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Wednesday, December 17, 2008


What's on your Christmas tree this year?

Because Christmas trees can be an interesting document of how people live.

I myself have quite a lot of ornaments, which I tend to use in different combinations. They have certain things in common. Many of them are 'natural'-looking - lacquer berry clusters, decorated pine cones, model birds and so on - because I'm a fan of, y'know, Nature and all its beauty. Others are traditional-looking: enamelled bells, toy gingerbread men, candy canes; my house is Edwardian, and an overly modern tree would look peculiar; besides, Christmas is an old-fashioned tradition, associated with nostalgia and childhood, so cosy tradition looks pretty. I tend to buy several of each because I like symmetry, and also because I'm a bit neurotic about things I like getting broken and tend towards getting spares.

As a result, my trees tend to look artistically themed one way or another. This year we're fairly minimal with a naturalistic motif, largely because it's our cat Mika's first Christmas at home and I was concerned about her attacking the tree. We got one with thick branches so as to look impenetrably unclimbable, and I decorated it with nothing but berries and birds - largely because they're clip-on or hooked; I figured, especially as she's so recently out of kittenhood, that ornaments that bobbed from strings would be too great a temptation to her. As it turns out, she's leaving it alone, except that she likes to creep under the branches and hide there; presumably it makes her feel nested and safe, or possibly gives her space to plot in peace, but as long as she's happy and not destroying the tree that's fine by me.

In our house, it's usually me who decorates the tree, because I really enjoy it and my fiance doesn't particularly. Julia Cameron talks about 'artist's dates' in The Artist's Way, in which you do something fun and vaguely artistic every week - do some crayoning, go to an aquarium, make some paper dollies, whatever - and tree-hanging is one of my artist's dates.

My family have a different tradition: they have a box of ornaments and hang pretty much the same ones every year. Many of them match, because many of them were bought by me, but on the whole my parents aren't very fussed about decorations, so they just hang what they've got. The one stipulation comes from my dad, who rejects all non-silver tinsel on the grounds that tinsel should look like snow (which is probably where I get my love of natural-looking ornaments from). Who decorates depends on the year; there's no particular rituals associated.

On the other hand, my parents are amiable people with a lot of friends they keep in touch with (my mother's a particularly busy correspondent), so the real decorative undertaking is how to hang up over a hundred Christmas cards. Strings of them hang off every corner; it took us years to work out a way of making them stay up.

The other consistent decoration, again done by my dad and which again I do myself, is cutting holly, ivy and pine branches to stick behind the pictures. My dad's a nature-lover and keen gardener, plus hands-on practical, so there's always stuff to go out and gather. I carry it on because I always liked it, and also because I'm fond of seasonal decorations of all kind; marking the beauty of the different seasons is one of many ways to celebrate life in this lovely world.

My in-laws are different again. Their Christmas tree is like a family archive: they have some sets of ornaments, but lots of individual ones, and they've been accumulated over the years and all have different memories attached. There are baubles they don't much like but still hang, because they come from an early Christmas together where they could only afford the cheapest baubles in the shop; there are gifts from friends; there are holiday souvenirs; there are ornaments bought because they were beautiful and ornaments that belong to their shared history. They need to buy a tree about nine feet tall to fit them (and even then, there are usually ornaments left over), and the result is a Victorian-style maximalist extravaganza.

Decorating is a family event: we all go over - that is, the parents, my fiance, his sister and me - and listen to music, have drinks and snacks while we hang, and then have dinner afterwards. Doing the tree is a little yearly party.

All of which says something about how we live, I'd say. I do my Christmas trees arty because I'm like that, and my fiance lets me get on with it because he's obliging; my family are unceremonious but sociable and good at maintaining relationships over the years and decades; my in-laws are family-minded and loyal to their friends and history (and are also music-lovers - which you can see in the ornaments, too; there are quite a few little trumpets and drums).

How do you do your Christmas decorations? And what does it say about how you live?

Well, let's see. Most of the ornaments I'll contribute are a small navy of Hallmark miniature Starfleet vessels, and some handcrafted gift ornaments from close friends. My fiance will supply many crocheted ornaments, and we'll have strings of lights and tinsel garlands.

I suspect that the first thing our tree tells anyone is that we march to a different drummer, and have no problem with making both high technology and low technology part of our holiday celebration. Certainly, we both have an affinity for things that beep and flash, and we are both willing to follow tradition only as far as it amuses us before we veer off wildly.

The homemade gift decorations tell that the people in our life who are close to us mean a great deal to us, and the holidays are a wonderful time to remember them and think about how they've enriched our lives. That's a reason why we decorate together, because that's one of the major points of the whole business - a chance to reflect on happy memories.

Captcha: "phildemo" - a free trial copy of Girl Genius
My family has always done what your in-laws do, and I find myself doing the same, buying ornaments as souvenirs, singly or in pairs. Having only married and putting up my own tree for three years, though, that's not enough to fill it. So we have a lot of little sets that made us laugh when we went ornament shopping at Walmart three years ago. Star Wars ships, a little glass TV and popcorn container... You can see pictures from a couple of years ago here.

This year, though, we're living in two cities, and visiting my parents for Christmas in a third, so we're not even putting up our tree.
We never have fewer than 3 Christmas trees, usually four or five, except that one room has a warped floor this year which would make the tree somewhat redundant as we're steering clear of that room.
That tree would normally be decorated with lashings of tinsel and beads and also the toy decorations we've accumulated over the last 22 years or so. That's also the only real tree we get, so that one will be missed this year.
The other main tree, though artificial, is covered top to tail in red and gold, with a mixture of cheapies and more expensive ones. Also, a few silver decorations that are impervious to our apparent collective colour-blindness. The cat loves this tree and spends most of the christmas season either tucked into its middle section or attacking the lower ranks of baubles. No tinsel this year though.
Final tree is covered in crystal decorations. It really is gorgeous and probably represents a fortune that's been spent of decorations. Looks like a giant frothy crystally thingie! So very pretty.
Alas, my current home is too small for a tree. I've been thinking about getting a small artificial one to place on the counter, but then I'll have to get tiny ornaments for it and that's more hassle than I need right now.

My family hangs up the same collection of ornaments every year, pretty much. We have things like the yarn snowmen and walnut Santas that my grandmother made for us, the various ornaments we made as kids in school and a collection of glass balls that date back to the 1960s. (We've had to acquire new ones over time as the older ones break.) A friend of ours took to sneaking ornaments onto our tree when my mom wasn't looking so she'd be baffled when she packed them up again. ("Where did this come from? I don't remember this one!")

We had a tree once that came with the roots so we were able to plant it in the yard after Christmas. Many years later, it had gotten a bit large and unwieldy, so we cut it down and brought it back into the house. The resulting tree filled the window so thoroughly that we took the leftover branches and built a 'top' to the tree in the room upstairs (my bedroom!), so it looked from the outside like we had a two-story tree.

That story says a lot about my family right there...
Your in-laws' tree sounds just like ours. I can still tell you the origin of every bauble on it: the wedding gifts, the young&poor makeshifts, the we-can-buy-something-nice-this-year sets, the souvenirs. And, of course, all the "Baby's First Christmas" trinkets that people give you for baby's first Christmas, and the popsicle-stick-and-glitter ornaments that the kid will make in kindergarten, treasured until the last glitter speck falls off. No matter how much they embarrass the kid when she turns into a teenage artistic sophisticate, with her own minimalist red-and-silver tiny tree in her own room.

When I say "our tree," I mean the one we'll put up this Sunday, that will look like all the other trees over all the other years. Since we like a live tree, and we like to leave it up until Epiphany, we don't bring it into the house until the weekend before Christmas.

We haven't dared to have tinsel on the tree since the first year we had kittens. They thought the tinsel was tasty, or a least interesting to eat, and the results were, um, unfortunate. Although we're lucky it was only disgusting and not lethal; that stuff's very bad for their poor little insides.

First we had puppies, then we had kittens, then we had a child. They're all gone/old/grown up by now, but we still put all the breakables at the top and the indestructibles at the bottom, just out of habit. And since the year a cat climbed to the top and then jumped, taking the tree down with her, the tree has been firmly tied to hooks in the wall as well as screwed into its stand.

When I was very small, my parents followed the "Santa brings the tree" tradition. Which meant that they were up fussing with the tree after the kids went to bed, all through the night on Christmas Eve. That custom didn't last long, which I find perfectly understandable. But even as we got older, the tree wasn't set up until the afternoon of Christmas Eve. Advent is Advent, and it's not time for Christmas trees until Christmas, said my mother.

I also like to decorate with natural greens, although I don't have much of an artistic eye, but you can't go too far wrong with holly and ivy and fir branches. My husband, on the other hand, has been getting more elaborate each year with his "Christmas garden."
At home I have a small, fake Christmas tree that sits on my coffee table, decorated with shiny stars, reindeer and spiral things. I think what this says about me is A) I live in a tiny bungalow with no room for a real Christmas tree and B) I can't afford one anyway.

My parents traditionally have a real tree decorated with baubles that are older than I am. They very rarely buy new decorations, as most of them have sentimental value - they were made by my brothers and me when we were little, or they were presents when we were born or whatever.

It was an unwritten rule that we hung chocolates on the tree, but this idea was scrapped the year our dog pulled the tree over and ate them all.
I'm sure Mika would *never* attack the tree. Unless the tree attacked her first.
Verification word: "Suppol"- an adjective used to describe East London gymnasts.
No tree this year. A lot of lights in the windows, some greenery, cards from friends on the wall above the kitchen.

(Oddly -- I had a friend in university whose cat was, for reasons we never found out, afraid of squash and pumpkins. They would ring the tree with colorful squash to keep her from gnawing at the tinsel...)

coribill -- colorful, flightless Galapagan bird?
Amaryllis -- yay your mother! We too never put up the (live) tree until Christmas Eve, and Santa does the final touches of tinsel and candy and this year's new ornament for each member of the family (which are fun to hunt for on Christmas morning, and usually have a theme -- all white, for example, or all musical instruments)

Our ornaments are mostly blown glass, some of which survive from my childhood. The ones that are considered "mine" are almost all birds -- I am just charmed by the notion of fanciful, improbable birds fluttering about the tree. Other than that I don't think they say much about us.

We used to but up greens, too (last Sunday in Advent) but our holly bushes all died this summer (long story). This year we have only the creche, and I still have to make this year's addition. We have so far the Holy Family, the Magi, shepherds and sheep, angel, poor man, serving maid, ox and ass, goat, chicken, geese, dove, pig, lion and a lamb, peacock, Cairn terrier, Skye terrier, mouse, hedgehog, fox, meerkats, and penguins. I have so far resisted requests for Godzilla and a fire-breathing bat-winged giraffe.

I'm open to suggestions.

Word verification: "jimine" -- a genus of jinn what jumps.
hapax: what, no frogs?

My husband sets up a "Nativity scene" using good-sized statues of the Holy Family that are really meant to be used outdoors, but are in the living room anyway. And then he surrounds them with his collection of frogs from many lands, including the realistic plastic models from the natural history museum, the painted wooden frogs from Indonesia, and the Egyptian toad goddess.

I set up a small, traditionally designed Nativity set on the shelf with the German wood carvings. So all right, Baby Jesus is being toasted by monks with tankards of ale, serenaded by musicians with drums and trumpets and bottles of wine, and guarded by a giant dachshund. Oh well.

This might tell you something about the difference between him and me, but probably it just says the we've both got too much stuff.

word is "unityllb:" peace on earth, good will to librarians.
Amaryllis, I'm afraid that frogs might be too small and get lost when the set is packed up after Epiphany.

Not that I'm anti-frog -- I have a small but growing collection of these charmers. http://www.frogmancollection.com/store/Frog-Sculpture-Collection-c3/
(Kit, I hope I didn't blogger your comments with a bad linkage!)

I've been thinking about a cat, but I find it hard to imagine any self-respecting cat worshipping humbly at a stable. Maybe if I gave the kitty some straw to play with....

Word verification: "hingpiap", the distinctive tinkle crash of a cherished blown glass ornament that Moggy has just discovered.
Amaryllis: Baby Jesus is being toasted by monks with tankards of ale, serenaded by musicians with drums and trumpets and bottles of wine, and guarded by a giant dachshund.

I rather imagine it's precisely the sort of thing Baby Jesus (or grown-up Jesus, for that matter) would thoroughly enjoy.

verification word "catolu": a native American spirit that often takes the form of a cat. Brings good luck in midwinter. Also rather good at discouraging mice.
Our household celebrates the Winter Solstice in a rather "lapsed Wiccan" sort of way - it's been awhile since we've done much in the way of formal observance or ritual. But every year, because I couldn't bear not to, we burn a big chunk of whatever-I-found-around-town-that-year and call it our Yule Log. We decorate it with holly and cedar bought at the local greenhouse, and some of that also goes over our door starting at dusk on Solstice Eve. That's our neighbor's cue to come drop by if they want to: "Open house is open now!"

Though I don't celebrate Christmas, due to differing religious preference, I *do* celebrate the Epiphany on Jan 6, because I grew up a New Orleans Catholic. Jan 6 is when Mardi Gras Season starts, and it's when we eat our first King Cake of the year (courtesy of Mom shipping one to us via Haydel's bakery; she rocks). So the holly and cedar come down off the door on Twelfth Night, and the Mardi Gras beads go up shortly thereafter.

Sorry to hear you're not feeling well, Kit - what a crummy time to be sick! Get well soon and have a wonderful Christmas! And bright New Year blessings to everyone, that 2009 may bring you all good things.
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