Kicking off a month of Christmas

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I recently read an article in which I was surprised to learn that traditionally Christians and Catholics did not decorate a tree or put up any Christmas decorations until Christmas Eve. I don’t remember when we used to get our tree as a kid but I remember going to the Kmart parking lot to pick one out in the evening, and I remember loving Christmas decorations and Christmas music. I used to put those plug-in candles in the windows of my bedroom (and I feel like I hung on to them much longer than just the Christmas season) and I’d bring my family’s Christmas CDs upstairs to my room and listen to them when I went to sleep at night. I remember thinking that it was wonderful the year that my dad got fancy lights for the hedge out in front of our house that had multiple blinking and twinkling modes to choose from.

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I’ve always loved the lead up to Christmas and on many occasions have felt really sad when the day was finally over. I’ve read before that for most people, having something to look forward to contributes to well being, and that the looking forward is often better than the actualization of that something. So rather than downplaying the fun of Christmas in an effort to avoid that let down, I’d rather play up the period of anticipation to make the most of it. If I love the decorations and the lights and the preparation and the countdown, then let’s make a month of that. The day will come and go no matter what, but why not fill more of the dark and gloomy days of winter with decorations and twinkle lights and anticipation?

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The first Christmas-related activity that I allow myself to indulge in each year is our Christmas card. I love Christmas cards; I love making them, sending them, receiving them. I hang them all up on a cabinet in our kitchen and I love walking by them all season long. I can always justifying kicking this part of the season off really early by telling myself that I want to have them out shortly after Thanksgiving (so that I can focus on other things for the rest of the month, naturally; it’s all about efficiency) so we need to plan and take photos well in advance so that we have time to order them. This year that didn’t pan out exactly as planned, because the photographer we’d hoped to work with flaked at the last minute, so I decided that surely I could do this myself. My dad recently let me borrow his tripod and we have a suitable enough backyard, so why not?

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The only hiccup was the 30 degree weather (not to mention having to use a timer and then run into position and try to get the kids to look at a camera with no person behind it to grab their attention). My cousin Aimee does this almost every year and I have NO idea how she gets such wonderful photos of her family of six. This is almost an impossible task. The cooperation bribes this year went from hot cocoa, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows, to hot cocoa with unlimited marshmallows and Halloween candy. We eventually got something we could use, and despite the struggle the challenge was kind of fun.

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Because we went to Charleston for Thanksgiving we weren’t around to get a tree that weekend, but I’m fairly certain we would have had we been home. Since I knew we’d be gone I’ve had the following Saturday blocked off on our calendar for quite some time.

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In addition to stretching out the period of joy and anticipation, I also like to weave in Christmas-related family activities throughout the month because I want our enjoyment of Christmas to be about more than just presents on Christmas morning. I want the kids to look forward to getting a tree, and decorating that tree, and driving around to look at the lights, and making Christmas cookies, and all of the other traditions that we haven’t even thought of yet. This year we also got an advent calendar for the first time (the kind with magnetic ornaments that the kids can own completely). I have big dreams of making my own advent calendar in an heirloom sort of way if I ever get a sewing machine and figure out how to do that, but this will do nicely until then.

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I always forget how stressful it can be to decorate the tree with the kids. Naturally most of the ornaments are breakable, and they don’t really understand how to hang them so that they don’t tumble off immediately. They tend to put multiple ornaments on a single branch and only on the very bottom branches of the tree. We do a lot of redirecting and redecorating, but I still love it.

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It just feels right for our tree to be in the front room of the house, the living room where the fireplace is and where we hang stockings, but it’s not a room that we actually spend a lot of time in. So this year I asked Kristin if we could get an inexpensive artificial tree for the great room as well – the room where we do the most living. She was happy to oblige, and after a lot of back and forth about how we wanted to decorate each of the two trees we decided that we would keep the living room tree colorful (the kids love rainbow lights, and I grew up with them) and give the great room tree a bit more of a stylish theme by using only white, wood, and metallic ornaments along with white lights.

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On the same Sunday that we decorated the tree we went to Holidays at the Homestead at the Nature Center. For some reason it feels especially fun to step back in time around Christmastime: making yarn dolls, watching a blacksmith work on his craft, going on a horse-drawn wagon ride complete with jingle bells. I’ve been itching to take everyone to an old-timey holiday event at Greenfield Village, but it’s two hours away and goes from 6:30-10:00 p.m. and I can’t decide whether the kids will be able to handle the late hours in the cold.

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Two mornings ago as I was making breakfast for the kids and trying to get them out the door to school, Vivi asked me if she could write “a note to Santa like the bear in the book.” I had no idea which book she was referring to, and wasn’t even sure where she’d learned about letters to Santa. She ran over to grab the book Corduroy’s Christmas Surprise and flipped to the picture of the bear working on his letter to Santa. I hesitated for a moment because I have mixed feelings about that whole part of Christmas, but I said yes and got her some paper and crayons. She went right to work, and soon after Jude wanted to do the same.

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Once she’d completed her portion she asked me to help, and I wrote while she dictated her list. She actually completed three different letters to Santa (all with slightly different items) and was ready to launch into a fourth when I told her that it was time to get ready for school.

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I loved watching their joy and their investment in the task. I know that no matter how much I want to push them to find magic in specific elements of the season and perhaps steer them away from others, I don’t get to choose the sources of their joy. I can share mine with them and sit back and enjoy the glow of theirs, and carve out time and space for family traditions. But ultimately they will develop their own preferences and cling to the parts of the season that they love the most. And that’s the way that it should be, and probably the way it has always been whether the tree goes up on November 24th or December 24th.

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