This article appeared first in NougatMagazine, Lexington, Kentucky, December 1, 2006. Our tree was nearly decorated, the ornament boxes and fir needles scattered around the living room floor, when I realized our three young sons had stopped hanging glass icicles some time before. Across the room, they laughed and argued as they invented the rules for a new tossing game using a pile of old, soft ornaments we did not plan to use.

At first I was dismayed. Our unusual blended family came together only 17 or 18 times a year, and then dissolved back into three separate families in three different households. The boys, now nine and ten, were finally old enough to contribute to holiday rituals without close supervision. Here was our chance to be a normal family.

I had imagined a magical couple of hours stringing bubble lights and sentimental ornaments on our fragrant, fresh tree while carols filled the air. We would gather greens from the yard! We would stop for a rest and have homemade hot chocolate! The boys would cheer when we turned on the Christmas tree lights for the first time!

When I saw how happily the boys were playing away from the tree, I woke up. As I took in the real situation, this little 'aha' cascade cleared my head:

1. The boys' game was more fun for them than decorating the tree had been.

2. When they helped with the tree, they had been humoring me.

3. In fact, decorating the tree was nothing special for them, perhaps because they were boyish boys, but more likely because they had plenty of Christmas experiences in other places.

4. Actually, in every traditional way, Christmas at our house was anticlimatic. By the time the boys reached us on December 26 each year, their 'real' Christmas was over.

5. As the sole female in our family of five, with a husband who grew up with Jewish holiday traditions, I took most of the responsibility for Christmas activities, and I planned too many. I felt anxious and empty-hearted a lot of the time the boys were with us during the holidays.

6. I had choice about how to handle all these realities. Choice A: I could continue pretending that we could complete every traditional holiday ritual as a family even though we spent only about 72 days together each year. Choice B: I could propose that we work out new premises for our holidays together.

This wake-up moment changed our family life, including our holidays, forever ' but not right then. I finished decorating that tree myself. I made hot chocolate, always a favorite. We gave our children too many gifts. I felt rushed and not quite satisfied. I watched it all, talked with my man a good bit, and after Christmas I began looking for a new approach.

I found a lot of material about simplifying Christmas, but it struck me as cheerless. I got more from Unplug the Christmas Machine: A Complete Guide to Putting Love and Joy Back into the Season, by Jo Robinson and Jean C. Staeheli. I liked that sub-title, and decided that increasing love and joy offered a fine framework for choosing new ways to celebrate Christmas.

The following fall, well before Christmas, I asked the boys what they liked best about the holidays at our house. They liked playing with each other. They liked candles. They liked stockings. They particularly liked all our good meals, the cookie making, and the special foods.

Among many other changes, we decided to create some big holiday cooking projects, foods that would require all five of us to produce. We settled on making croquembouche for dessert after our traditional December 26 meal, and pot stickers from scratch for New Year's Eve.

Two of the boys had helped teachers and classmates make croquembouche ('crunch in the mouth'), a French stacked tower of tiny cream puffs held together by caramelized sugar. We treasured the pot stickers at Hunan on Southland Drive, but none of us had ever eaten our fill of these chewy, savory dumplings.

Each holiday season for years, it took some hours and all our ten hands to make the different components of these two multi-step dishes, assemble the parts, eat all we wanted, and write down our critiques in notes we kept from year to year. We graduated to other foods and now cook all meals jointly when we are together. It is our family tradition, and it fills my heart, every time. It brings us love and joy.

Here are our croquembouche and pot sticker recipes, or use google.

Homemade Hot Chocolate

In a microwave-safe mug, stir these ingredients together thoroughly:

1 ½ teaspoons unsweetened cocoa powder (or more to taste) 2 ½ teaspoons sugar (or more to taste) A tiny pinch of salt

Add two teaspoons of whole milk and stir until the paste is smooth.

Fill the mug with milk. Stir thoroughly. The mixture will not blend completely.

Microwave for 2 ½ minutes at high power, stir again, and enjoy.

Read more Nougat articles by Rona.