Sunday, December 4, 2011

Monday Marriage Matters: It's Beginning to look a lot like Christmas

I've become very interested lately in the rituals of different members of couples surrounding the holiday season.   My sister-in-law and her husband, for their first Christmas living together, are negotiating whether to decorate the Christmas tree before December 24th, as his family always decorates their tree together on Christmas Eve.  For the past couple of years, my sister has gotten a mini tree from Whole Foods and decked it out with Hanukkah lights and ornaments, compromising with her Jewish husband over how much Christmas they should have in their house.  One friend admitted that in her family, they got their tree the day after Thanksgiving, but in her spouse's family, they got it much closer to Christmas, and they were trying to negotiate that.  Mark and I are lucky, because we have relatively similar feelings about how to handle Christmas, and trees.  Mostly learned through a series of trial and error. 

My first Christmas in my own apartment, my roommates and I got a tree.  We drove to the sketchy discount tree lot on Greenbelt Road in College Park, loaded a big evergreen into the backseat of my Ford Taurus, piled the three of us in the front seat, and then took it back to Courtyards, where we carried it up three flights of steps and managed to somehow get it in a tree stand.

After three weeks of watering the tree and getting pine needles stuck in my hair, and vacuuming needles until sometime after Easter, I started to see the merits of an artificial tree.  Mark, probably sensing he would be the one carrying the tree up several flights of steps, agreed.  We tried the live potted tree one year and when that didn't work, we broke down, and purchased a six foot, pre-lit, Christmas tree.  Now, there are people who are hardcore about wanting live trees.  Those people have probably never watched this video.  I have nothing against live trees, but cutting a tree down every year just to decorate my house seemed wasteful, although it's not like my artificial tree is significantly more environmentally friendly.  (But seriously, I love live trees.  I just don't think the "smell" is worth all that work.)

I come from a family that does not decorate.  For holidays, or generally.  My parents have stark white walls in every room of the house, with a few paintings done by my great-grandfather.  They are wonderful people, but they are not skilled at decorating.  Christmas decorating for my folks involves my dad throwing lights at the bushes, my mom breaking out the ceramic Christmas tree that my great-grandpa painted for her, and my dad putting those electric candles in the windows.  For Mark's family, Christmas decorating involves my mother-in-law hauling out ten bins of Christmas decorating materials, crafting a Christmas village on a special table, rearranging furniture, hanging Christmas paraphernalia everywhere, and stocking candy dishes with holiday m&ms. 

When it comes to how much we decorate, the answer has been largely one that appeals to Mark's frugality and my laziness.  Mark hangs holiday lights in the windows, we put up the tree, a wreath goes on the door, and we hang stockings.  We are slowly but surely amassing a collection of Christmas figurines that decorate the mantel and bookcases, but our decorating remains fairly subtle. Every year, I pick up some stuff at the after-Christmas sales and stick it in the bins for next year, leading to a pleasant surprise the following December. 

We are lucky, I think, that we are both able to be flexible enough on our traditions and rituals and are generally in line that: you do not celebrate Christmas before Thanksgiving, that holiday cards should be non-denominational, that Christmas should be spent with family.  We are trying to create our own traditions - we take Christmas Eve (or the day before) off from family and spend it just with each other, cooking an elaborate meal that takes an insane amount of time and is fantastically good.  Then we open our stockings by the fire. 

What do you do to celebrate the holidays? Do you and your partner celebrate the same holidays?  How do you make it work if you don't?  Are you creating new traditions together or building on ones you already had with your family?


  1. We're in the formative stage. We have stuff separately, and some stuff together, that we've acquired over this year. We have a fake tree. We set up the tree last week along with our lights, but we haven't decorated it yet--we plan to do that sometime this week. The only reason C is willing to put it up as early as I want it is that we decorate his parents' tree with them on Christmas Eve and he doesn't want ours to be so close to theirs that it gets "old hat". And we're going to do Christmas Day just US. We'll see how it goes and then assess for next year.

  2. Last year, traveling several hours between various families celebrations on Christmas Day ended with me in tears and us promising each other that next year we wouldn't do that.
    This took a little assertiveness with each of our families but I think that was good for our little baby family anyway. So far, it's working out and it actually looks like we'll be spending Christmas Eve together...JUST THE TWO OF US! (and the furbabies) We were just talking this weekend about what we want to do and what traditions we'd like to carry forward, which ones we want to ditch and which ones we want to create.
    Our (fake) tree went up the weekend after Thanksgiving and like you, we'd bought some things after the holiday last year but otherwise we're pretty sparse on the decorations.
    We have bought one ornament every year since we've been dating and it's fun to put the ornaments on the tree every year.

  3. Having both our families in the same area -- while convenient in many ways -- can sometimes pose a problem. Since we're local, they expect us to be present at everything, which is difficult when both families have Christmas gatherings at the same time. So this year we're going to spend Christmas Eve with his family and Christmas Day with mine. I'm kind of bummed about it since I love my family's Christmas Eve dinner, but since his family ONLY gets together on Christmas Eve (and are pretty rigid in their traditions), I had to give up that battle.

    We seem to have similar philosophies on decorating (the more the better!) so that's been an easy transition. And he has converted me into a fake tree person. I feel extra green and smug about it knowing it's a 1970s hand-me-down from his parents.

    The thought of spending a day around the holidays just the two of us strikes me as impossible. Luckily, in the non-holiday season, we spend enough time together just the two of us that I don't feel deprived.

    By the way, I have always loved your parents' Christmas lights. I was so sad when they finally retired the epileptic reindeer.

  4. The winter holidays are about life and love and caring. They reaffirm the value of family. One of the great traditions I grew up with was that my parents would move our family celebration to accommodate other people's families. I recall my father explaining in great detail why Dec 25 was a purely arbitrary choice for Christmas. I have always been appalled by people who use family holiday traditions as a club to beat newcomers into a family into line.

    We have a 3 foot real tree with real lights and real decorations. I like my multicolored bushes.