As a child, I imagined there were two kinds of Christmas-celebrating people in this world. Team Colored Lights were merry souls who tossed bright bulbs around random bushes and burned the Christmas ham because they were busy laughing at Aunt Debra's saucy jokes. And then there was us: Ladies and Gents of the White Lights — a family that graduated from colored lights and charming 30-year-old reindeer ornaments with amputated legs, to torturing a Fraser fir with the weight of 50 glass ornaments from Barney's.
In my family, the switch to subtle white lights and exquisite, fragile ornaments coincided with my parents' separation and my mother's desire to compensate for not-great times with the perfect, storybook Christmas.
Unfortunately for her, this period also coincided with my turning 13 and becoming an intolerable pile of sulk, one with a knack for sniffing out phoniness in adults. Any time my mom slipped a gift wrapped in $50 paper and velvet bows under our tree, I rolled my teenage eyes to the back of my head and thought about my parents' fights. My older brother and I weren't exactly forbidden from decorating the tree, but there were less-than-subtle reminders along the way about how Santa and reindeer ornaments were too similar to inhabit the same geographic points on the limbs. There was also the passive-aggressive re-organizing of our ornaments after we went to sleep (one year I proved to my brother this was happening by positioning three wreaths on the same branch because, remember, I was utterly intolerable).
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As the years passed, fewer colorful, fun ornaments made it down from the attic. As an adult, I can now appreciate the revenge a parent in a broken relationship would get from kicking that plastic Tweety Bird, a beacon of bittersweet memories, right out a window and replacing it with a $75 platinum icicle spike. But back then? Ornaments that represented better times were at war with my mom's new baubles. And, in any battle, an '85 penguin clad in a moth-eaten fabric scarf would get its beak handed back to it by a hand-blown glass Polonaise Santa.
I believe we all compensate in some way for the holidays we experienced or didn't get to experience as children. What does a brat do when her mother goes out of her way to try and deliver perfection? When she feels that idealistic vision is over the top and unachievable? If she's still years away from understanding why her mother wanted one flawless day to feel better about all the other flaws, she might become me: a person who salvaged her broken childhood ornaments to hang on her own tree, hates most Christmas movies, and routinely doles out gifts wrapped in crumbled paper always cut too short for the box.
I had no use for Christmas when I got together with my now-husband. After dating in college, losing touch, and reconnecting over email, we agreed to hang out two days after Thanksgiving at a bar in downtown Manhattan. The signs were there: The bar he chose was littered with wreaths and lights. Christmas songs played periodically, despite it still being spectacularly early for that nonsense. When I visited his apartment for the first time — weeks before Christmas — I discovered it was decked out with a tree (colored lights), Santa figurines, and a light-up Christmas village that resembled a 19th century gentleman's vision of nirvana.
Few guys I dated in my 20s had it together enough to own a broom and dustpan, so I was impressed. But the part of me that could still sniff out Love Actually-like artificiality worried that this Christmas-obsessed side of my new partner would result in me hiding in closets when it came time to decorate the tree.
Not that it mattered. I was already crazy about him. Crazy about the way he meticulously positioned the Hampshire School next to St. Joseph's Chapel in the fake village (where fake people could have access to both). Crazy about the thoughtful gift he gave me on our first Christmas together — a green robe to keep at his place so I could wake up and feel warm. And I was fascinated with how this otherwise stoic man — I can count on one hand the times I've seen him cry in a decade — could lose it touring Christmas lights displays.
If it's true that many of us are working to undo the parts of our childhood that didn't bring us joy, my husband's desire to create an extraordinary holiday experience, even if it feels manufactured at first, checks out. But here's what I've learned: By going along with it, not rolling my eyes, giving into the corny and maudlin aspects of the holiday season, it's impossible not to feel affected by his infectious enthusiasm for fake snow, holiday train shows, and The Pogues' "Fairytale of New York."
It helps to have a partner who meets you halfway when you're the holiday grump. Noticing how uneasy I felt putting nice ornaments on our tree those first few years, my husband came home one day with a smaller, second tree just for me. I transform our wild, feral tree beast into a gorgeous eye sore with ugly, sentimental ornaments from the distant past — a one-eyed lion hung next to my decapitated toy soldier — with, dare I say it, care.
I know he also bought the tree because he has always wanted two Christmas trees. He knows that my affection for old ornaments and colored lights is my version of perfection — no different from my mother's white lights and glass baubles. We don't talk about it; we just feel it. My husband's unwavering commitment to holiday joy, flaws and all, turned me into a person who now owns her own miniature Christmas village businesses. The pizza parlor is next to the pub. Obviously.
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