At heart, every holiday is about the gathering. Gratitude, joy and peace, celebration and promise of good times to come – none of it strikes so strong a chord unless friends, family and even beloved pets are there to share in the moment. And nowhere in the world is sharing that moment as special as at the cabin. No bells, whistles, blow-up Santas or fancy toasts needed.
At the cabin, the pace is slower. Life is uncomplicated. And the most chaos you’ll face generally happens outside the window at the bird feeder. With all the extraneous stuff swept out of the way, getting down to the heart of the holidays – the essential folks and feelings that make these most special days special – is a cinch.
So what are you waiting for? Cancel the crazed itinerary you’re expected to hold to at home and make a call to the people you love best. This holiday, you’re heading to the cabin. Here are 25 tips to ensure the celebration there is smooth, simple and special.
1.Think outside the oven. Embrace the low-key cabin vibe by firing up the grill. Steaks, burgers or, if you’re feeling fancy, Cornish game hens, are spectacular options to the typical fare. Or try the Grill Master’s technique and grill turkey parts. (See “A Twist on Tradition,” Oct/Nov 2004.)
2.Too cold to fire up the barbeque? Serve a thick stew in bread bowls – any thick stew will do. Simply carve out the center of petite round loafs – both premade or store-bought keep and travel well – then fill.
3. If you’re heading up for Christmas, don’t haul a tree. Either pack a saw to cut your own or decorate a live pine or other evergreen on your property.
4.Towels and plastic trash bags can be a winter traveler’s best friends. Wrap wet snowsuits, mittens and scarves in the towels to remove excess water and hasten drying by the fire. If the clothes are still wet by the time you leave for home, simply toss the gear into trash bags and don’t worry about soaking anything else.
5. Rather than toting along ornaments and lights for a Christmas tree, pack a needle and thread and plan on popping some corn for an old-fashioned popcorn garland.
6. Kids can craft their own ornaments for a fun indoor activity. Folded white paper snowflakes are easy to make and look great even if you don’t have snow at the cabin.
7. Whether you’re decorating a tree, a mantle or the dining table, relish nature’s own offerings, such as dried seed heads, pinecones, berries and feathers. For a fun outdoor activity kids and adults will love, make finding these treasures a scavenger hunt.
8. If you haven’t spent much time at the cabin in winter, you may not realize that even four-season cabins can get fussy when the cold winds blow. For cozy backup, be sure to have a space heater or two (with safety shut-off) on hand.
9. When it comes to culinary essentials, premeasured packing is a fantastic space-saver. Rather than toting a bottle of oil, four bottles of spices, a bag of flour and a bag of sugar to make those holiday cookies, measure out dry ingredients ahead of time and drop the mix into sealable plastic bags. For liquids, screw-top jars work perfectly.
10. Do you have a gift exchange going? If you’re driving or flying to the cabin, limits on size will be just as important as limits on price. But get the word out before the shopping begins.
11.Premade freezer-friendly foods – think minestrone soup, egg-cheese-ham casserole, cinnamon coffee cake – can make time at the cabin even more relaxing. Simply assign each family member the job of preparing and freezing one menu item to save everyone time in the cabin kitchen.
12.Use coolers. They’ll hold frozen meals on the way up and serve as additional outside food storage while you’re there. When you’re ready to leave, they make an easy-to-clean transport for cabin leftovers that can’t be eaten.
13. If you haven’t sent your cabin neighbors their annual holiday card yet, do it before you head up and enclose a note and key to your cabin. Perhaps they wouldn’t mind running over a day or two before your arrival to turn up the thermostat so it’s toasty when you arrive? And if you have a phone-in system that will do it for you, send your cabin neighbors a card anyway.
14.Prewrap gifts in sturdy brown paper packaging. Popular for mailing packages, this paper stands up to jostling that decorative wrapping papers can’t. Pack fabric bows and ribbons separately so they won’t fray or crease, and add those final flourishes when you arrive.
15.Make one day a pj day. The gang can’t help but feel snuggly and relaxed if the rule is all pajamas, all day long.
16. We don’t care how you get there, just be prepared to get there. That means making space in the vehicle for jumper cables, shovels, traction-bestowing cat litter and extra blankets if you’re driving to a snowy destination. If you’re flying, plan time for reconfirming flights and checking in at the gate early.
17.Don’t forget the holiday tunes. Nothing packs easier than a few song books for sing-a-longs. But if you’re determined to hear Burl Ives and Bing Crosby croon, you don’t have to pack the entire collection. Make use of a CD burner and record a few key compilations of your favorites before heading to the cabin.
18.Ambience is essential to any holiday party. Unlike candles in glass votives, travel candles, which come in tins with lids, are lighter and less likely to break. Use them – many come in holiday scents like pine, holly berry or cinnamon – or simply purchase a package of tapers. With a minimal whittle to the bottom, they fit easily into the neck of empty wine bottles.
19. Outdoor entertainment is one of the best parts about being at the cabin, so make the most of it when celebrating. Sledding, ice skating and snowshoe hikes are awesome ways to spend a holiday. But if gear isn’t available, don’t forget snowball fights, snow angels and nature walks, too.
20. Remember the story of Stone Soup? A visitor at a small village convinces each villager to contribute one item to a soup (he provides the stone.) The result is a heart- and belly-warming stew no one ever forgets. For one meal, ask every guest to bring one ingredient that will, together, create a recipe.
21. Whenever possible, just add water. Dry goods – powdered drink mix versus soda, oatmeal instead of cereal that requires milk, muffin mixes that just need water – save a lot of space in the car and in the cabin cupboards.
22.Treat guests to a favor that will commemorate the occasion and be useful during the celebration. Slippers, disposable cameras, etched champagne flutes or fancy hot cocoa packets stuffed in individual cups make great gifts, are inexpensive and don’t take up a lot of room in the luggage.
23. If gifts are on the agenda and you are simply out of space, have presents shipped to the cabin so that they arrive shortly after you do.
24.Feeding a big crowd? Rather than overwhelm the oven and stovetop with a dozen dishes at once, plan the menu ahead, incorporating dishes that can be cooked on the grill and with other appliances such as crock pots, toaster ovens, microwaves or even a deep fryer. Assign each family or couple to bring an appliance you don’t have at the cabin – and know where the circuit breaker box is!
25. Take time during your holiday celebration to reflect on the magic of the moment – the nature outside your door, the love among those gathered inside, and the cabin that made it possible to bring it all together.
Freelancer Lynda Twardowski has visions of popcorn garland dancing in her head.