Last weekend, we still didn't have a tree. My sister called several times to check on me, wondering if I'd lost my holiday mind and truly concerned my children may not have Christmas after all, what with the house sans tree on December 7th.
On Sunday, the only day we could possibly get a tree as a family due to ballet rehearsals and Operation Toy Drop (men jumping from perfectly good airplanes across Ft. Bragg), we woke in a funk. My daughter was sick, sniffling and barely able to haul herself from her bed to eat a handful of crackers. I was on the verge of said sickness and wanting, myself, to get back into bed and burrow into my pillows. The boys were not sick, but when the women are sick, the men tend to also want to go back to bed, or to the TV room or out for breakfast because they can't feed themselves.
By noon, it wasn't looking good.
I sat in the kitchen with a full view of the living room and realized that if I didn't do something....we'd be celebrating Christmas morning in the backyard under a Long Leaf Pine.
So I sent my husband and son to get a tree.
I know. I'm productive and make-it-happen like that.
An hour after he left, I felt a wave of guilt wash over me. How could we possibly make a family calendar if we didn't have a Christmas tree-cutting photo, the men in plaid, the women with rosy cheeks?
What did it say about me that I couldn't even manage to set up a nativity set or pull out the nutcracker collection we'd dragged across the country during all of our moves?
Was I going to wake up on Christmas morning to dejected little faces as we all huddled near a barren fireplace and opened heartless gifts?
Where were the decorations? Where were the garlands, lit and strategically hung from light fixtures and other ornaments? Where were the candles, mounds of oranges in silver bowls, stockings and Christmas rugs? Did we even own Christmas sheets? And if not: why?
I called out to Maggie: girl....get your leg warmers on and put your hair in braids. We're going Christmas shopping!
She managed double Dutch braids and a swath of lipgloss on her poor chapped lips and emerged less than ten minute later in a pair of Uggs and skinny jeans.
Preteens can rally like that.
I looked like I had just narrowly escaped a brush with the flu and may not have washed my hair in weeks.
We left immediately.
TJ Maxx it was for us because we live in a small town, and that's the best option we've got. Big Lots was too far away, and I couldn't fathom Bed, Bath and Beyond because the parking lot over there was obviously designed as a preschool craft project run by a couple of drunk dads.
TJ Maxx was full - of people, of heaps of over-sized toys and stuffed animals, of pajama sets wrapped in bows and tables covered with Christmas accoutrement.
I told Maggie to get a cart as I walked through the doors and began assessing any possible item that might jazz up my house and give my kids a festive holiday.
After ten minutes, all I had was a nutcracker holding a half-broken toy and a framed picture of cacti decorated with lights and red and green bows.
I know. I worry sometimes for my own mental health.
My sister was consulted via FaceTime, and she cringed when she saw the cactus debacle.
As I stood in the aisle, prepared to decorate with Christmas mice if necessary (they were felted and tragic), I realized: I don't actually like Christmas decor. It feels like clutter. It gets in the way. It is sad in the light of day, when candles are not lit and it's just covered in a light layer of dust. It's sad to put it away each year, when I'm sick to death of looking at it, and then the house seems even sadder afterward, like an aging starlet who's taken off her stage makeup.
But then the pangs hit again....is it right to thrust my minimalist sensibilities onto my children? What if they don't like simplicity and perhaps a few natural wreaths and bows and white candles in antique votive dishes? What if they want plastic candy canes lining the walkway to our home and a life-sized nutcracker blow-up doll? Is it right for me to say no? Is it right for me to define for my family what the holiday spirit is?
In the end, I bought the nutcracker and left the cactus print. We all met up at a Christmas tree lot and chose a tree together, which is currently undecorated in our living room. I got out the Christmas cookie jar and any day now will whip up cookies with the kids to fill it. The nutcrackers are strategically placed on the mantle.
I am trying.
There has to be a middle ground, I think, in family life. I can't force upon my children an appreciation for simplicity that has taken me 42 years to cultivate myself. I can't make them see it my way, and truth be told, I'm sure the way I see it will shift and change over time anyway.
Perhaps when I'm sixty, my kids will pull up to our house for the holidays with their own kids in tow. Christmas lights will cover every gutter and roofline imaginable. I'll have a wreath on the front door, actioned with an expert glue gun and YouTube video tutorial. There will be freshly made cocoa and not one but two trees: one just waiting to be decorated by the grandkids.
My children will turn off the cars, sit with their mouths slung open and think: where was this woman when we were growing up?
Their kids will probably kick down a plastic candy cane on their way to my front door...which I'll find (as only grandmothers can) charming.