When my husband and I were first married, each Christmas season we went through the same debate. Real tree or fake? White lights or colored? Coordinated ornaments or a random collection?
I, on the one hand, was an emphatic proponent of an artificial tree, one trimmed with white lights and coordinated red and silver ornaments. I wanted the look of Christmas – shiny elegance, sugar-coated nostalgia, and a neatly-packaged image of happiness.
My husband, on the other hand, was a staunch proponent of a real tree, one decked with colorful lights and mismatched ornaments. He wanted the feeling of Christmas –quiet contentment, hopeful anticipation, and a realistic respect for tradition.
Over the years, we have come to our own compromise of sorts. He gets the real tree and the feeling of Christmas in our family room; I get the small artificial tree and the look of Christmas in the front window of our living room. I suppose it’s less of a compromise and more of a we-both-get-our-own-way kind of solution, but why get caught up on semantics?
I’m going to let you in on a little secret though…as much as I hate to admit it, I have grown quite fond of the real tree at the back of the house (notwithstanding any debate about whether one option is more eco-friendly, of course). While I still love the coordinated look of the artificial tree in the front window, in recent years, I have learned to appreciate the feeling created by the real tree in the family room. Whereas the coordinated and simplistically pristine appearance of the fake tree seems to bring a sense of order to our otherwise busy and somewhat chaotic life, the multi-hued, random, and somewhat disorganized aura of the other tree seems to mirror the colorful and rich complexities of family life.
Each year, I am less annoyed with the dropped needles, the corny ornaments, and the burned-out strand of lights that is forever destined to be discovered after the lights are on the tree. Each year, I am more enchanted by its diverse and mismatched collection of memories and personalities, more aware of the feeling of Christmas that it exudes.
Of course, it’s not really about whether it’s a fake tree or a real one and whether there are white lights or colored. These are just minor details that, for me, seem to coincide with a subconscious state of mind, personal preferences that seem to reflect the way that I have approached the holidays for the past several years by prioritizing look over the feeling, image over substance.
But over the years, this look-over-feeling approach to the holidays has felt increasingly busy and heavy, and increasingly empty as well.
Because isn’t the feeling always more fulfilling than the look? Isn’t the substance more important than the image?
Whether you celebrate Christmas for its literal, metaphorical, or secular significance, the prelude to Christmas that we are in right now seems to be about two things: preparation and waiting.
And lately I’ve been wondering, what do preparation and waiting involve when the focus is on the feeling instead of the look?
Does it mean scrambling to attend every Christmas pageant and holiday party, desperately trying to pack in every ounce of holiday cheer? Does it mean spending excessive amounts of time and money to have the perfect Pinterest-worthy holiday décor? Does it mean forced “family memories” (“We WILL have fun, DAMMIT!”), hurrying from one thing to the next until we’re all left feeling exhausted, frayed, and more than a little annoyed with one another? Does it mean frantic visits to see Santa, generic photos taken after waiting in line with a bunch of crabby parents and whiny children? Does it mean anxiety and fretting over finding the perfect gift?
In years past, these things seemed to exemplify the look of Christmas to me. The prelude to Christmas meant lots of preparation – self-imposed chores, obligations, and busyness. And there was plenty of waiting – sometimes with eager excitement, but often with dull sense of lacking and never-enough anxiety.
But this year, I’m trying to take a different approach to the holiday preparation and waiting.
Less external preparation, more internal preparation; less jittery excitement, more calm stillness.
No stress-filled trips to see Santa wearing fancy clothes in an effort to get the “perfect” photo of both boys smiling angelically, just one messy-hair-and-cheese-stained-shirt photo to memorialize a relaxed Santa outing with my younger son and mother-in-law.
Fewer beautifully packaged things, more thoughtfully tender gifts of the heart – shared experiences, time spent together, donations to favorite charities, handmade trinkets, heartfelt notes of love and appreciation.
Less pressure to make pretty treats and fancy desserts, more lop-sided and flat holiday cookies baked with tiny hands.
Forgone Christmas concerts replaced with impromptu at-home “concerts,” stumbling over piano keys and singing off-key holiday favorites.
Less struggle to create the look of Christmas, more contentment with the feeling of Christmas that is already there.
Don’t get me wrong, I still love the pretty fake tree that sits in our front window and I will continue to debate the merits of an artificial tree with my husband in the hopes that he will one year be swayed.
But, despite the pretty tree’s shiny and flawless look, my heart now belongs with the big and messy tree’s feeling of Christmas.
Just don’t tell my husband. He’ll never let me hear the end of it.