cranberry Christmas lights and pop-up books until next December. The essentials.

A month-long holiday stretches before us. Time compresses and expands, both. On Christmas Day, we boarded a plane with our two (much too heavy) backpacks bound for Austin, where we spent 24 hours walking the city and eating tacos (25,151 steps and 11 miles). On Boxing Day, we got on a plane to London. Yesterday, jet-lagged and dazed, we wandered the city taking in the Christmas lights (fancy hotels: stunning. St. James’ Park and Buckingham Palace: not so much. Really, Liz, you could do better. Eight miles, 16,874 steps.). This morning we took a bus out to the Cotswolds. Tonight, as I write this, we are spending the weekend in a cozy flat in a Manor House (built in 1639 and so very Downton Abbey) outside of Brockhampton. There is a glass of red wine on the table next to me. I am halfway through the second Venice mystery, my needlepoint project is tucked in my bag, and I have a stack of blank paper waiting to be scribbled upon (My essentials.). It is so quiet and so dark.

There are no more to-do lists.


The photo above is of “our” Manor House.