Holiday fun? Joan Cusack’s got tips to share

Joan Cusack
Joan Cusack Getty Images

Inspired by the Hollywood-style magic she had seen firsthand, actress Joan Cusack decided in 2011 to translate that feeling to a place of her own — one she could share with the public.

With that in mind, she opened Judy Maxwell Home (named after Barbra Streisand’s character in What’s Up, Doc?) and filled the Chicago store with gag gifts, crazy gum, interesting jewelry, artful and beautiful housewares, and the occasional giant beach ball.

“If you’re going to take the trouble to go to a shop, it should be an experience,” she told The Chicago Tribune.

Though she freely points out that it is just a shop, after all, Cusack’s real role is to spread the experience around. At holiday time, the married mother of two, 52, goes into fun overdrive. “People need to let go of the stress and bring the fun back,” says John Cusack’s older sister. Tapping into childhood, she says, helps get the ball rolling: “That was the best moment, charging down the stairs on Christmas morning. Kids want to feel that feeling, and it’s never the big things that create it. It’s the little things.”

The famous storekeeper has clearly given thought to what makes a holiday season both doable and delightful. She shared her top ideas:

▪ Remain calm. No, really. “That thing in the airplane about putting on your own mask before you try to help others is useful at all times, I’ve found. And there’s a reason that the sign in the elevator says, ‘REMAIN CALM' if you get stuck in there. You’d think that if you were going to panic, that’s when you should panic, when you’re stuck in an elevator. But no. So, it turns out there is really no time that you are supposed to panic. Don’t do it. Just try to remain calm at all times.” Remember, she adds, “Stay in the bell curve. Crazy stuff is going to happen, sure, but you’re just going for a couple good moments here.”

▪ BYOT: Bring your own traditions. “You can come up with your own celebration,” she says; anything from finding a series of irreverent readings to assign to dinner guests to bringing back good old Christmas poppers. “It’s something fun at your table that’s not wine. I mean, granted, that takes the edge off,” she jokes, “but it’s also a depressant and, you know, it’s not really good for your kids.”

▪ Keep an eye out for treats. Stop by a spa (“a full-on, intense-a-rama experience”); watch a movie (“something bright in Technicolor, like White Christmas); sing along to a playlist of personal favorites. And, “if your husband or dad or kids always blow it, just throw a treat in for yourself. It’s not about being disappointed, so get yourself something nice. Then the pressure’s off. Everybody wins.”

▪ Go small. “You don’t need to buy people a big gift,” says Cusack, “And you don’t have to spend a ton of money.” A pair of cool bookends that echo his favorite toy are bound to make your brother smile — and could be the start of a basket of favorite things from your shared childhood.

▪ Wrap it up. “A package within a package builds suspense, and that’s fun” Cusack says. Think beyond rolls of gift wrap: Cusack uses hot dog wrappers (here wrapping cozy Sock Monkey Socks) but says anything different will do. “Try brown paper,” she says, “but only use string, no tape.” Next thing you know, you’ve got brown paper packages, tied up with string … just like the song says.