Every year I get pulled between two Christmases.
I’m torn between wanting to have ourselves a merry little Christmas and wanting the whole immersive mythical Christmas experience—the likes of which is sung of in carols, depicted in Christmas puzzles, and presented in Christmas movies, catalogs, magazines, and thousands of blogs.
I want to keep it simple. To remember the reason for the season. To keep calm and celebrate Advent. 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, and they are so apparent in the news this year, and I love that this is the time when we lament the injustices and look forward to a day when there will be peace on earth and are asked to do our part to bring justice now.
I almost wrote a post on simplifying your Christmas. I was going to talk 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 was going to write. Let’s stop the madness of making homemade gifts for teachers, bus drivers, and coaches, and let’s send the Elf on the Shelf packing. I could go on and on. Every year I hear of more traditions that sound like meaningful, merry memories that my children would cherish and sound like one more thing to carve out time for, more errands to run, or gifts to buy and wrap.
So, I almost wrote that post. But it wouldn’t have been honest.
The Pull of a Beauty-filled Christmas
Because I also love Christmas. I love boughs of holly—or the idea of them, anyway, I don’t see actual holly boughs all that often—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—again, something I only know in theory. I’m in love with the idealized Christmas that seems to only exist in our imaginations and best-dressed movie sets.
I love the aesthetics of Christmas. It’s 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 these pictures.*
I love the lights and greenery. Plus, there’s the Christmas music. We listen to a lot of Christmas music ever year. One year we thought it’d be fun to listen to nothing but Christmas music starting November 1, but that got old pretty fast.
Trying to Find the Middle Ground
It’s not just that I feel the classic tug between Jesus and Santa, or a sacred versus a secular holiday. It’s more that the Christmas season invites us to create a beautiful holiday backdrop in our homes and towns—and I’ve seen some amazing Christmas home tours in the blogosphere—in which to enjoy those closest to us, making memories and cookies and feeling nostalgic about childhood Christmases, which might be largely fictional. Not to mention the pressure to shop, buy, spend and track December by counting down the shopping days ’til Christmas.
It’s that I want it all. I want a vintage, homemade, tastefully festive, classic white Christmas 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 then put together a Christmas puzzle by firelight before delivering cookies to neighbors and toys to the local toy drive. And I’m only being a little facetious.
I want intentional, quiet reflection that doesn’t skimp on festive merry making. It’s no wonder I anticipate the holidays with trepidation 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. Plus the idealized version of Christmas excludes those who can’t afford to participate, and makes all of us feel like whatever we can afford isn’t nearly enough.
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. We don’t want our traditions to feel tyrannical. We don’t do all of them every year. Last year we only baked one time and skipped driving around to look at lights. We evaluate every year what things sound fun and only do those. And only if we can do them with light, peaceful hearts. 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. It’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!)—in order to create space for others.
Every year we try to incorporate more practices of Advent into the way we celebrate Christmas. And we fight against the temptation to wow our kids on Christmas morning, and 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.
We keep trying to find a balance so that we can keep having it both ways. Because I really do love Christmas.
For more reading . . .
Check out this beautiful post written by my friend Hillary at The Friendly Home about how she celebrates Advent with her family.