Archived Opinion

Trimming the tree and taking stock

Trimming the tree and taking stock

My grandfather once told me that on Christmas Eve his family would go find a tree in the woods and then spend the evening trimming the tree and adorning it with lit candles. The family enjoyed its glory for one night only. He mentioned this story on several occasions and each time, his eyes would alight. What made it so magical for him was the brevity. When we know we only have a few hours to embrace an experience, we do not take it for granted. 

Life occurs in pendulum swings. We tend to swing too far one way, then too far the other. We may settle in the middle for a while but eventually we begin to swing again. It’s the restlessness of human nature, I suppose. This philosophy has been at the forefront of my mind this holiday season. 

Recently I’ve asked a few older people what they recall about their childhood Christmases. None of them mentioned traveling, overspending or getting a plethora of toys. A few mentioned one special toy they’ll always remember because it was something they’d wished and hoped for. One talked of stringing popcorn and berries when decorating the tree and another mentioned playing certain records during the season. Several mentioned Crhistmas being a time when they ate something special like ham, fresh fruit or chocolate. Everyone said they remember the feeling of Christmas above all else, and everyone wore an expression of nostalgia when reminiscing. 

Many moving parts culminate to create this feeling that has become so meaningful to all of us. Family, friends, candlelight, cozy fires, gatherings, hanging stockings, kissing under mistletoes, baking cookies and pies, certain scents, carols, Advent wreaths and calendars, receiving cards in the mail, classic movies, seasonal foods, and writing letters to Santa combine to give us that special emotion that is “Christmas.” 

Holiday traditions are essential to our species. Throughout evolution, primal rituals and celebrations have helped our tribes thrive. They make life predictable and comforting, which helps us feel safe. They nurture relationships among family members and within our communities. Traditions tie us to our past and offer a sense of belonging within our present circumstances. 

Some of my favorite childhood memories include decorating the tree, lighting candles on the coffee table, baking cookies for Santa, watching Christmas movies, finding little scavenger hunt notes in our Advent calendar and drinking Russian tea. 

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I wonder what memories and traditions my boys will share when they are older. What toy, movie, or event will be high on the list? This week we made handmade essential oil candles for their teachers, complete with dried herbs and orange peel. It was so fun that we hope to make this a new tradition. That’s the cool thing about traditions. They bend, change and expand through the years. 

The COVID-19 pandemic was clearly horrible for a slew of reasons, but I believe it did something to our collective conscience that may be beneficial in the long run. The pandemic reminded me that the outside world can change at any moment, that the systems and structure I rely on can come to a sudden halt. With that in mind, I know the only thing I can trust is myself and the only thing I have control over are my own actions and reactions. 

Further, the pandemic reminded me that life is short and fleeting. No day should be wasted. I like to think of each day as its own little bundle of gifts. When I wake up, I wonder: What will make me laugh today? What stranger will make me smile? What cool thing will one of my kids do? What adventure is waiting to be had? Granted, I still have my moments of overthinking and worrying, but I dwell on these senseless activities less than I did in the past. 

Before the pandemic, I could get a little excessive when it came to Christmas. I probably spent too much money on gifts, tried to travel when it was exhausting or kept up traditions that maybe weren’t serving me anymore. Now, I’ve come to realize that while some holiday rituals are worth keeping, it’s hard to enjoy anything if busyness and stress are at the forefront. 

The older generations, like my grandfather and the folks I asked about their memories, had it right all those years ago. They didn’t have Amazon, Spotify or the internet. They didn’t have ongoing, nonstop access to everything. If they wanted to watch a Christmas movie, they had to wait until it came on TV. If they really wanted a toy, they had to wait to see if Santa brought it on Christmas. They were masters of patience, even if they didn’t want to be. 

Here’s the thing we must remind ourselves and teach our children. Just because we have access to everything doesn’t mean we have to consume it at gluttonous speed. To honor those who came before us and to ensure our own memories are intact, we must slow life down and delay gratification. 

After many years of overdoing it and worrying about appearances, I feel like the pendulum is swinging back the other way, at least for me. Whenever I get caught up in the hoopla and hustle bustle, I think of my sweet grandfather and his family enjoying the Christmas tree for that one wondrous night. With that thought, my entire perception changes. 

Merry Christmas, everyone! 

(Susanna Shetley is writer, editor and digital medial specialist. This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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