Every year, I get pulled between two Christmases. I’m torn between wanting to have ourselves a merry little Christmas and immersing into the beautiful, mythical Christmas experience — the one sung of in carols, depicted in Christmas puzzles and movies, and portrayed in magazines, catalogs, and thousands of blogs this time of year.
I want to keep it simple. To remember the reason for the season. I want this to be a season where we slow down and take notice of the larger world around us and attend to the needs of our neighbors, both near and far. I see all the injustices in the news, and I appreciate a marked time to lament and imagine a day when there will be peace on earth — and figure out what is my part in bringing it to come.
I’d planned to write this year about getting free of the tyranny of meaningless traditions. It’s okay to not watch every Christmas movie, bake everyone’s favorite Christmas cookies, and participate in homemade ornament exchanges, I could write. Let’s stop the madness of making homemade gifts for teachers, bus drivers, and coaches. Let’s send Elf on the Shelf packing.
But I also love Christmas. I love boughs of holly and sleigh rides, hot cocoa with marshmallows, silver bells, white Christmases with big, slowly falling flakes, and the whole romanticized, fictional Christmas that is ideally set in a small New England town with gas-lit lamps, where people live within sleigh-riding distance from their kin, who only break from ice skating to eat figgy pudding. I’m in love with the idealized Christmas that exists only in our imaginations and best-dressed movie sets.
Christmas is the only holiday I decorate for, and it’s the only time the cold winter air feels almost enjoyable. I went to a few holiday fairs this year, and I loved every rustically crafty, well-lit bit of it. That’s where I took most of the pictures in this piece.
I hope that my kids will grow up loving Christmas, but also holding it loosely.
For me, this tug-of-war is not just between Jesus and Santa, the sacred versus the secular. It’s more about slow reflection versus the holiday hustle. And keeping this tension while allowing myself to enjoy the beauty of this holiday.
As someone who cares deeply about aesthetics, Christmas really is the most wonderful time of the year, because it’s the most sensory immersive time of year. It comes with specific tastes, smells, sounds, and sights that I adore—so many ways of experiencing this holiday piled on to Santa or the manger.
So I want it all. I want a vintage, homemade, tastefully festive, classic white Christmas . . . one that’s economically and ecologically responsible while still being an immersive sensory and culinary experience. And I want to be fully present to my kids, with plenty of time to bake Christmas cookies in a clutter-free, clean house while we sing along to Christmas carols and put together a Christmas puzzle by firelight before delivering cookies to neighbors and toys to the local toy drive.
I’m only being a little facetious. I want intentional, quiet reflection — in a festively bright and beautiful, pine-scented setting. One where I’m not exhausted from having created and maintained it myself, much less budgeted for it.
No wonder I begin to dread the Christmas season as soon as I box up the plastic Halloween pumpkins.
At its best, our way of celebrating Christmas focuses on friends, family, people in need, and asks us to think of everyone generously. At its worst, our way of celebrating Christmas presents a myopic view of the family as the center of the world and excludes the celebration from people outside our small worlds, those whose Christmases aren’t wonderfully nostalgic, or those for whom Christmas brings up memories of loss. The idealized version of Christmas also excludes those who can’t afford to participate, and makes all of us feel like whatever we can afford isn’t nearly enough.
We’ve over-complicated Christmas. But I don’t see any way around it — I don’t see how to get rid of what’s wrong without also doing away with the beauty. The only answer is to handle the complications well — to create and to be critical.
I hope that my kids will grow up loving Christmas, but also holding it loosely. I hope they will see that a lot of the way our culture celebrates Christmas is pretend — and not just the part about Santa.
Our traditions don’t have to feel tyrannical. In my family, we don’t do all of them every year. Last year, we only baked one time and skipped driving around to look at lights. Every year, we evaluate what things sound fun and only do those — and only if we can do them with light, peaceful hearts. Otherwise we skip it, and choose rest. I’ve finally accepted that Christmas is the most cluttered time of the year, and that making cookies with my kids highlights my control issues. That’s all part of it.
My four-year-old daughter, who is cuter than both Cindy Lou Who and Zuzu Bailey rolled into one — we’ve already watched both those movies this year, by the way — has asked me several times when we’re going to make the cookies “with the frosting and the sprinkles.” And my other daughter will want to make the candy cane cookies. And I want to both, plus whatever my son requests, and add a few more to the list. But we’ll see what we are up for, and what other traditions we might need to skip this year — like mailing out Christmas cards (sorry, friends!) — in order to create space for ourselves and others.
We also fight against the temptation to wow our kids on Christmas morning. I keep learning that I’m never going to win if I think my kids’ enjoyment of holidays (and birthdays) depends on my ability to bring it and orchestrate holiday perfection.
This is my way of having it both ways. I love Christmas and all that it brings. And I can only handle so much — can only create so much of it each year. But I’ll create as much as I can handle.
An earlier version of this post appeared at House Over Head.
Images courtesy of the author.