Decking the Halls

150 150 Kristin
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Dear Frances,

Has the way you decorate for Christmas changed over the years? I know it has for me. Those first years of marriage involved acquiring all the stuff: a menagerie of trees, Santas, snowmen, and Christmassy knick-knacks. It was all great fun in those early years, decking out our new house when we were first married.

Then along came the kids and their adorable, if not durable handmade ornaments, a few more decorations added to the collection each year, and of course, the advent calendars. So many advent calendars! Because I have three kids, there were at least three advent calendars, so that each child could take a turn each day. Usually, one paper chain, one wooden tree with little cubbies beneath it with an ornament for each day, and one painstakingly crafted (by me) felt Christmas scene that you added a new element to every day. And on top of that, those little cardboard ones with the sub-par chocolate. Whew! Why do we exhaust ourselves like this?

At some point I realized that there was too much stuff to set out each Christmas and I started to edit it down. For about the last five years, I’ve put a little less out each year. I’ve donated some decorations that I didn’t love anymore and handed some down to Chloe. I will save some items that I don’t use anymore to give to the kids (if they want them) just because it was a part of their childhood. At the bottom of one of the tubs are all those handmade paper ornaments from pre-school that I think I will deal with “this year”, but never do.

I accidentally found out that what really matters to me about Christmas decor is having lots of greenery and lights. Instead of things setting on tables, I’ve started hanging more garlands above windows and doors, and of course, wrapping the stair railing. Let me tell you, battery-operated twinkle lights were a revelation! This year I purchased a 25′ real cedar pine garland and hung it above our kitchen window and above the window near the kitchen table. I love the way it looks (and smells!), but my husband commented that it looked like we are living in Whoville (guess who’s the grinch in our house?). I’ve put together a few trays with pinecones and candles and I’m loving the simplicity of it this year.

And that’s what I’m craving this time of year–simplicity. Don’t get me wrong; I want a cozy home that announces”it’s Chrismastime” when you open the door. But I’ve learned that it takes a lot less than I realized to achieve that feeling. I want to have the bandwidth to enjoy the holiday instead of just “getting through it”. To have the space to read those holiday books, make some fudge, play board games, and watch some Christmas movies in a more stress-free way. (By the way, I’ve started my annual re-read of Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. I think I’ve read it at Christmas time for at least the last ten years. In some ways it has taught me how simple yet meaningful a Christmas can really be.)

And I’ve learned that the other senses are just as important as all the visual Christmas decor: the smell of evergreens, cookies baking, or a stovetop potpourri, the feel of fuzzy pillows on the sofa, and the taste of holiday treats. And we cannot forget Christmas music! We’ve moved away from loading up the CD player with five different Christmas CDs over to Spotify, which is a wonderful way to enjoy so many types of Christmas music. I have several Spotify playlists that I love, but two of my favorite albums that are a must-listen are A Charlie Brown Christmas by Vince Guaraldi, and We Three Kings by the Roches. Those songs mean that Christmas is on its way to me.

It’s bittersweet to think back on Christmases of the past, but I’ve learned a lot about what feels right for our family and I know that will continue to evolve as our kids eventually move away, get married, and have families of their own. But for now, I’ll enjoy the Christmases we have left with our little crew.


Dear Kristin,

Looking at your photos makes me wish (again) that I had your decorating skills (not to mention your photography skills!). I think I’m going to spend Christmas next year at your house. Is that okay?

As usual, I’m putting off decorating for as long as I can. I’m so old that I remember when people complained about Christmas-themed commercials airing before December. Nowadays, most people I know put up their trees on the day after Thanksgiving. It’s a legit cultural shift, one that I have mixed feelings about. I know there are practical reasons for it. If you live in a household filled with busy people, it’s hard to find time to enjoy the holiday season unless you stretch it out over a period of four or five weeks. I get that. But other forces are at work here, including the gods of consumer capitalism, who would like us to shop until we drop. Over the decades, these forces have slowly leached away the spirit of the season. Peace on earth? Good will to men? Who cares about that? Let’s get more stuff!

Yeah, I’m a grinch, and I’m a grinch who does her best to hold off on Christmas decorating until mid-December. This is not without its problems, one of which is that by the time December 15th rolls around, all the good trees are gone and the ones that remain have a distinct Charlie Brown vibe. Another problem is that sometimes I end up not enjoying any of the season because I’ve built up such a strong resistance to celebrating too early that I end up not celebrating at all. 

This year, I have a new plan. Although my house currently remains decoration-free, I have started decorating my dollhouse. I don’t have a lot of decorations for it, but I do have a few, and it’s a small way to get into the spirit without having to put in a lot of sweat equity. I’ve also been pondering how I might make decorating easier this year. Part of my grinchiness stems from the fact that while I enjoy decorations, I don’t enjoy decorating, and I especially don’t enjoy un-decorating. One change I’ve already decided on is that I’m going to put my Christmas village on the screen porch this year instead of in the living room. For a variety of reasons, all too boring to go into, it’s a huge hassle to set up the village the way I’ve been doing it over the years. By displaying it on the table on the porch (which we can easily see from the living room) I’ll make my life a lot easier. 

Like you, I spent a lot of time in the early years of our family life … overdoing things a bit. Martha Stewart led me down many a pernicious path (oh, but the crafts I made were lovely!). It’s so fun when the kids are little and the magic is real. The problem is, as kids grow older, the magic fades but they still want the traditions to continue–the Advent calendars, the Christmas village, the wide variety of Christmas treats (which they grab on their way out the door on the way to friends’ houses). So you’re left doing a ton of work with very few warm and fuzzy payoffs. No shiny little faces peering at the tree before bedtime, very little buy-in when it comes decorating said tree (maybe it’s different if you have girls?).

As we begin our Christmas transitions over the next few years, I want to find ways to simplify all of it–the gift-giving, the decorating, the baking–in an effort to get back to a different kind of magic of Christmas. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how being a post-menopausal empty nester feels a lot like being a girl again (except for the creaking knees and hip pain), and as a girl, I was Queen of Christmas Magic. I knew Christmas was about music and stories and staring up at the night sky and looking for stars. It was about taking loaves of my mother’s banana nut bread to the neighbors on Christmas Eve and lying in bed telling myself stories about that time I almost saw Santa Claus. Maybe that’s a good tradition to return to–you know how I love stories! On a Christmas Eve long ago, a girl named Frances was awakened by the sound of jingle bells coming from overhead. She crept out of bed and put on her slippers …

Talk to you soon!


  • Robin Leftwich

    I never really developed my own traditions. We live in California but always went home to Louisville until my mom passed in 2014. By the time we stayed in California, my two stepdaughters had gotten married or moved in with someone, so we had to balance those additional families’ traditions, and all the “good” times, like Christmas morning, were taken! (Wait until you all have to figure out that issue, when your kids have to balance out their partners’ traditions with yours!). So we kind of make it up as we go along. I will get a tree, and I love Charlie Brown trees, next week. We have collected ornaments over the years, and I brought most of my moms here. I finally bought some outdoor lights so will put them out this weekend. The one tradition we do have is food!

  • Alice McCabe

    So many of my decorations have already been passed down to my kids. This year has been so hectic with my 93 YO mom in the hospital and waiting to move into skilled nursing, so my house is full of boxes and bags of her things. I don’t think I can handle taking out all my own boxes and decorating! I’ll probably just put up my small tree this year and enjoy the decorations at Andrew and Alicia’s houses! Funny you mention hips, Frances! I was just telling my friend that I never really thought about my hips for 62 years and now in my 63rd year they’ve decided to let me know they exist. I really wish they’d just keep quiet! Have a wonderful Christmas season, ladies!

  • Laurie

    I decorate the ‘farmhouse chic’ basement for the grandkids and the upstairs more adult-like, but many decorations will stay in storage. In elementary school each of my daughters colored a Santa Claus face that goes over a light switch. This year they all sent me pictures of theirs on THEIR light switch! I love knowing they are keeping that tradition alive.

  • Mary Jo Preti

    You’ll probably call me a Grinch but we did away with the trappings of Christmas a few years ago. I found no one liked decorating. When my daughter was home we did it as a family. After she left to have her own family my sons and husband. would do it but it didn’t really matter to them. We donate instead of gift exchanging. We do gift money to my daughter each year and they gifted the kids with a bicycle, baking equipment and swim lessons for the littlest ones. We do put up our giant lighted peace sign as it has been a neighborhood mainstay for the last 20 years. This is a wood board with two hooks my husband hangs up and plugs in.

    Our whole family usually gets together Dec 28 for a week. The first time we did it we put Christmas stuff out but my daughter told me by the time the grandkids get to us they have been inundated with Christmas and don’t need them.

    We do have some traditions: I bake with my 11 year old granddaughter, we go to the beach for a walk, and we plan to do a Christmas lights scavenger hunt with the oldest kids this year. Everyone takes turns cooking, we have amazing professional and amateur men chefs in the family. I would like to go caroling with everyone. We have two musicians in the family too. Do you think that’s too weird after Christmas?

    The Holiday. Time is as relaxed as it can be with 10 people in the house. There are few expectations and a lot of together time and everyone sharing in the work, be it cooking, cleaning or taking care of the 17 month old twins

    • Frances

      I don’t think you’re a grinch at all–I think you’re a genius!

      If.I had things to do all over again, I would have made Christmas a lot simpler from the start, especially when it comes to gift giving. We went a little overboard on the Santa Claus thing. I would have also pulled back on decorations. But I didn’t, and here I am, still digging out from all the clutter and all the expectations.

      We have neighbors who hang a ball of lights from a high branch (I’m mean like three stories high) in their front yard every year, and I would really miss it if one year they decided not to. I’m glad you’re still put out your peace sign!

      Ho ho ho!

  • Vicki Holloway

    I don’t set up decorations until after Thanksgiving and then it’s a slow roll, wreaths, some candles and lights. The tree is usually the week before and it’s now a small table top tree that I have made small ornaments for. I have been really trying to not over do with over buying and we started giving our kids money once they left home because they want large items out of the budget or they need money to buy food or pay a bill etc. I have really scaled back and have spent way more time seeking peace vs all the concerts, events and running a million miles an hour for 30 days feeling nothing peaceful by Christmas day. I see some family before if we can or after, depending on the westher etc. And I have been known to feel Christmas at New Yesrs and extend it into January with cookies, movies, sports and a few days off to craft and relax.


    When my DD move into her own house, she took all the Christmas decor she wanted with my blessings. She decorates like crazy …. I no longer decorate as we never have company coming to our house… over the years my mobility has become more limited … and frankly I do not see the point.

    We spend the majority of the time at my daughter … baking and cooking for our Christmas Eve celebration where we open our presents. Christmas day it varies … some time we visit sibling , some times we just stay home.

  • Tracie

    I loved decorating our home with our kids! We’re living in our sixth home – one of the smallest – and each house had different decorating opportunities. Since we have a 6-month old puppy this year, all we’re doing inside is a nativity and candles. Sadly, it feels like Ebenezer Scrooge lives here. Typically my husband puts up fresh evergreen boughs all over the house, but this year he only filled the crock on our front porch and turned on the solar lights in a tree farther out in our property. I keep telling myself that next year will be different 🙂

  • Patty

    I’m over decorating for Christmas and do less and less each year.

    The only thing I really enjoy is d my Christmas village. It is displayed on a hallway table and a few more pieces on the end table in the living room.

    We put our tree up (artificial) yesterday. I do the tree assembly and light wrangling myself each year. Yesterday, I had a major war (and lost) with lights that don’t light all the way through strand and then overall tree assembly – how many different ways can 3 pieces actually go together! What I really want is a tree from the Grinch movie that opens and folds like an umbrella – decorations all intact!

    I told my family that we are doing a smaller tree next year and got lots of complaints. The deal is that if they help with cleanup, I’d be more open to the same sized tree next year.

    The magic is still there though. I love packages piling up under the tree in the days before the big morning. I love our Christmas morning family brunch and am so happy there is no need to wake at the crack of dawn to see if Santa came. I love how my young adult daughter with Down syndrome is so excited about Christmas and its fun to experience the holiday through her eyes.

    • Frances

      Christmas villages are magical, aren’t they?

      And I agree: Christmas morning is much more relaxed now that Jack and Will sleep in! (In fact, we usually have to wake them up, mostly because we’re hungry and are ready to have Christmas breakfast!)

      • Mary Jo Preti

        My sister has an amazing Christmas village her husband made for her. One piece every year over many years. They decided to keep it up year round on the top of a long set of shelves. It’s great. So much work went into that village, that it’s nice its displayed year round, not just at Christmas.

        • Frances

          What a wonderful idea–a village that you don’t have to put away at the end of the year to enjoy year-round! I love that her husband made it for her year by year. Such a lovely gift!


  • Lizzieanne

    I had to create Winter Holiday magic for my classroom every year, so by the time vacation began everything was very last minute. We’d get the lights up, tree up, bake, shop, all the things, in less than a week. I am so very thankful that my era missed The Elf on the Shelf. That would’ve sent me over the edge.

    • Frances

      Elf on the Shelf was just starting to happen when my boys were little, and I’m SO happy I didn’t give into temptation to bring one into the house!

  • Marsha H

    I look forward to having Black Friday off so I can spend the day at home decorating for Christmas. We now have 6 young grands so a lot of what I do is for them although I noticed both of my adult daughters admiring and commenting on our old ornaments (especially the homemade ones from my mom) on our tree. I have gifted some of our old ornaments to my daughters for their trees.
    I have cut back on some of my decor around the house only because I hate putting it all away on New Years day. Every year I cull through my holiday decor and either donate it or throw it away. It feels good to cut back.

    • Frances

      I wonder if my decorating joie de vivre will revive if/when my sons give me some grandchildren and they come home for Christmas. It wouldn’t surprise me a bit if it does!

  • Jean Etheridge

    When I was a child, my mom baked dozens and dozens of cookies. I made quite a few when our daughters were little. The favorites were cookies shaped like S, sprinkled in red sugar for Santa and German springerle, an anise flavored biscuit with an embossed design on top. My younger daughter still makes the S cookies with her children, and my older still makes the springerle. My 14 year old grandson even bought her a new rolling pin for them this year! Another traditional sweet was from my husband’s childhood. He had a neighbor, Mrs. Wilson, who make milk candy with dried milk. It’s an acquired taste, but my family loves it.

    For Christmas dinner, we switched from a ham dinner to shrimp casserole because it’s a tradition from my son-in-law who grew up in Mobile. I figured if he was sweet enough to drive to our home in north Alabama on Christmas Day each year, I should fix him his favorite. They now live in Salt Lake City and although they sometimes have flown home for Christmas, they are taking my grandsons to Paris this year! But we will still have shrimp casserole, Becky’s salad (named after a long ago neighbor who gave me the recipe), and garlic bread because it’s my youngest grandson’s favorite.

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