Friday, November 26, 2010


As to my philosophy of the understated Christmas celebration, I am not a conservationist or a minimalist or a traditionalist. It's just that twenty years ago I came face to face with the fact that Christmas as I had always known it – the large extended family event with my mother and father at the center – was going away. And in its place, there would be – nothing.

I know that sounds ungrateful, so let me explain. My dad loved to decorate for Christmas with greenery and lights, and the old Craftsman-style house in town was suited to this work. While he decorated outside Mother took care of the inside decorations, the baking, the gifts. Together they were the epitome of Christmas. And this was Christmas through my growing up years and well into adulthood. This was the example I felt I should follow because, after all, Mother had groomed me for it. But as that baton passed to me, I just couldn't keep up. I was a working mother, and my employer cut me no holiday slack. I could barely get the tree decorated before Christmas. My family, with the possible exception of my daughter, was indifferent to the old-fashioned hoopla and I couldn't say that I blamed them. I was an emotional wreck by Christmas Eve. I was forced to accept that our Christmas was changing, and I had to admit that I needed to re-think my celebration. And the grief definitely had to go. By the time we moved to the farmhouse in 2004, I saw that it was up to me to establish new traditions for our home. I wanted to be happy about the change – inspired even.

As I was seeking this new form of celebration, I remembered Grandma Ina's Depression-era Christmas letters to my dad and decided to take a closer look at them. In the 1930s, Ina was in her early 60s, her family grown. She had precious little to do with, and yet through her ingenuity and determination she made Christmas as wonderful as she could – "no skimpy Christmas here." She was ready with homemade, heartfelt gifts and she mailed packages to family and friends. The Christmas celebration at her house included plenty of food, a small tree on the library table where it would glow in the light of the moon, and rooms decorated with candles and such greenery as came her way. She would not let the sense of lack spoil her Christmas. A sense of lack is a sense of lack, I reasoned, and therefore I, too, could move on from my poverty of spirit into something better. And I knew that the spirit of this dear lady was leading me gently back to basic traditions. This was what I wanted – and the words "understated Christmas" came to mind – with a vintage focus tempered by my own needs and preferences.

So, we bought a pre-lit artificial tree and put most of the ornaments into storage. I'd love to have a real tree but this works for us. I decorate it quickly with the Hallmark house series and a few other favorite ornaments. It comes undone and goes back into storage just as quickly.

I love to decorate the farmhouse with Christmas ceramics, greenery, candles. I set an electric candle in each window – understated but effective. And I put a real wreath on the front door – for "the prettiest sight to see."

While traditional holiday cookies and confections are wonderful, my family doesn't care for them – at least, not in quantity. When it's just the two of us – or the four of us – it's just too much on hand. So, I eliminated holiday baking as a priority. I love to make cut-out Christmas cookies but haven't done it in years. I make "fruitcake squares" and bake our favorite pie on Christmas Eve – "mystery" pecan.

Holiday music is great. I have LPs, CDs, cassette tapes, and an iPod – my old favorites in any format. Last year I couldn't bear to listen – just too many memories – but this year the old standards call to me again. Running a close second to the music are holiday movies and podcasts of old radio Christmas programs. And of course, there's silence – quietude for meditation and contemplation.

I love to send and receive Christmas cards, but it's a changing custom. Lack of time, rising costs, and the fact that we're connected on the internet all serve to diminish this custom. This year my advent blog posts, beginning December 1, will be based on Christmas cards, family recipes, and quotes from various family letters.

And gifts. I'm not here to tell anyone what to do, but I think gift-giving is out of hand with many of us spending way too much to provide the expensive wants of others. Giving a simple gift and receiving it graciously is becoming a lost art. "Nuf sed," as Ina would write.

Another thing about the understated, less-glitzy Christmas – as I move from Christmas into bleak winter, I continue to treasure some of my decorations instead of clearing them immediately away. In fact, I never did put away my Christmas angels after last Christmas.

We all have to follow our own light as we travel life's path. I hope your holiday season is filled with peace and happiness – yes, even on your busiest days. May you be able to say with Ina, "I stood all the Christmas doing just fine." KW 
[Photo 1 is my mother's old-fashioned Christmas tree. I don't know the exact year -- and it doesn't matter. The photo on the right is Ina's tree in 1933 while the bottom photo is Ina's tree in 1952. 


Chris said...

Christmas is always an interesting time. As we get older, there are so many memories and emotions tied into this most special of holidays. As you know, the memories I have of your family's Christmases have inspired me since I've had my own home. But I was a bystander--close, but not family, and my emotions are not tied in the way yours are.

You have made the right decisions for you and your family. Nothing can take away those precious memories you have and I'm certain your parents created the special Christmas place that was your house out of wishes of their own. Those austere days of the past, even though "no skimpy Christmas here", were nevertheless, not openhanded.

We each make of Christmas what we can, and changes inevitably come. The joy is what can stay when we allow it.

Merry Christmas!

Kathy said...

Great comments, Chris. Thank you.

Well, all that glitters isn't gold. Your comment, "I was a bystander" speaks volumes. Christmas should take people in.

If you grew up with a strong extended-family nucleus, it leaves a hole when it's gone. It feels like failure. I have failed to be like my mother. And yet, life has changed that much.

Over at Adventures of Dixie Grandma, Joanne is writing along much the same lines.

debdog42 said...

I have to post that I loved the Christmas Eve's I spent at the Dobson house. I grew up with NO extended family and had never spent Christmas with anyone but my parents and siblings until I married. It was always a quiet and somewhat boring time made worse by the fact that we weren't allowed to even ask anyone over.

At first it was a little overwhelming seeing all those people I didn't know but I loved that Grandma baked (I loved the spritz)and made candy and I can still see Grandpa at the stove with his apron on. He made the best dressing! Their tree always amazed me too. Never have I seen another one like it and probably never will. They always made you feel so welcome!

Joanne said...

Yes, Deb. I too felt always so welcomed. I was amazed at the huge heavily laden tree with its many lovely ornaments and the wonderful baked goods and good meals. I also found the inclusion of the rather large extended family quite amazing. My mother loved to entertain extended family in her home also, so I have tried to follow suit with some success in past years, but now miss not having family to invite over. I tried friends, but that's just not the same as family. Perhaps it's for the best. Our circumstances are different now. Kathy, I plan to simplify, but not too much. I love to decorate, bake, cook and send cards and will continue to do so, but gifts will be simple this year.

Kathy said...

And your house will be just beautiful, too, Joanne. And I know you have ways to share your baked goods and your contributions will be appreciated.

I think simple gifts are great.

debdog42 said...

I agree with simple gifts. I would dearly love to get home baked goods, canned peaches or jam. Nobody on either side of my family does any of this though so no treats for me! Before I got sick I loved to bake and always made numerous cookies, candies and breads and shared with friends and neighbors. And like you Kathy one of my all time favorite cookie is cut out sugar cookies with butter cream frosting. I have tons of cookie cutters that haven't seen the light of day for many years!! LOL!