Tree-Free Christmas

The Christmases of my childhood were rather simple affairs. Our tree was always a cedar tree, cut from family or friends’ easily-accessible property. Ornaments were also simple. I remember a couple of boxes of glass balls, construction paper lanterns and chains, silver bells made by covering small paper cups with aluminum foil and hung by pipe cleaner hangers, real popcorn sewn into garlands, and those marvelous silver icicles hung carefully one by one until little kid boredom set in and small handfuls were tossed onto the tree. 

I remember punched tin stars cut from the ends of canned vegetables. There were tempra-painted holiday scenes on school and store windows. We had Christmas pageants and cantatas wearing homemade angel and shepherd costumes.

Bubble lights fascinated me. Strands of incandescent colored lights added warmth to the room and glowed with the promise that Santa would soon be visiting, devouring the milk and cookies we left for him, and leaving us with gifts we couldn’t receive any other way.

Changes Over Time

I grew up, left home, got married, had kids, and somehow those “simple” Christmases grew and grew. My tree(s) morphed. They went from a real cut tree to an artificial to-be-assembled tree, and from one tree to a small forest.

Themed trees took over. For nearly 20 years, there has been a huge Santa tree, a medium-large music tree, a vintage ornament tree, and a photo tree. In addition to all these full-sized trees, there were small trees and related decor in each bedroom. Holiday bed linens, pillows, and things to herald and celebrate the season were swapped out. 

It is all lovely. Celebratory. Magical. But this year, a switch unexpectedly flipped. 

“For Pity Sake”

Once upon a time, I felt something akin to pity for older family members who weren’t setting up a Christmas tree or significantly decorating for the holidays. I recall tabletop trees and feeling as though those folks were just too tired, too old, too grumpy, and too unseasonal to make the effort for a “real” tree. (By real I mean large, not real as in well, real.)

I remember seeing them use ceramic trees with lights that would ineffectively glow from the singular interior light bulb. There was an occasional Norfolk pine with a few uninspired ornaments or red bows clipped to the tips of the branches. Sometimes a topiary would be used to replace a tree.

Not the Same

Once as she was preparing for the upcoming holidays, Mama said, “It’s just not the same without small children in the house.” True. Add to that the fact that my step-father did everything in his power to rival the Grinch and the holiday season for my mother became uncomfortable, unpleasant, and unhappy. 

At the time, my children were young enough to still have wondering eyes that sparkled as they told Santa what they wanted him to bring. I listened. I learned and decided that I didn’t want to fall into the “…not the same without small children…” trap.

Truth: It’s not the same. But that doesn’t mean it’s bad. It isn’t even sad.

It’s Neither Bad nor Sad

We have been the parents of small children. We created magical Christmases filled with decor, cookies, gifts, cupcakes for school events, concerts, recitals, night after night of Nutcracker performances. We introduced our babies to Santa’s lap, to decorating Christmas trees, setting up nativity scenes. We dressed them in adorable Christmas outfits and had Christmas pictures taken in those generic department store photography studios. They made ornaments in school and at church – ornaments that were hung on our tree and saved year to year as though they were made of pure gold. 

We indulged in sugary treats, endured overly tired children, established traditions, made trips to grandparents’ homes, stayed up VERY late on Christmas Eve *spoiler alert* setting up Santa gifts, made delicious Christmas breakfasts, and came away exhausted but with wonderful memories.

That was our season of life. 

It’s not the same. That’s because we are not the same. Our children are not the same. Our season of life is not the same. And while some folks find the changes disappointing, I find them exciting. Truly.

What Was the Point?

I was determined to create memorable traditions for our children. Part of the reason was to create such a magical environment that they would always want to come “home” during the holidays. I admit it – I was a bit short-sighted.

I didn’t consider how those traditions might become part of the fabric of our kids’ Christmas memories and how they might choose to incorporate some of those traditions into their own homes. I didn’t realize that as those traditions moved from my home to theirs, the magic of Christmas doesn’t end, it just changes addresses.

I had no idea how rewarding that would be.

Judge Not. ‘Cause…

The judgments made by my young-self about holiday-decor-lacking pitiful old people were likely inaccurate. I thought scaling back decorations meant people lacked Christmas spirit or were sad or too tired or were physically unable to decorate.

I can say with confidence that if my young-self were to judge my old-self, my young-self would be incredibly wrong.

There’s plenty of holiday spirit, I’m not sad, tired, or physically unable to climb an 10’ ladder to decorate the living room tree. I can haul heavy tubs from the attic and down two flights of stairs. I can drag the tree(s) from the garage closet, and decor from other closets and cabinets. I know where everything is, I can get it out. I can put it away. I just don’t want to.

I’m thinking about all the time involved with set up and tear down and I’m thinking if I do less, I’ll have more (time). In this season of life, time is the one commodity that must not be squandered.

Taking Turns

I find myself asking, If I continue to try to re-create Christmases of my kid’s childhood(s), might I be placing myself in direct competition with them? 

Is my tree bigger?  Is my gift-wrapping more elaborate? Is my house filled with more twinkling lights and sparkly ornaments than theirs? If so, what message am I sending? Am I unintentionally telling my children that they are less and I am more? That I can do “it” better than they can?

Is there a way to create a magical grandparent-infused environment that still thrills the littles when they visit, but that allows their parents to take center-stage for the gifting, sleigh-driving Santa visits? I think there is.

Less is Definitely More

Our kids and grandkids were all here during Thanksgiving weekend. Over the weekend, we spent time baking cookies, decorating gingerbread houses, and gifting early Christmas pj’s. I also opened up the tub of Christmas tree decorations from when the kids were little and invited them to take whatever they wanted. I didn’t expect what happened.

They took almost everything. Even the paint-by-number wooden ornaments I painted while in college and working at Kresge’s were divided and re-homed. They each left with Trader Joe’s bags completely filled with their little-kid ornaments and I was left with an empty tub. 

I discovered that rather than the empty tub representing loss, it represents a life well-lived. I lost nothing. Instead, I gained the knowledge that by those things moving to their homes, the legacy of our family’s Christmas magic continues.

I thought I might feel a little clingy to the things I’ve safely kept for 30+ years. I didn’t. Not for a second. It was magical watching them sort, and squeal, and even one time having to do Rock, Paper, Scissors over one hotly contested ornament and then agreeing to swap that one ornament with one another each year.

It was magical watching my little granddaughter’s face light up as she saw these ornaments for the first time.

In my house, there has been so MUCH Christmas decoration, those LITTLE things were lost. By doing less, and decorating less, each of those ornaments becomes more.

Mother’s Wisdom

Mama, you were right. It’s not the same – because it’s not our turn. And similar to the delight of watching a baby accomplishing their first steps, moving unassisted from one spot to another, watching adult children develop and implement their own traditions, discovering that our holiday traditions are valued and our holiday memories endure the change of seasons is absolutely, incredibly magical.