A wiser man once said happy families are all alike. But as it turns out, some happy families are better off during the holiday season than others. Their secret? The kids don't just expect to be showered with attention and gifts - they actually give first and sometimes even give their precious time. From helping your mother become a better cook to challenging Pops to a Settlers of Catan tourney, there are plenty of ways to avoid the "you don't spend enough time with us" speech this year. Here are a few starting points on your quest for familial joy this holiday season:
SEND THEM TO A COOKING CLASS
Calphalon Culinary Centre
When Kiyomi Ruvalcaba was trying to do something nice for her mother, she knew just the thing.
"My mom has a lot of time to bake for me, my brother, and the in-laws since she is newly retired. She is really good at pastries, but could use some more practice, so I got her to go to a pastry workshop."
Ms. Ruvalcaba was concerned at first. "Baking is a very serious method of cooking," she said, and she was worried her mother might take it as a criticism.
But this worry turned out to be for naught , since Julie Nishino, Ms. Ruvalcaba's mother and a former school teacher, was "very happy with the class," and was particularly proud of the "beautiful cream-puff pastries and the handsome croissants" she got to make at the Calphalon Culinary Centre at King and Spadina.
Listing off her in-class conquests, there is a clear note of playful boastfulness. "The maple walnut pie was my favourite. We did that from scratch. Made the dough and everything. Then we made some chocolate profiteroles, and then there were some tourtières, that's spelt t-o-u-r…"
Ms. Nishino says the class has made her want to cook more at home, and she hopes to return. Ms. Ruvalcaba is excited for another reason. "It's a great opportunity to learn a new method or cuisine together. But it's also great because the profits come to the kids because they get to eat the finished products. It's a win-win-win."
Jade Stafford, manager of Calphalon, recommends the hors d'oeuvre class on Dec. 19 for anyone getting ready for a holiday party.
"We make it very easy for people to impress their guests," Ms. Stafford says.
Calphalon offers both hands-on and demonstration cooking classes. "It's for everyone. For instance, when my in-laws came, they loved the hands-on style. My husband on the other hand, loves the demonstration cooking classes because he doesn't have to do any of the work," she jokes.
According to Ms. Stafford, by the end of the three hours, you can expect to run through four to five recipes, enough to be able to replicate them step-by-step when you go home.
TO HELL WITH HANDS-FREE, GET HANDS-ON
Do your folks think the internet is a fad? Are they quick to extol the virtues of honest labour over being taught how to play Angry Birds on smartphones by their grandkids? Or maybe they're old hippies with a nostalgic connection to "throwing." Whatever the case, Gardiner Museum is the perfect place for you and your parentals this holiday season. Every other evening, the museum opens its doors to the public -- kids come with parents, adults come after work, couples come on dates. For 15 bucks you'll get in the door and set up with a hand build station [WHAT IS THIS?]or a pottery wheel à la Demi Moore in Ghost (soundtrack not included). The potter-on-duty will help you in any clay emergency. Most people return to do the glazing a few weeks later. Getting the end product fired will run you an extra $5. Drop-in classes are offered Wednesday and Friday evenings and Sunday afternoons. Tickets can be purchased half an hour before the classes start.
SHARE IN SOME DRAMA THAT'S NOT FAMILY GOSSIP
Soulpepper Theatre Company
If your grandma loves drama, why not give her the good stuff? Soulpepper Theatre Company is mounting a production of a 72-year-old Hungarian play called Parfumerie for the month of December. At once romantic, biting and family-friendly, it won a Dora last year for out standing production. Most weekday shows offer matinees for $22. The play runs until December 24th. If you're uncertain what their tastes run to, the company also offer gift certificates for the 2012 season.
While in the neighbourhood, take a wander though the annual Christmas market in the Distillery District. Think ferris wheels and mulled wine and sugary stocking stuffers. On until Dec. 18.
STAGE A KNIT-OFF
Many establishments around town have similar classes, but Lettuce Knit in Kensington Market offers the most hassle-free option for those who want to knit for the holidays. A two-session class will run you $40, and the store also offers private lessons for those who feel self-conscious or cannot make it to the group rounds. A typical class will have mothers who bring their kids, or older folks who used to knit when they were young and are hoping to get back into it. This is where Mom's (or Dad's?) needling might result in something constructive. Classes include Socks 101, Chunky Mittens, and a winter-wear overview course for hats, scarves, and others. Materials not included but can be picked up at the store.
WORK OUT FAMILY TENSIONS OVER THE SCRABBLE BOARD
Snakes and Lattes
Think your family is cool? Convinced it can out-hip most hipsters on the street? Try your luck at the Snakes and Lattes board-game café on Bloor in Koreatown. For five bucks a pop, you and your great-aunt can have a Settlers of Catan match or a Scrabble playoff. Owing to the French founders' influence, many of the board games are European and ergo more family friendly rather than the needlessly aggressive North American kind (cough, Risk, cough). The café has an entire section dedicated to classics such as backgammon, chess, and go. They also carry an impressive collection of abstract games such as Scotland Yard, Othello, and Abalone that would appeal to an older crowd. If you don't like the sound of any of these, check out the café anyways. They have over 1,500 board games. Surely something will catch your eye.
Special to The Globe and Mail