From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
Here's what living near Faith Hill during the holidays can get you: a plate of homemade sugar cookies, a slice of Coca-Cola cake and the star herself at your doorstep singing Christmas carols. For Hill, the holiday season demands a hands-on approach. "I want my girls to bake cookies with their girls when they get older, so I take the time to show them how," she says of daughters Gracie, 11, Maggie, 10, and Audrey, 6. "These things are really important to me."

That same sense of dedication also explains why the multiplatinum singer took nearly three years to craft her new Christmas CD, Joy to the World. "I didn't want to just spit out a Christmas album," she says. "I really wanted to do just one, and do it right."

Besides, she's been warming up her Christmas vocals for decades. "When I was growing up in Mississippi, we did a lot of caroling," recalls Hill, 41. "You'd meet at someone's house, drink hot chocolate, sing and come back to watch movies. It was simple, good, clean fun."

These days Hill is happy singing backup when her daughters' Girl Scout troops hit the neighborhood to carol. It's one highlight of a holiday season that begins with Thanksgiving at the Nashville home Hill shares with husband Tim McGraw. Hill is head chef for some 20 guests, cooking up the turkey, her mom's corn-bread stuffing, greens from her parents' garden and a bevy of desserts. "The kids all have favorites," she says. "For Maggie, it's chocolate pie. Gracie's is a chess pie, Audrey wants pecan pie, and Tim's favorite is blackberry cobbler—and a Coca-Cola cake! I'll bake them all."

So with Hill doing all the cooking, is McGraw, 41, the cleanup guy? "Oh, he's definitely not the cleanup guy!" says Hill. "Let me make that clear. He's gotten better, though—at least now the dishes make it to the sink." But McGraw does get a chance to show off his kitchen skills—making the Christmas Eve spaghetti dinner. "It's a tradition he grew up with, and it's an all-day affair," she says.

The real fun begins Dec. 6, Audrey's birthday, when they put up the family tree ("always natural—I love the smell") and the girls leave out Saltines and water to welcome the arrival of the elves, a tradition Tim and Faith began a few years ago after buying three elf dolls. The dolls "come alive at night and are very mischievous," Hill explains, so each morning the girls look forward to seeing what they've done. "Sometimes they get into the flour or leave the ice cream out. They're bigger than Santa with the girls." On Christmas Eve her kids get to open one gift: "Each year they get a pair of Christmas pajamas that they wear that night." And just before bedtime, the family sits on the porch to listen for Santa's sleigh bells. "We probably sound a little crazy," says Faith, laughing. "But in this house, we have fun with Christmas."

FAITH'S FAVORITE HOLIDAY THINGS

Favorite TV Christmas Special: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. "It reminds me of the excitement I felt as a child. I knew if that show was on, Santa Claus was close."

Favorite Holiday Music: Johnny Mathis and Burl Ives: "Burl Ives reminds me of those great Claymation shows when I was a child."

Favorite Holiday Candy: Thick candy canes. "They're nostalgic and just look good. I try to find the real pepperminty ones."

Favorite Christmas Movie: Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas with Jim Carrey. "The girls love the Grinch! They love the costumes."

Favorite Holiday Recipe

FAITH'S COCA-COLA CAKE

Makes: 12 servings
Hands-on time: 25 min.
Total time: 60 min.

2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 cup butter
2 tablespoons cocoa
1 cup cola soft drink
½ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1½ cups miniature marshmallows
Chocolate Coca-Cola Icing
Garnish: Toasted chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Combine flour and sugar in large mixing bowl.

3. Combine butter, cocoa and cola in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally until mixture comes to a boil. Remove from heat; pour over flour mixture. Add buttermilk, baking soda, eggs and vanilla, whisking until blended. Stir in marshmallows. (Batter will be thin and marshmallows will float to the top.)

4. Pour batter into lightly greased and floured 13x9x2-inch pan. Bake 30 to 35 min. or until a pick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove from oven; cool 15 min. Spread Chocolate Coca-Cola Icing over warm cake. Garnish with toasted chopped pecans, if desired.

CHOCOLATE COCA-COLA ICING

½ cup butter
3 tablespoons cocoa
6 tablespoons cola soft drink
1 (16-oz.) package powdered sugar, sifted

Combine first three ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat, stirring until butter melts. Remove from heat; whisk in sugar.