Missing Martha

Iím hanging bright-colored lights around the front door and decking the halls of my house with shiny tinsel garlands. Why am I brimming with holiday spirit? Because for the first time in my adult life, I am free.

This year, thereís no one telling me to make soup stock out of the coffee grounds in the kitchen sink drain or urging me to scour the local parks for pinecones to gild with heirloom jewelry thatís been melted in the microwave. No sir, now that Martha Stewart is behind bars, not only is the world a slightly safer place, but I have been liberated from holiday performance pressure.

Frankly, I think she should have been jailed years ago for suggesting that we make soap from canola oil. Compared to that crime, a little insider trading seems like small potatoes (which, by the way, Martha likes to roast with virgin olive oil and fresh rosemary).

For years, Martha made me feel inadequate with her artfully arranged centerpieces and color-coordinated cookware Ė especially during the holidays. Trying to live up to her standards wasnít just a lot of work, it was devastating to my self-esteem. Making wrapping paper from dryer lint and fashioning ornaments from eggshells Ė this is living?

Now, for the next few months, I have a chance to break free from Marthaís domestic shackles, create my own holiday traditions and save my sanity. Iím going to start by burning a yule log made out of Martha-sanctioned craft paper. Iíll use raffia for kindling. Sorry Martha, but brown paper packages tied up in hay donít reflect my giddy celebratory mood. This year, Iíll hit Kmart for reams of shiny foil and a big bag of cheap bows. I wonít need stencils or a glue gun or sprigs of fresh holly. In the frenzy that is Christmas morning at my house, no one has ever paused Ė for even a moment Ė to admire the wrapping. They just rip and tear until we are knee-deep in tissue, toys and stuff that needs to be returned.

This year, I wonít worry if the presents under the tree clash with the upholstery on the couch. Bring on the red, the green, and the fuchsia!

Martha also mandates that in December all good moms construct a gingerbread house. Every year, this project makes me tense because after five minutes the kids wander away to play video games and leave me to take the blame for what looks less Hansel and Gretel and more Ted Kaczynski (aka the Unabomber).

So, this year Iím relinquishing total creative control to the kids. If itís not perfect, I won't view it as a reflection of my parenting skills or of my childrenís ability to get into a decent college. I wonít nag them to make gumdrop trees or shingle the roof with alternating pink and grey Necco wafers. In fact, they donít have to use Necco wafers(which taste like chalk) at all. This year, I wonít flinch if there are gummy worms crawling out of the windows or Pop Rocks globbed on the door. And, if theyíre distracted by Super Mario and the house collapses, I wonít care. Weíll smash it into tiny bits, put it on top of ice cream and dig in. Before supper!

Now that Marthaís in jail, I donít need to sneak out late at night to hack branches from my neighborís yews. Instead of trespassing to obtain fresh evergreen boughs and suffering the inevitable bloodshed involved in wiring them into an attractive centerpiece as Martha dictates, I can legally and painlessly display my animatronic Rudolph that sings ďGrandma Got Run Over by a ReindeerĒ and surround him with cotton balls and harmless plastic holly.

Martha was a fickle taskmaster, especially when it came to Christmas trees. Some years, she advocated hanging only heirloom ornaments, other times she recommended decking the tree with homemade marzipan fruit and hand-tied red ribbons.

This year, Martha wonít be around to help me select a sophisticated theme like gold and ecru angels. So, weíll hang all our ornaments and I wonít care if Homer and the whole plastic Simpson family is clumped in the front, or if the tree leans a little to the right. And, when I untangle the wad of tiny, tasteful, white lights that we bought last year, I wonít get mad when I plug them in and find that they donít work. Instead, Iíll take it as a sign that I should run out and buy multicolored bubble lights. Iím going to look for ones that blink.

Without Martha pressuring me to raise piglets, slaughter them and make patť, I am free to cook food that my family actually likes to eat. I will proudly put mini marshmallows on the sweet potatoes and serve my motherís sweet-and-sour cocktail weenies when we have company. They're good, they're easy to make and you won't find the recipe in Martha Stewart's Living magazine:

- 1 jar cocktail weenies

- 1 jar grape jelly

- 1 jar mustard

Dump everything in a pan and simmer until done. Serve with toothpicks and no apologies.

Now that Martha is ... temporarily indisposed, Iíve bought plastic garlands and no longer lose sleep worrying that the real evergreens will catch on fire or wondering if I'll have enough dryer lint to carry me through the season. No, this year I can relax and enjoy the holidays, my way. Sure, Marthaís in jail, but Iíve found freedom, and thatís a good thing.

Carol Band has added Martha Stewart to her Christmas Card list. Write to her at††