More Than Presents Under the Tree

By Jen Holman


When you think of the holidays, what comes to mind? Is it family gathered around a table covered with casseroles and pies? Do you think of candlelight services or midnight mass? Beloved books and caroling? Road trips and time with family? Maybe your best holiday memories feature a twinkling tree or lazy afternoons of classic movies and leftovers.

When I think of the holidays, it’s of Christmas Eve at my grandparents’ house in rural Polk County. The world’s problems were solved in a wood-fired den, over coffee and filched bits of ham, while Granny prepared an enormous meal in the kitchen. As the warm scent of bread made its way into the den, the announcement that the yeast rolls were ready was the highlight of the day. Though she made pans and pans, there were never enough of Granny’s hot rolls.

With full bellies, we would sometimes sing old hymns and carols. I loved watching my aunts and uncles tease each other, and inevitably a wrestling match would break out among young cousins—or old uncles. The memories I treasure are simple but joyous times of enjoying each other’s company, of decelerated schedules and of longstanding traditions.

What I don’t remember are gifts. I don’t recall a single present from those family celebrations. In truth, I don’t remember many from Christmas mornings over the course of my childhood. Of course, this is all so easy to say now, as an adult. I’m sure if asked at the time what was the most important thing about Christmas, I’d have said presents—just like my kids would today.

What about you? Is it presents that make up your holiday memories, or traditions? A little of both?

If gifts aren’t the primary reason for the season, and they’re not what creates lasting memories, why do we stretch ourselves and our budgets so thin during the holidays? Besides Saint Nicholas’s legacy and the spirit of giving, it’s probably because we want to show the people we love just how much. And it’s fun to spoil our kids for one special day, to watch their little faces light up on Christmas morning. It brings us joy to give them everything their little hearts desire.

But are mine the only kids who glaze over after the third or fourth gift? Last year felt like a Christmas present sugar rush, and when it was over, the ultimate crash and burn. Would my time and money have been better spent on making memories, on holiday traditions—both old and new? How can I better teach my children what’s important: family and friends, gratitude, kindness and charity?

Since my Granny’s passing two years ago, the Polk County Christmas Eve has come to an end. It’s sad, but these things happen. The cousins have their own families now; my aunts and uncles are the new grannies and papaws.

At my house, the kids are still young and we’re working to form our own holiday traditions. In many ways, we’re letting them lead. They love the awe and atmosphere of a Christmas Eve candlelight service. They’re thrilled to bake cookies and build gingerbread houses. The whole family joins in when our beloved neighbors sing carols each year. The kids love to volunteer at the central Arkansas Angel Tree intake at the mall, and to cruise the Trail of Lights in the city of Sherwood. We’re sure to watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Elf,” and “The Grinch” and to drink plenty of hot chocolate. I’m even going to try and make Granny’s famous hot rolls this year.

Well. Would you look at that? Not one of those things pertained to presents. Maybe there’s hope for us after all. Hope your holidays are magical, filled with family and love—and the makings for memories.

Granny's Hot Rolls recipe


2 cups milk
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup sugar
3  1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 packets rapid rise yeast

Mix all dry ingredients in bowl. Heat milk and oil until hot to fingers. Beat in flour and eggs slowly using all flour. Let set in bowl until doubled. Roll out and make into rolls. Put into greased pan let rise 15 or 20 minutes. Bake at 400 degrees.

 Jen Holman is determined to be a voice of reason amongst reality TV and mom-judgment- gone-wild. Her newest novel (as yet unpublished) won the 2017 Rosemary award for excellence in young adult fiction. She lives in Little Rock with her husband and three (im)perfect children.