Oh so merry.

Dear Friends,

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I don’t know about you, but I’m a bit rigid when it comes to holiday routines. An improviser I’m not. I fastidiously plan all our family celebrations, from birthdays and anniversaries, to major holidays like Christmas, to even lesser holidays like Valentine’s Day. If there’s a celebration on the calendar, you can count on the fact I will have an associated timeline, to-do list, menu, and shopping list (organized by sub-categories for “groceries,” “gifts” and “supplies”) that I carefully create and monitor. I would argue my planning is a hallmark of the diligent, but truth be told, it’s probably just a hedge against spontaneity, which has never been my strong suit.

For some reason, though, this year I threw caution to the wind when I decided to ditch my typical Christmas plan by decorating before December 1. And, gasp, I even decorated before Thanksgiving. Normally I’m a real Grinch when it comes to pre-emptive Christmas displays. And, if you read this post, you’ll recall I have a veritable ritual related to my children’s involvement in tree trimming. But Sunday, November 23, was a cold and rainy day in my corner of the world and – with nothing better to do – I decided to deck my halls a full four days before Turkey Day. Mr. Mom was busy and my kids were at college and it just seemed like the thing to do for a sentimental old woman with time on her hands.

Of course when my children arrived home for Thanksgiving they were shocked to see the tree (in an unusual spot, no less), and the garland, and the bells, and my grandmother’s vintage Santa mug collection, and enough twinkly lights to fill a Target. “Wow, what got into you?” Parker said. “Oh . . .” whimpered Kate, “I was looking forward to helping.” I was stung by an immediate and familiar pang of maternal guilt, which was intensified when I arranged our Thanksgiving table a few days later and contemplated the clash of competing holiday décor on display in our dining room. I clearly had jumped the gun.

Despite my second-guessing, I felt a lightness about my decision and wondered what it would be like to have the Christmas season commence without the most time-consuming holiday chore hanging over my head.

A few days later, I was talking to a new friend, an older lady I recently met, about my early decorating spree. Dixie mentioned she just didn’t have the energy for such things. She said ever since her husband died a few years ago, she found Christmas decorating difficult. She recollected – sadly I thought – that she especially missed setting up her extensive Dickens village that used to bring her so much joy. “It’s just so much work,” she said, “and I can’t do it anymore.”

In any other year, I would have rushed to commiserate with Dixie. “Oh, I know EXACTLY how you feel,” I would have said. “I always feel so overwhelmed this time of year. There’s too much to do and sometimes I just want to skip it all!” But instead of this reflexive reaction that I’ve shared so many times with the similarly harried, a mindless statement borne of a working mother’s guilt and anxiety, I paused to listen to her words and, though I said nothing, Dixie’s sense of longing stuck with me.

I emailed her a few days later and offered to go to her home and do her decorating for her. She was gracious enough to take me up on my offer and that’s how I found myself in the midst of the most joyful and rewarding Christmas decorating spree ever.

Dixie indeed has a beautiful Dickens village, with every building and village amenity imaginable, including tiny carolers and dogs and electric street lamps and park benches and more, each carefully tied in bubble wrap and stored in their original boxes. When I was a young mother, I dreamed of collecting a Dickens village, but I couldn’t afford it. Unpacking and arranging Dixie’s village was like a Christmas dream come true. I felt like an 8-year-old girl who had just unwrapped Santa’s best dollhouse ever and – best of all – Dixie gave me full creative license to display the village however I wished.

While I “played house,” Dixie brought me tea and cookies and turned up the holiday music and told me about her life over the last 30 years in our community. After I finished assembling the display (and promised to return in January to put everything away), I couldn’t help but linger over another cup of tea, enjoying the scene before us and soaking up the unexpected joy of helping a friend, no matter how modest the task. It was a magical moment in time, one I will always treasure, made possible because I dared to step out of my comfortable routine and open my heart to the potential of something even more wonderful.

As this Christmas season offers its joys and challenges to you, as you deck your halls and bake your goodies and wrap your gifts and attend parties and otherwise seek holiday cheer in your own ways, I wish for you a moment of whimsy . . . a sparkling instant in which old expectations melt away and new memories – perhaps tiny but oh so merry – fill your heart with the love and joy of the season.

With gratitude {for holiday gifts of all kinds},

Joan, who loved her some Barbie back in the day

 

A tale of two trees.

Dear friends,

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If you’re like me, Christmas is the most sentimental time of year. By the time my birthday rolls around in early December, I am inevitably lulled into a month-long reverie of reminiscences that make January and its stoic resolutions seem like an especially cold slap in the face.

Decorating the tree has long been the focus of my nostalgia. I have collected dozens of ornaments over nearly 40 years. I’d like to claim they are each carefully wrapped in tissue and stored in tidy containers, but the truth is while some are, most aren’t, and my containers wear the heavy dust of a basement I rarely venture into.

Still, when I open my boxes and begin the ritual of adorning the tree, it’s as if the concentrated essence of Christmases past fills the room like the steamy aroma of mulled cider. My kids know the drill: I put on my favorite Christmas music (classics recorded by the likes of Tom Petty, the Eagles, and John Mellencamp); Parker manages the bird’s nest of wire hooks, pulling them free one by one; Kate attaches a hook to each ornament and passes it to me; and I select the perfect spot for each and every ornament. Along the way, I tell the same stories year after year after year.

“This doll is the from the set of six wooden ornaments I sold in high school to raise money for my cheerleading team. This is the dough ornament I made in middle school, the only one Grannie saved. This is the cross stitch ornament my sorority sister at TU gave me my junior year. This is the first ornament I purchased for Kate after she was born. This is the first ornament Parker made and brought home from Kiddie Kollege. This is the ornament I bought on the trip to Yellowstone – remember how sick Parker was with chicken pox on our trip?”

Besides my own enjoyment, the annual recitation is likely a thinly veiled stab at maternal immortality.  If I keep telling the stories, as my rationalization goes, my kids will remember them and pass them on. And some December day, four or five or six generations from now, my timeworn ornaments will hang on a tree and remind a great-great-great-somebody of Joan-Marie. Sometimes I think that’s all a mother really wants. To be remembered.

But this year, for the first time, we broke with tradition. I was at the dining room table sewing up a birthday quilt for a friend back home – too busy to pause I declared – so Kate decided to take charge. Parker fell in line with the hooks and Kate carefully curated my collection with a discerning eye.

“I’m done,” she declared, far too soon to have paid proper homage to each of my ornaments. “What?” I said. “You can’t possibly be!” “Come look,” she teased. “It’s beautiful. And not at all like your tree.”

And there, in our den, was a Christmas tree straight out of a magazine. “Look how balanced it is,” Kate said, beaming. “It’s a perfect mix of white, gold and red. Not cluttered. Not overdone.”

I was speechless. There were no popsicle-stick stars with plastic beads hot-glued on. No Hallmark/Disney frames with faded photos of every deceased but beloved pet in our family’s history. No tiny coffee mugs with each of our names painted on, purchased on family road trips from roadside souvenir joints. It was if our ornaments held a beauty contest and only the loveliest and most elegant made it on stage.

“It’s beautiful,” I said, surprised by an unexpected dose of equanimity. “Really, it is. I can’t believe I like it, but I do. You’ve done a lovely job.”

“I like it, too” Parker added quickly. “Since we’re finished, can I go hang with my friends now?”

And just like that, this old dog proved she could learn a new trick, even on the touchiest of topics, on the most sentimental of days. Instead of insisting my children watch “It’s a Wonderful Life” with me (another of Joan-Marie’s treasured traditions), we turned down the music, turned up the college football game, and settled into a new holiday rhythm, one no less modulated by a mother’s heart, but newly attuned to the vicissitudes of family affections.

With gratitude {for holiday family time, whether by my own design or another’s},

Joan, who likes her Christmas trees like her baked potatoes — loaded

It’s starting to look a lot like Christmas.

Dear friends,

I spent my evenings last week putting up the new Christmas tree in the Den and spreading a little holiday cheer around the house.

The tree is loaded with all our favorite ornaments:

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The mantle is festooned:

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And the buffet is adorned with my Grandmother’s Santa Mug collection:

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I’ve got more than a dozen large totes of Christmas decorations. Given that I limited myself to a single tree, the mantle, and the buffet, I think I showed considerable restraint. (I also sent a tote with Kate so she could decorate her college apartment even though I know I’ll have to haul it home for the summer). Gone are the days when it looks like the Macy’s Christmas Store exploded in every room of my home.

Now all I need to do is buy a handful of additional gifts and get to wrapping. I gave up on the whole holiday card thing years ago. I’m deeply appreciative of those folks who take the time to send them, but in an era of Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and blogging, there’s really not anyone who desires to keep up with us who can’t do so electronically. I don’t know if I’ve succumbed to the forces of modernity or indolence, but I’ve succumbed.

And, finally, I made reservations for our family at our favorite restaurant for Christmas Eve. I’ll cook on Christmas Day, but our family has always celebrated both occasions and last year I decided I didn’t really have to prepare two lavish spreads in less than 12 hours. The impulse to do it all has faded, thank goodness.

So that’s it. My list is checked twice and the stockings are hung with care. It’s starting to look and feel a lot like Christmas.

With gratitude {for a season of maternal maturity when Christmas can feel like relaxed contentment},

Joan, who’d love to tell you all about the cool tradition she decided to start this year but is still keeping it a surprise from Kate and Parker, who are known to read her blog now and then, so she must keep her lip zipped until after Christmas

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