The holiday season has passed. We didn’t decorate one whit and I’m fine with that.
When I was growing up, my mom was BIG on Christmas. We had specific traditions, but I’m not sure if she made them up or they were passed down from her family.
We started in on stringing the popcorn and cranberries around Thanksgiving. For those of you unfamiliar with this tradition, popcorn and cranberries are strung onto white thread using a needle, with lengths of these strings tied together until you get a really long string to wrap around the tree … always a real tree in our house … as decoration. Stabbing hard cranberries with a needle was a pain in the literal sense. The needle often slid off the cranberry and into a finger. While it was easier to poke into the popcorn with a needle, the result was often broken bits of popcorn as it disintegrated from being pierced.
Twenty pieces of popcorn and one cranberry, over and over, until the string was long enough. The string was kept in a paper grocery bag while it was being constructed.
Come Christmas Eve, it was time to decorate the tree, which we selected as a family at a local Christmas tree lot in town. If memory serves, we purchased the tree in the week before Christmas. We always decorated it on Christmas Eve, per Mom’s instructions. There were four of us kids and we had to put ornaments on one-at-a-time in a mysteriously prescribed order. There was the “special” ornament, one that was uber delicate and had been passed down from one of Mom’s relatives (possibly her grandmother), that we all wanted a chance to hang on the tree. Its place of honor was near the top at the front of the tree, out of harm’s way and where we could all see it.
It took forever to decorate the tree, one ornament at a time with four kids bustling about. Dad put on the lights prior to our part in the task. The light strings at that time had large, multi-colored bulbs. None of these newfangled twinkly lights in all one color. In fact, our family Christmas tree was never the color-coordinated affair you often see in local businesses or decorator homes. It contained quite a few handmade ornaments, which sounds all chic, until you realize that most of them were paper and made by us children in elementary school.
Suddenly, I’m recalling paper chains, as well. This was another endless task, like the popcorn and cranberries. We glued strips of colored construction paper together into chains that we hung … hmm … somewhere in the house. I can’t recall the location.
And there were cookies. Mom baked acres and acres of Snickerdoodles and sugar cookies and ginger snaps and probably another couple types of cookies for the Christmas season. We children must have been hopped up on sugar the entire month. It was our job to decorate the sugar cookies, which started out as great fun, what with mixing the frosting, deciding on whether to frost the bell or the Santa or the reindeer, slathering on pink or green or white frosting, and throwing on sprinkles, but after about the tenth cookie, it appeared that the cookies would never end.
Aside from the tree and the paper chains and the cookies, there were other decorations habitually put out for the Christmas season, including stockings and a beautiful Santa figure with a curly white beard that seemed to be made of real hair. Santa was probably between 15 and 18 inches tall. I believe my older brother typically got the honor of setting up this Santa.
When it came to presents, we had a couple of traditions. One was that we were allowed to open one gift on Christmas Eve. (Why do you think decorating the tree felt so darned interminable?) The only gifts that were out on Christmas Eve were the ones from Mom and Dad. The Santa gifts wouldn’t arrive until the next morning. Come Christmas morning, we were up well before our parents, circling around the tree and scoping out the presents, seeing which ones were ours. When Dad and Mom finally joined us in the living room, we would each pick a gift and on their signal, open them.
I’m not gonna lie. That was the most joyous part of the holiday for me. In one photo of me during Christmas Past, I’m in third or fourth grade, wearing a robe and a cap over the curlers in my hair, and next to me is a turquoise and white typewriter. I have no idea what happened to that typewriter, but obviously my folks sensed something about my future interest in writing.
Fast forward to my adulthood, with three children in the house. It was time for my husband Erik and I to create our own Christmas traditions. The popcorn and cranberry strings and paper chains were out, my memories of enduring these tasks making me not want to put my children through them. We did have a Christmas tree pretty much every year while our children were growing up and we made some of the ornaments. Most of the time we skipped making cookies, but there was a stocking for each kid. We typically limited the number of gifts to five per kid, whether from Erik and I or from Santa (when we wanted to give the Jolly Fat Man credit). We kept the tradition of letting the kids open one gift on Christmas Eve and the rest on Christmas Day.
The tradition we most enjoyed, which developed over years, was going to a Christmas tree farm, having a ride on a hay wagon, picking and cutting the tree, and enjoying hot cocoa afterward. We’d decorate the tree as soon as we brought it home. As the kids got older, they would scatter as soon as the tree was up and leave the decorating to me. Um, yeah. Not so much. Now that the kids are adults, Erik and I have given up on the tree. That may be a sacrilege to my mom and other Christmas lovers out there, but for us, the tree and the decorations don’t make the season. Eating fabulous food (not optional), sharing great conversation (also not optional), and a few well-chosen gifts (optional) with family are what the holiday is about.
Which brings me to the reason I wrote this post. I know there are people who feel absolutely frantic between Thanksgiving and New Year’s if they can’t get the holiday cards out, the tree up and decorated, the lights strung, and the cookies baked. It’s as though the holidays (there are a slew of them between Thanksgiving and early January) aren’t the holidays without the trappings.
If you’ve got time to do all the holiday tasks without getting frazzled and revel in the preparations, by all means, go for it. But, if life events prevent you from living up to your holiday expectations or you just don’t feel like dealing with all the seasonal everything, relax and learn to celebrate an edited version of Christmas or Hanukkah or [your holiday here]. Pick one or two simple things to do that put you in the spirit of the season and fully enjoy those. Maybe eschew the tree and put a wreath on the door instead, or get a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with one ornament. Leave the lights off the exterior of the house and put an electric candle in the window. Skip wrapped gifts and just hang stockings containing small gifts. Make one batch of cookies, not ten.
There will always be someone, a store or a neighbor, that goes all out for the holidays. Borrow your holiday cheer from their preparations rather than feeling you must do it all every single year. It’s okay. You have my permission to celebrate Christmas, Edited.