A friend and I were discussing holiday preparations recently as I helped her decorate her house for the season. We hauled a small mountain of boxes containing garlands, ornaments, and knickknacks up from her basement and added them to the bags of decorations she had just bought the day before. We proceeded to “deck the halls” while listening to holiday music and drinking cranberry-flavored sparkling wine (not my finest beverage decision, but it was damn tasty). As we set out little snowman figurines on shelves around the house and dressed up her kitchen cabinets as presents (I kid you not), she paused and asked, very seriously, “Why do you think I love decorating for Christmas so much?”
She explained how, as a kid, her parents put up a tree, sure, and sometimes there were electric candles in at least some windows, perhaps even a string or two of lights in the front bushes. But she had multiple siblings, her parents were on the older side, and toward the later end of her childhood, they just sort of started… giving up. The holiday season gradually became less about the “magic of Christmas” and more about the “hassle of Christmas” – coordinating family visits, leaving everything to the last minute, and arguing about whose fault it was that everything was left to the last minute. They stopped bothering to hide the stress from their kids, until one year the tree just didn’t go up.
Looking back on it now, she viewed this decline of the holidays as a sign that her parents were never that excited about the season, that everything was done as an obligation to their children. If that were true, though, then why (in her own words) does Christmas now “gradually throw up all over [her own] house” throughout December? Why is her Black Friday tradition to spend the day taking down all her fall decorations and replacing them with winter/Christmas ones? Why does she start listening to holiday songs in (gasp) July?
To me, the answer was obvious. She was recapturing the feelings she had as a child around the holidays, before the excitement and magic gave way to reality. She and her husband take the process very seriously, too – their preparations include spreadsheets, daily breakdowns of tasks for the first week of December, and a stud-finder. And, in my opinion, they do a hell of a job. Come the 25th, when they host a big dinner for both of their families, the house is positively gushing with holiday cheer.
I’m no stranger to the power of nostalgia myself, especially around this time of year. In fact, I’m gearing up for the holidays already – as I write this post, I’m listening to my hand-curated winter/Christmas playlist. Hearing this music, seeing the lights and decorations, watching “Home Alone” and “The Muppet Christmas Carol” all make me think of my own childhood when, after a morning of opening presents and eating fresh-baked cinnamon rolls for breakfast, my parents and siblings and I would pile into the car to spend Christmas with my grandparents. The memories are bittersweet, though; after my grandparents passed, the holidays were never the same.
Nostalgia’s a funny thing, however. It can manifest so easily when you’re not looking. Case in point: last year, my sister and brother-in-law hosted their first Christmas dinner in their new house for our families. As I live 500 miles from my relatives, sis and BIL offered me one of their bedrooms, so I stayed with them and helped them decorate, make dinner, and clean up afterwards, while also preparing for their duties as maid of honor and officiant for my sister’s best friend’s wedding a few days after Christmas. It was a hectic rollercoaster of a week, but I had a blast with them. When I stayed with them again this year for Thanksgiving, which they also hosted, the scent of the seasonal hand soap in their guest bathroom – “Winter Citrus Wreath” by Bath and Body Works, the same that they had last year – reminded me of all our holiday shenanigans the previous year. I immediately started looking forward to spending Christmas with them again later this month (I hope they’re not getting sick of my holiday invasions of their home).
But we should try to remember that the things we enjoy out of sentimentality won’t be valued the same way by everyone. I like a lot of the holiday music and movies that I do because I grew up with them; they were ubiquitous around my childhood home this time of year, so are inextricably tied to memories of holiday activities. It’s rare that something new gets added in, because it either wasn’t present during those early years or only came out well after my childhood. Either way, they don’t evoke the same memories or nostalgia for me. I watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” for the first time this year, well into my 30s, and… well, I get it. I just didn’t get it, you know? Most of the movie has nothing to do with the holidays, and it’s otherwise pretty dark and desperate. I understand a lot of people consider it a classic holiday staple, but… nah, I’ll stick with Kevin McCallister and the Muppets. The same night that I watched it with my sister and brother-in-law, we also traded Thanksgiving favorites – sis and I showed him the Peanuts special (the one where Snoopy wrestles with a lawn chair), and he showed us a Nickelodeon cartoon about a turf war between rats and cockroaches in the walls of a family home at Thanksgiving. Neither one really meant anything to the party who hadn’t grown up with it.
I guess all this nostalgia-spewing came about because of a Twitter post by an established author ragging on some pop-culture list of “Best Holiday Movies”. His complaint was that there is no such thing, because all holiday movies are bad. First of all, I don’t think anyone’s producing these things expecting to reap Oscars or Golden Globes. They exist for chuckles, warm fuzzies, and sappy wish fulfillment. But more importantly, why you gotta be like that, dude? If I want to sob when Garfield gifts Jon’s grandmother a bunch of old love letters from her dead husband that he found in the garage, that’s my business and my problem, and it doesn’t matter that it’s not an award-winning Pixar blockbuster. It’s a story, it’s art, and it’s evocative, at least for some.
My point is, we all have our reasons for liking those sappy holiday songs and shows and covering our homes with blinking lights and rope made of fake pine branches. It’s all about finding a little comfort and familiarity in an ever-changing world. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much. But let’s not make it even more difficult for each other by crapping on the things others enjoy.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go watch Michael Caine get scared by a bunch of puppets into being a good person.