Every family has traditions. Things that are done the same way, year after year. Things that are counted on. Traditions provide a foundation and a feeling of coming home. Of safety. And happiness. Of continuity. Maybe it’s the way the mantel is decorated. Or the ornaments remain the same each year. Or it’s the cookies that Grandma always made, still being made long after Grandma is gone. Or perhaps it’s Lasagne for Christmas dinner. But what if a Tradition doesn’t “fit” anymore? Becomes too expensive, too “big” or too difficult? Is it OK to change a tradition?
In my case, our tradition was Christmas Stockings. I was a single mother. I didn’t always have enough money to buy a tree. I sometimes put red ribbon bows and candy canes on a Ficus and called it “Our Charley Brown” tree. But the one thing I had without fail was Christmas stockings. Mine rarely had anything in it. It was more for show. But I always made sure my son’s was stuffed with fun things. Matchbox cars when he was young. Bubbles. New crayons. And a new ornament. (which remains a tradition). As I’m sure all kids do, he begged to open his gifts on Christmas Eve. He was filled with excitement, his eyes big at the sight of boxes wrapped and piled under the tree. He almost vibrated with excitement. I had a rule, no gift opening til Christmas morning. Despite the groans and moans and the, “Please, Mommie?” I stuck to that rule. Except. (You knew there was going to be an “except”, didn’t you??) OK, ONE gift on Christmas Eve and we’d get our Christmas stockings to see what was in them. He was well past the age of believing in Santa so there was no fake story about the fat one coming early. Those stockings became our “thing.” I put a lot of time and energy and money in being creative as he got older. The gifts became more elaborate and more expensive. Gift cards to favorite restaurants or to the zoo or some outing to do together. Always a new ornament. And then the teen years hit. So there was after shave and young man things. I think he loved opening the stocking more than anything else.
Enter a marriage and instant siblings. The stocking tradition continued well into adulthood. I was rapidly spending the bulk of our Christmas budget stuffing those stockings. So one year, I decided to go another route. This was the year the whole family was going to be together. All the siblings. My husband was home (He frequently traveled on holidays), the Grandchildren were here. It was a perfect time to introduce a new tradition. I made gift bags. BAGS. I thought I was being clever. I could put larger gifts inside, the bags held more. Brilliant. Not so fast, Christmas Mom.
My son walked into the family room and saw no stockings hung by the chimney with care. In fact there were no stockings to be seen! He promptly grabbed my attention by quietly bellowing, “WHERE ARE THE STOCKINGS????” “WE DON’T HAVE STOCKINGS??” I saw him looking frantically around the room, searching for his stocking. By this time, the rest of the group became restless and I could hear murmurings……“Did Mom forget the stockings?” “Is Mom OK?” “What’s going on?” You know, concerned that I’d had some sort of mental lapse. Which, as it turns out I did. What was I thinking? I explained that this year I didn’t do stockings, I did gift bags!!! Woot! There were no return Woots. My son, drew himself up to his full height, and announced to no one in particular, “This is unacceptable. UNACCEPTABLE”. (In case I didn’t hear him the first time.) “What do you mean, gift bags?? GIFT BAGS??“ And he stomped off. OK, maybe not stomped exactly. But very firmly put one foot in front of the other and left the room. Dead silence. I stood for a few seconds, in a mental hamster-on-a-wheel moment, searching my brain for a solution to this calamity. Did I have time to get the stockings from the attic, stuff them, bring them out later, and yell, “SURPRISE! ONLY KIDDING, HERE ARE YOUR STUPID STOCKINGS!” Nope, not happening.
I honestly didn’t consider his reaction. I should have known. We’d moved around quite a bit when he was young and he hung on to things that were familiar. I suddenly realized the stocking meant more than just stuff for fun, it was one of his few remaining touchstones, a symbol that while everything else in his life had changed, this one thing, his Christmas stocking remained. We went on with Christmas that day, it was filled with fun and great food, music, the kids tussling, me yelling, “Take it outside!” and “Don’t slam the door!” The Grandkids overwhelmed with gifts and too many cookies, protesting the taking of pictures, hanging out with their beloved Aunts and Uncles and the rest of us.
It was a great, big, typical, noisy, messy holiday. And I loved it. I was the subject of affectionate scorn from every.single.member.of.my.family. In good fun, and it would become another family joke, told the next year and the year after that. My son, that sweet, goofy, big hearted prankster, never let me forget. He continued to shoot me the stink eye all day, (lovingly, accompanied by his grin, but the stink eye nonetheless), and I could hear him muttering in my direction all weekend long. I couldn’t hear all of it, but I caught enough of, “Unacceptable, and “For petes sake” and there was the odd eye roll. Whatever. I got it. I got it already! Stockings were hung by the chimney with care every year after that. Stuffed to the tops, overflowing. Bonus. There were also gift bags for the things that were too large for the stockings.
My son was killed in an accident three years after that Christmas. I don’t do stockings anymore. Except his. His is hung every year. His last, and favorite Hallmark ornament, a Mustang, hangs from it. A little stuffed reindeer we got from McDonalds during his teen years is in it. This year it hangs from the door to the room he stayed in whenever he came home. That stocking means more now than ever. It doesn’t hold gifts anymore, it holds memories. Years of memories. It is overflowing.
Why do you need a lesson in decorating your tree? You’ve been doing it for years, right? Just put it in the stand, wrap some lights around it and hang some ornies. And Bingo! Done. Not so fast my little helper elves. There are a few things to consider. For the sake of this post I’m dealing only with the faux tree, there are other considerations for live ones but I’ll save that post for another time. If you’ve already done your tree like the majority of can’t-wait-to-put-up-my-tree people, then just file this away for next year.
When you take your tree out of the box, it’s smushed (technical term) to fit. Take it out and put the bottom section in the base and secure it, if it’s a pre-lit tree, check the lights on this section before proceeding. You don’t want to get your tree all together and find that one section of lights doesn’t work. It’s aggravating. Trust me on this. FLUFF this section (another technical term) and insert the next section(s) in the same manner, checking each section of lights and fluffing a bit as you go. The fluffing step is the most important! (After lights, lights are really the most important, but fluffing is second on the important list.) You want a full looking tree, not one that looks like it survived a tornado. You’ll need to give your final fluff after you’ve put your tree together and checked all the lights. Tree branches are forgiving so bend them and manipulate until your tree looks like it’s all one glorious full product of nature.
If your tree isn’t pre-lit, add your lights. There are many methods of “doing lights”. None are wrong, whatever works. But I’ve found that starting at the bottom of the tree and working up is the easiest for me. Count on using a minimum of 100 lights per linear foot of tree. (Example: a 7 foot tree would require a minimum of 700 lights.) I like to use more because….well, I love lights. If your lights are worn out with lots of burned out bulbs this may be the time to upgrade to LEDs. Just as bright but don’t use as much energy and don’t get hot. Don’t throw your old lights away. There are a number of recycling options. Google “Recycling old Christmas lights” for sites and shipping instructions. If your tree comes in sections, it may be easier to do your lights a section at a time, right after the fluffing. String your lights by wrapping each branch and tucking your lights into the greenery before moving on to the next branch. The object is to hide the wires so that your tree looks like it was born with lights. You know, “natural.” Place lights the length of the branch all the way to the trunk so that you give the appearance of lights coming from within the branches. Do a final light check and fluff. This is the most tedious part for me. I want to get on with the decorations! But nothing destroys the look of a beautifully decorated tree quicker than visible, dangling wires. So take your time and get it right.
Once your lights are on, add your topper. What? Isn’t the topper supposed to be done last? Perhaps by raising your little darling up high enough to adorn your creation with the crowning glory? I’ve had the pleasure of watching a 10 foot tree laden with ornaments fall over by leaving the topper until last. Lesson learned. Add any smaller ornaments to this area now as well. You can thank me later. Taller trees, especially slim ones can be a bit prone to wobbling, particularly if the “front” of the tree is laden with ornaments and the side that’s in the corner has none (why waste the beauty of ornaments hanging them on a section that’s never seen?) My tree sits in front of a sliding glass door so I have to put ornaments on so that it’s purdy from the “back side” too. It still wobbles and I find I hold my breath when people come to admire it and want to touch it. My Christmas nightmare isn’t of Christmas past. Nope. It’s of that tree falling over and crashing on top of a dear friend. Who will be picking mercury glass out of her hair for years.
Place your largest heavy ornaments at the bottom, towards the trunk where the branches are sturdier. Reach into the middle of the tree and hang ornaments close to the trunk the entire height of the tree. This will also help with giving the tree a full look and help disguise the inevitable spaces in the interior. No matter how good you are at fluffing, you’ll end up with empty spaces. Large ornaments make these look like part of your design. Clever, no? Work your way out on each branch, adding ornaments as you go, ending with the smallest lightest ornaments at the tips. I like putting more than one ornie on each branch. EACH branch. It gives dimension to the tree. Don’t be one of those people who throw a dozen ornaments on and call it a day. Those people have no respect for the beauty that is a Christmas tree. I pity those people. Don’t be one of those people. Buy more ornaments.
If you have a set of ornaments with only three or four to the set, place these in a triangle so that it appears you have more than just three. Two lower, spaced apart, one higher and in the “middle.” This tricks the eye in to believing there are more ornies. Do this with every small set of ornaments you have. Don’t be afraid to overlap ornaments. Hang smaller ornaments on the same branch in front of a larger one.
Step back frequently during this phase so that you distribute your ornaments equally. Add any florals at this point, or feathers. These can be tucked in and help disguise the fact that there aren’t a lot of ornaments on a tree. It’s a good trick to use if you like to change the color of your ornies every year and don’t have many, or if you are just starting out. (And an old window designer trick of the trade.) I’m a garland goes on last woman, so after you’ve placed your ornaments add your garland. If you’re into ribbon, there are two schools of thought. One is to add the ribbon after the lights. The current ribbon craze is to go vertically with ribbon, starting at the crown of the tree, tucking it into branches as you make your way to the bottom. Then add ornies and floral picks, feathers, etc whatever you’re using to adorn your tree. The second method is to put your ribbon on after the ornaments. You can also add your ribbon the garland way, just wrapping it around the tree. If going vertical, plan on purchasing about triple the amount of ribbon you think you’ll need, each length of ribbon should extend from the top to the bottom of the tree. That’s it, you’re done. And look at your wonderous, glorious tree. There is no prettier tree in all the land. Except mine. Mine is the prettiest.