Why We Decorate for the Holidays and Fight the Dark

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My family owns way too many goddamn Christmas ornaments and every year my mother buys more. She buys each of her three children a new ornament each year that is supposed to represent our accomplishments for that year. She goes to Hallmark, walks up and down every aisle, and peers at the delicate dangling sculptures. Let’s see — Dana’s breaking her lease, so — Santa Claus playing a saxophone? A snowman swimming in a mug of hot chocolate, improbably not melting while doing so? The SS Enterprise with a wreath on it?

When I was 12 years old my mother gave me an ornament of two mice in red pajamas and striped hats, sitting by a fire, stringing comically large popcorn onto a comically large needle and thread. She got me this ornament because I had a best friend. As we aged the tradition continued but what does a 22-year-old accomplish in a year that can be expressed in ornament form? Hallmark doesn’t make a “you left your purse at the bar and went to a house party but that one hot guy from the bar was at the house party too and he brought you your purse and then you made out with him” ornament.

My father thinks we have too many ornaments too. He confessed to me, “Every year I break some. I tell your mom that they were broken when I unpacked them, but really I take them into the kitchen when no one’s looking and snap the leg off of a reindeer.”

Christmas decorations are expensive, impermanent crap. We spend hours first putting up these decorations and then, later, sadder, putting them away. They are a waste of money and time and a burden on all our closets. And yet every year I decorate my apartment for Christmas. I carry on the tradition. It’s 9PM on a Sunday night in early December and I’m in paint-stained shorts and a torn t-shirt and I open my own, personal, box of Christmas decorations. Half of them are broken because last year I did not carefully wrap each ornament in tissue paper. I threw them all together, loose, in a cardboard box and then shoved that box roughly onto a closet shelf. The bottom of the box is covered in glittery shrapnel. I put out the few intact figurines — some lights, a few electric candles in the window, a nutcracker. I look around –– this isn’t Christmas. I look at these decorations and I don’t feel anything. I want to feel the magic of the season. I want to be transported back to my childhood. I want to remember a time when I believed in magic.

I am desperate in that moment to leave my house and go to CVS and take one of their tiny carts up and down every Christmas aisle and fill that cart with plastic penguins holding candy canes, shredded green plastic wreaths, electric elves, shiny balls, glittery snowmen. I want to purchase lawn decorations, animatronic deer slowly lowering their heads as if to feast on a brown, dying lawn, two penguins bobsledding, an inflatable Holy Family, a 6-foot-tall Christmas tree with a Santa Claus climbing it because he’s being chased by a dog who’s removing his pants with his teeth. I want Christmas to throw up both inside and outside of my apartment. My husband asks that I not run out to CVS just then, at 9PM on a Sunday night, that I wait, show some restraint, not waste hundreds of dollars on impermanent Christmas crap.

These decorations are all sparkly crap, but they make me feel safe. The indirect light from hundreds of Christmas lights, tiny 4 watt bulbs all different colors so when you turn them on the entire room becomes a glowing pink amber. It’s what I imagine the inside of a womb looks like.

We used to celebrate the holidays with nothing but a few candles and a nicely roasted turkey, but now we require even more decorations, more items, more stuff, more tiny lights, more candles scented like a pie that we no longer know how to make. What’s the line between consumerism and the need to celebrate light even as it leaves us? It’s gotten easier to create temporary light around our homes so we decorate without even thinking why. Why does my mother buy more ornaments each year? Why am I compelled to travel to the CVS on a Sunday evening in my worst clothes? Why are these temporary, sparkly objects a balm? What are they soothing? Because we have forgotten that we are not decorating for a biblical holiday, or even a seasonal good time. We are celebrating the solstice. We are marking the moment when we have the least amount of light in our lives.

These decorations fulfill a basic need. They allow us to brighten our homes as the world outside grows colder. Strip away the lights and the garlands and all you know is that the trees are bare, the sun is fading, the ground grows colder every day, the darkest day of the year is coming, is almost here. Soon it will be January and we will be cold all of the time and the wind will whip at us and we will leave for work in the darkness and return home in the darkness. We will pay for the warmth and light of summer with ice and snow and shivering sleet.

But we save the horror of winter for later, after the holidays. Now is the time of year when we deny death. The world is sliding into a dark sleep and we choose to celebrate. We celebrate a miracle of light, a birth, the love we have in our lives, the small miracle of people gathering together no matter the driving conditions. We momentarily wrap our lives in colorful paper, put bows on bare branches, tie strands of lights around trees. And then we step back and see that the lights cling to the bare branches as though they have been present the whole time, hiding underneath the green leaves of summer, waiting for this miracle of death so they can finally be revealed. We act as though losing summer and light and warmth is a gift itself – it allows us to see the empty spaces in our lives, in our living rooms, so we can then fill them with temporary objects that glow and gleam. During this tiny sliver of the year the physical edges of the world are softened, sharp corners rounded off by tinsel and holly, cold spaces filled with twinkly lights and the smells of pine, vanilla and cinnamon.

The world is growing dark, quickly emptying of light and warmth. And as the light ekes away, we take time to place items that glitter and twinkle in and around our homes. Cold is coming, so we make warmth.


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