Holiday How-To: Reminisce and Stress Less


I was the hippopotamus for Christmas

Christmas wasn’t about anxiety until 5th grade.  It used to be the odor of pine in the living room, colorful lights attached to our farmhouse, and the anticipation of Santa’s arrival at Montgomery Wards.  After 5th grade, I greeted the holiday with an anxiety only Charlie Brown could comprehend.  But as the years passed and I’m now in Act II of my life, the holidays aren’t so bad—once I took control.

Taking control didn’t happen at once.  In my twenties, I had “Dynasty” to compete with so I secured two thousand lights on my Christmas tree, purchased fabulous ornaments from Dayton’s, and served strawberries dipped in chocolate at my holiday gatherings.  This wasn’t easy on my part-time salary from the men’s clothing store or student loans.

Back then I learned to live well—or at least act like it.  I learned to cook and prepare food skillfully while growing up on the farm.  If Piggly Wiggly carried strawberries during the holidays they weren’t organic.  But once dipped in Hersey’s chocolate, placed on paper lace, and set on a silver tray found at a thrift store they be came legend, “Would you care for strawberries flown in from Chile dipped in Belgian chocolate…just for you?” My holiday gatherings were a success.

In my thirties, it wasn’t about showing off my plumage because I started to grow comfortable in my skin.  The holidays began to mean something different–a time to reflect, enjoy friends, and help others.  I still decorated the heck out of my house but what could I do?  I had Rubbermaid containers filled with Dayton’s Christmas clearance.

One year, near Thanksgiving, I met a young officer from the South stationed at the Air Force base outside of town.  We spent our first night together on base in the MP barracks where he lived paging through his photo albums and tales of his family and home.  The next morning the base went on alert and I had to sneak off base but while doing so an idea hit me.  That year “Orphan Thanksgiving” was born.

So, I began inviting service personnel that had no where to go for holiday dinners.  We had an amazing time and life long friendships happened.  When I moved to the Twin Cities in 1997, I brought this tradition with me but people began to tell their families they weren’t coming home for the holidays.  They secretly wanted to come to “Orphan Christmas” or “Orphan Easter”.

Now at age 50, I feel I have the wisdom of Grandpa Walton and the confidence of Martha Stewart.  However anxiety still sneaks in to try and mess up holiday plans.  So I started to write lists and assigned items a number to designate what must be done in order of importance.  I also calendar everything–even my “playtime” with my best friend Dan Kenward (Margo from Fargo—The Nancy Boys).  I will list it as “Dan Day” because paling around is good for both of us but gets me out of my head and away from my career for a few fun hours.

I don’t have an orthodox career but one that is public and holidays become surreal.  My point- this week I am filming Thanksgiving dinner in front of a live audience one week before the actual holiday.  Then next week I’m filming another holiday special and I have my own “real” dinner to prepare.  But I don’t have to be perfect; just organized.

My planning sessions are simple; for home, television/radio appearances, private events, or live demonstrations, I select recipes, create grocery lists, and staple a copy of the recipe to that grocery list.  I make sure I have time off before each event to prep and understand the time line of what I’m cooking or baking.

If you’re not a cook, visit restaurants or contact a private chef and plan early.  They should do all the work for you—even the dishes.

Shopping for gifts can be pleasurable and free of anxiety if you release yourself from expectations.  You don’t need to dress up, find parking, and fight crowds.  I watch or record shopping channels and utilize on-line shopping as most shipping is free.  Try something different and give a gift certificate for a culinary class.  It’s a gift that will be appreciated for years.

It took 30 some years to get over the anxiety of expectation during the holidays and it was my own fault.  I was the one holding my hand up to play Santa Clause in the school pageant and I wasn’t listening when Santa was chosen.  I kept my hand up and became the Christmas hippopotamus for the number, “I want a hippopotamus for Christmas.”  Any permanent scarring was my own fault and we do this to ourselves especially during the holidays.  Had I embraced my inner hippopotamus, who knows?  Maybe I would have traveled to Chile for those strawberries.


John Michael Lerma is a local chef, author, “lifestyle guru” and Food Network personality.  His company Garden County Cooking offers cookbooks, cooking classes, consulting, private/corporate events, and culinary vacations to Tuscany, Italy.  He also teaches food writing at The Loft Literary Center and a regular on Twin Cities Live (KSTP Channel 5).

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