Christmas Debrief: Why I Track What Works (and What Doesn’t)

A few years ago, after stumbling through a recipe I knew I had tweaked to perfection (but those tweaks, of course, I had neglected to record – argh), I started doing a Christmas debrief.

Here’s what I do:

At the end of December, I turn to a back page in my yearly planner and write out details about what worked at Christmas – and what didn’t. For example, in my 2021 planner I added this note: “Skip the egg nog. No one really likes it.” This year in the grocery store I didn’t even hesitate at the egg nog display. If I hadn’t made that note, I almost certainly would have grabbed a carton but, because of my debrief notes from the previous year, I knew better.

I write down how many pats of cream cheese I used for the cheesecake (really, I should record this on the actual recipe in my binder!), what meals we ate and when. Having the menu plan from 2020 was so helpful as a guide this year; Christmas 2020 was the first time I delayed our turkey dinner to Boxing Day and it was such a huge success that I didn’t think twice about following the exact same menu (recorded in my planner) in the leadup to Christmas.

I write down when we put up certain decorations (“Put the downstairs tree up before Levi’s birthday“), favourite Christmas albums (though I had forgotten how wonderful Ingrid Michaelson’s Songs for the Season album was, I don’t need a note to remind me that White Christmas by Living Strings & Living Voices will forever be my favourite Christmas album – I’ve listened to this music every year since I was born).

I keep a running list of gift ideas throughout the year, but specifics about our Christmas traditions and routines really need to be recorded when the memory is still fresh.

It’s impossible to perfectly recreate the “ideal” Christmas – life happens, to which I can well attest having spent 3 out of 4 Christmas Eves in the emergency room with one (or more) sick family members. But knowing what has worked can go a long way in helping Christmas function smoothly.

This year I knew to stuff stockings after the kids went to bed (one year we let Abby help and it just wasn’t as magical, even though she begs to be included in this event and neither kid believes in Santa). I knew to watch the old animated Grinch on Christmas Eve before church, to listen to Gretchen Rubin’s audio version of A Christmas Carol, and that I really should buy two bags of shrimp for the Seafood Casserole/Curried Rice.

I’ve already set aside a page in the back of my 2022 planner for Christmas – it includes new observations from this holiday season:

  • my favourite wrapping paper (from Coles) always sells out before Boxing Day sales, so I need to go in the week before Christmas and get a few rolls at the 40% off discount.
  • dipping my homemade peanut butter balls is too much work – better to just spoon a bit of melted chocolate over the top (pictured above; they look fine and it is a fraction of the mess and work).
  • I love Stash Holiday Chai (with Jamican Rum flavouring) and should buy some when I see it in stores.
  • It’s A Wonderful Life is a great movie and we should start watching it annually as a family.
  • the kids actually love my Mom’s brown sugar fudge (I told her not to bring much because I thought I would be the only one eating it – boy was I wrong), and she doesn’t need to bring many cookies (cookies just aren’t what people want to reach for when all the other unique festive goodies are on offer).
  • everyone loves saltine toffee; I haven’t made any in several years but our neighbour gifted us a tin of it and it was a hot commodity, so I really should make a batch next year since it was such a hit.
  • the street address of the new light display we discovered this Christmas (set to music; you tune in to a local radio frequency and the lights keep time with whatever Christmas song is playing – the kids LOVED this).
  • we need a 6.5-7 ft Christmas tree + get them to trim the base and top ON SITE! After a year of trimming down the tree at home three times to get it to fit (and leaving green marks all over our white ceiling, I have learned my lesson – measure the ceiling height before picking out a tree).
  • it’s okay to let Levi watch something Christmas morning so the adults can linger over gifts a bit longer (this year it was soccer highlights and he was happy as a clam).

Nothing profound, just little hacks, reminders, and other prompts to make Christmas less stressful, more memorable and – when music-timed light displays are involved – more festive.

What about you? Do you ever do a holiday debrief, listing what does/doesn’t work? Are you a “yes” or “no” to egg nog?

Header photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

18 thoughts on “Christmas Debrief: Why I Track What Works (and What Doesn’t)”

  1. I should probably make more notes in my actual recipes, I have tweaks *in my head* and that’s not generally helpful if anyone else is trying to make dinner.

    Re: wrapping paper. I bought three rolls at Costco years ago and I think I will be taking them to my grave. There’s still so much left!

    1. I haven’t been to Costco in several months and didn’t even touch the “Christmas” section last time I was there.

      My sister SWEARS by Costco paper, but I honestly think I’d get tired of using the same pattern for so long? But it’s also great quality, so maybe next year I’ll cave.

  2. I think this is a very clever idea, especially since you go back and look at your list. If I really need to remember something, I’ll put it on my calendar for next year. For instance, I know I need to buy one more strand of lights for tree next year, so I put it on my calendar to do the weekend after Thanksgiving next year (Christmas stuff will be out, but hopefully the stores won’t be too insane at that point. I do need to buy more wrapping paper, though, and I should have done it this year right after Christmas. I’m eyeing the above conversation about Costco wrapping paper lasting for years very carefully.

    I have enjoyed egg nog in the past, but honestly I don’t LOVE it. I haven’t had it in years and I don’t think I miss it!

    1. Your calendar idea seems equally clever!

      I did manage to find some jumbo rolls locally; not my favourite pattern, but my stockpile was getting very low. Costco is definitely known for its wrapping paper…and I think it is always reversible, too? Which feels like a bonus!

      The reason I like the paper from Coles is because it’s so thick and has a nice grid on the back for easy cutting (and comes in adorable, woodsy patterns that feel very Canadian Christmas)…but alas they were all sold out by Boxing Day.

  3. This is SUCH a good idea! I am tempted to make a blog post with my must-dos for next Christmas, and then schedule it for December 1 or something. Hmmm. Perhaps I shall, perhaps I shall.

    I do like egg nog… but not enough to buy a whole bottle of it. (I prefer it when I mix it with half a glass of milk.) We still have half a bottle downstairs. I should probably dump it out. 🙁

    1. Oh – setting up a blog draft is a great thought!

      I used the extra eggnog for some Baked French Toast last year to use it up…but it definitely wasn’t worth buying a bottle just for that!

  4. I agree with you, this is so necessary! I do something *like* this in that I keep a running draft of holiday menus and games (e.g. July 4th, Thanksgiving, Diwali, Christmas, Pongal) in my gmail. Having it on gmail makes easily accessible, searchable, fwd-able, etc. I love seeing the tweaks and additions I’ve made over the years :).

    1. This is genius – I love the idea of keeping track of ALL the holiday menus/games. Admittedly, I don’t do much outside of Christmas (Thanksgiving is pretty straightforward in our house/in general in Canada I think)…but even party games for the kids birthday parties and lists of what I served/what went over well.

  5. Honestly nothing makes me feel more like an adult than writing my debrief. I don’t think I did one last year (probably assuming we wouldn’t have another Covid Christmas) but this boxing I sat down and wrote out my list. Things I know I’ll forget, like make sure the kids eat something with protein after stockings, and especially to think about the SIZE of presents before buying them (we found a barbie dream home for my daughter on kijiji for a steal but it’s just massive). The week before Christmas this year was nuts, we pulled my kids from school on the 13th due to Covid surging (I’m just west of Toronto) and that, coupled with my husband having to be in Montreal for work from the 19th to the 23rd made it seemed rushed. Hoping that next year I can do a bit more in advance!

    1. I had to laugh about the size of the Barbie Dream home – that would drive me crazy, too (though I do love a great deal).
      I’m so sorry about the impact COVID is having; I hear that Ontario has moved to online learning for at least a good chunk of January. We’re still on schedule to have schools reopen next Monday, but we’ll see what happens.

      I never really thought about the debrief as feeling like an “adult” behaviour but you’re absolutely right – it feels so very responsible (and I love doing it because I feel like it gives me a “cheat” sheet for the next year)!

  6. This is a great idea, and something I’ve never done. I DID though sit down with my Dad on Thanksgiving and typed up a Google doc with a “shopping list” for Thanksgiving (he and I do the primary shopping/ cooking). We realized that every year we have to brainstorm all the items, inevitably forgetting something… So now we have a nice, ready to go list for next year! This is something I want to put on my 22 for 2022 list (not done with it yet…) in general- I want to make some documents to organize some of the various recurring things in my life. Like a packing list for travel. A list of all of our doctor/ dentist/ eye doctor appointments and when next ones are due, etc.

    And the Christmas/ holiday list would be a great idea too! I would be satisfied with just putting holiday “to dos” on my calendar in advance, as you said about the tree, etc. I always feel like I want to plan ahead, but then more immediate needs in the moment take over…and then I can’t. So maybe planning WAY ahead, during a less busy time of life, would make this more realistic. I would also really like to plan ahead for my Christmas card next year. It annoyed me this year to have to rush to make it, rush to get the letter done, etc. I would like to maybe make an album on my phone and then each month mark “favorites” for Christmas card, so come late fall, I can just browse through a hopefully much reduced number of photos and select some from there. I despise the process of combing through hundreds of photos to find a nice sampling for our card (we never do professional holiday pics, so I always like to use a variety from our vacations or other day to day events.)

    1. Favoriting pictures throughout the year is a great idea (I kinda of do something like this with my sibling’s pictures that they text; I make a calendar for my parents and I figure the pictures they choose to text are usually their current favourites, so I set them aside in a “Calendar” folder during the year. It has made life A LOT easier for both my siblings and myself).

      What a genius idea to keep a master shopping list! I really should do a packing list as well, although it really has changed a lot in the last few years (since we last really traveled) because the kids are older and a lot changes between having a 5-year-old vs. a 7-year old!

      One thing I did do last year was write down a “cheat sheet” for my responsibility in preparing corporate taxes for our business. While our accountant handles most things, there are some tricky parts that I have to do myself. Actually – they’re not tricky, there are just moving parts and there are a few places I always get hung up, it takes me 30 minutes to figure out, and then…I never write it down. So last year I actually wrote down the steps and I’m hopeful it makes the whole process a lot more streamlined and pleasant this year (well, as pleasant as taxes can be).

  7. An official Christmas debrief – girl, that’s genius! Must implement immediately! Good things I just got out my new planner a few days ago.

    I loved to read all your little hacks and also loved to read that you enjoyed It’s a beautiful life so much that you would like to make it an annual tradition. I completely agree 🙂

  8. I used to do a de-brief like this when my son was little, but I’ve fallen out of the habit. One thing I do now is, jot down little reminders on the November page of this year’s calendar- so when we get to November I’ll see notes written in the margins like “We need more tinsel!” Writing it down is a must- you think you’ll remember these things, but you WON’T!

    1. Setting calendar reminders, or writing down to-do’s in advance is a brilliant way to make sure those little (but important – really, who wants to be low on tinsel!) tasks fall back onto your radar.

  9. First off, I am a HARD PASS on eggnog. Ha! No one is my family likes it, though, including my family of origin and my in-laws!

    I love this idea and it’s something I will think of incorporating as our kids get older and things get more complex/we have more established traditions. We are still in the phase of figuring out what meals to make, etc. We’ve been married for almost 5 years and have kids at 4 Christmases but our traditions and such are still such a work in progress! But I love this debrief idea!

    1. I definitely think that traditions ebb and flow and some people don’t have traditions around things like meals, for example, where we have a lot of traditions with certain foods.
      Not having the turkey until the 26th is a HUGE departure from what I grew up with, but I absolutely love the slower day on Christmas and don’t plan to ever go back to the way things were…

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