Week 21: The Christmas tree
Dear True North Baby,
Your dad bought us a Christmas tree this week. Trust me when I say that it was kind of a big deal.
For the past 10 years or so, we have not been big on Christmas. Your dad’s reasons are simple: he likes things uncomplicated. He would rather not deal with putting things up and taking them down and all of the fuss and the mess and the stress. He would rather sit around with a mug of hot cocoa and watch a movie. I love that he is grounded in this way.
My reasons are more complicated. I, for one, LOVE a bit of holiday magic. All of the twinkly lights and the scent of pine and the pretty ribbons spark joy in me. I love the feeling of anticipation that comes each December; everything is ripe for the possibility of celebration. I like things to be special.
For past ten years, though, I have been under a sort of Christmas embargo.
Growing up as secular child in the American West, I LOVED Christmas. Every year, just after Thanksgiving, we would set out in his old yellow pickup truck into the mountains to cut our Christmas tree. We almost always packed something warmto eat and a big, green thermos filled with hot chocolate. We would be out all day. I loved how our house smelled of pine once the tree was up. I especially loved unpacking and hanging our ornaments, each one a memory in itself.
Luckily, my parents were divorced so I got to decorate a tree TWICE each year.
I loved giving gifts. I would spend hours finding the perfect present for each of my friends and family members. It brought me joy to think of them as I shopped and again as the gift was given.
Most of all, I loved being with my family. I loved going to my grandpa’s house every Christmas Eve to eat Swiss elk and play with my cousins. I loved spending Christmas morning at my dad’s house and Christmas evening at my mom’s. I felt loved, even if our family life was sometimes complicated.
Over time, though, Christmas felt less simple. There were always more gifts to be given, more feelings to consider, more money to be spent. Family became more complicated. Plans became more complicated. I couldn’t be everywhere I wanted to be at every moment; my family was just too big. Christmas started to feel like a chore.
At some point, I got tired of it all. I was sick of the obligation and politics around gift-giving, of the insane amounts of money we spent just because we felt we HAD to. I was sick of giving gifts that didn’t come from the heart, the ones that came from obligation. I hated to gifts that I would later need to get rid of; I felt SO guilty. I couldn't wrap my head around all the packaging and the waste. I felt sorry for the dead trees.
In short, I was in the middle of a full-blown existential crisis.
So I decided to opt out:
I stopped buying gifts.
I stopped feeling obligated.
I refused to put up a tree or any sort of decoration.
I soon moved (far) away from home and stopped even visiting over the holidays.
At first I felt relief, freed from the shackles of mass consumption and guilt. It felt good not worry about money or hurt feelings at Christmas. We would make no plans; just wing it as we went along. Sometimes we would get together with friends for dinner and wine. Other times we would just hang out at home and watch a movie. One year even, we went to New York City for a few days and got to be Christmas tourists. That was really fun.
Every year, though, I have missed my family. Every year, I felt like there was some tradition lost.
I realize now that in giving up the gift-giving and the decorating and the family visits at holiday time, I had also inadvertently given up ritual. It was the ritual that made the time seem special and magical to me. It was the ritual that helped make memories, tying each year to the next.
I have been thinking a lot about ritual lately. What kind of traditions do I want to pass down to you and your brother? What do I want you to remember most about your childhood? What did I like most about mine?
So, this year your father decided we needed a tree. I was thrilled when he suggested it, not because we need to spend the money to make Christmas special, but that, for me it felt like home. That smell of pine will get me every time.
I am planning on baking us something nice, to be eaten in our pyjamas as we cozy up on Christmas morning. I don’t know what kind of legacy we end up leaving your and your brother, but I hope that it feels a lot like love and not at all like obligation.
With love, always,