Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Christmas Tree Joys, Memories, and Kondo-culling



I spent a lovely few hours with my friend Alison in her studio last week, building up the layers to make Christmas images like the one above. I'd missed the last class in our Watercolours series rather than sneeze cold virus over my fellow students, and she generously extended me the chance to catch up. Playing with paints, ink, oil pastels, and resist, while watching her inspiring process beside me, as we chatted about what's going on in our lives -- the morning is already one of my highlight memories of Christmas 2015.

You can check out what we learned over the six sessions, and see numerous examples of student work, at Alison's blog (and if you're still trying to decide what to request from Santa, Alison doesn't have her 2016 teaching schedule up yet, but I know she's already organizing another Sketching in Paris week in the fall! And yes, I guess that would be asking a lot of Santa, but hey, you've been good, right?).

As for highlight memories, though, Christmas trees have a way of capturing them, don't they? You might already have read that I renounced traditional trees for a few years, instead bringing in a large driftwood branch and decorating it with fairy lights. But if you read that, you'll know that it was my granddaughter who brought me back to the fold. This year, except for the crew that will spend Christmas in Rome and be much missed here, our family will gather at our island house for a few days -- which, our biggest Little Girl realized, means leaving her own tree and decorations behind. Trusting Nana and Granddad to do the right thing. With just a hint of anxiety in her stance, she asked, "You'll have a Christmas tree, right?"

And we will. No mucking about with driftwood branches and dainty white lights. We came home Sunday afternoon to find a tall, bushy fir on our patio, and Paul spent some time with a saw,  there was a gentle modicum of fussing, no swearing that I heard, and soon the tree was upright in its stand. I was allowed to guide it through the door and help tilt it into place, but he secured it, got the Christmas boxes down, twined strands of lights through its fragrant branches, and hung the first set of glass baubles.

He left yesterday morning, and I've had the house to myself to spread out the Christmas ornaments as I sort and choose. We've been doing considerable culling around here lately, and it's entirely possible -- even quite likely -- that this may be our last Christmas here. If so, we'll be in much less space for our next tree, perhaps even in a space where only artificial trees are allowed. "Letting go" is becoming my mantra: sometimes it's freeing, sometimes it makes me anxious, and occasionally, if I'm honest, it brings sorrow, even grief.

Going through the collection of ornaments and Christmas wrapping and various sized candles in a range of colours, all the season's paraphernalia stuffed back into its containers at the exhausted end of busy days last January. . . so much of this is easy to toss. Some of it (the wrapping paper, gift tags, some of the candles) will get used over the next few weeks. Some of it I will or will not thank, à la Ms. Kondo, for serving me well over the years and put in "the giveaway bin" (numerous Christmas-decorated tins, some deliberately collected once upon a time, some "gifts with purchase," some containers of delicious hostess treats, long since consumed,  many quite charming, but rarely taken out of storage anymore). Some of it, well loved as it has been, no longer appeals -- certain crafted ornaments, stridently red-and-green; others, more tasteful, have not survived the ravages of time, and I don't care quite enough to mend them.

Happily, though, by the time I've done a thorough culling, I have a treeful of joy-sparking ornaments spanning our 41 years together. I've long since lost the crude little stand of crossed 2x4 pieces my Grandpa hammered together for our first Christmas tree, but among the few fabric ornaments I stitched and glued on a miniscule budget those early years, I still have these felt stars with my little girls' photos sandwiched into their frame
Her own little one is about this age now, and they'll be spending Christmas in Rome. Miss that little family so much!

 And the ornaments friends stitched for me, way back in our Stay-at-Home mom days, oh so long ago...


When it comes down to it, I suspect I'll have 15 or so ornaments that I can't bear to part with yet, even if they won't suit future homes or trees. The rest I may offer to the kids when they're here, or just add them to one of the Thrift Store-destined bins we seem to keep filling (a whole other post coming on just How. Much. Stuff! one accrues).

Meanwhile, though, having cleared out considerable clutter, I've unearthed a box of old photos, and will sit here by the tree, lights plugged in, Him and Her carolling from my Jambox, the fire churning out warmth. I'll head into the retail fray for a few hours this weekend, with daughters, but for now, it's time to savour the quiet joy of the season. Have you managed an hour or two of the same yet?
If you find a moment to leave a comment, I'm curious to hear from those of you who have downsized your Christmas to accommodate a lifestyle change. Any advice? regrets? encouragement? Do some of you anticipate doing the same over the next few years? Or are there Christmas diehards among us who still have every Christmas bauble and mistletoe ball they every bought or were given and who intend to carry them right to the coffin? So many ways to approach this season. . . I'd love to hear yours...


43 comments:

  1. I'm facing similar changes, Frances, although for very different reasons. This will definitely be the last Christmas in the house we've lived in for 18 years, where my older son has lived since he was 3 and my younger son for all his life. Divorce in progress, my decision, both sons are happy about it. I'd hoped to be in a smaller rental house but am only now in a position to find a place and move. So as we prepare for a last Christmas here, I'll be thinking about what to save and what to "release." We have a similar collection of ornaments, including the felt ones with toddler pictures. I will definitely have a traditional tree and my boys with me for Christmas for the foreseeable future, but just about everything else is changing. My younger son was accepted early to his first choice college last week, and the empty nest is looming. I hope you have a wonderful holiday with your family!

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    1. "Release" -- what a good word for this process. Congratulations to your younger son on his college acceptance, and to you for moving resolutely toward what sounds like a promising future. Merry Christmas!

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    2. Marie! I've been thinking of you! How wonderful that your sons are happy about your decision, and congratulations to your younger one on his acceptance.

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    3. Marie,have a wonderful Christmas with your beautiful,clever boys! I'm sure that the future and the new beginnings will be happy for you and them
      Dottoressa

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    4. Thank you, Frances, Lisa, and Dottoressa, so much! I do feel that the future will be better for us. My son is thrilled with his acceptance, as the school is by far his first choice. We were not hopeful because the admission rate is 8-9%. Merry Christmas to all of you!

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  2. Mater, this really took me down Memory Lane! For many years (until I was 30-ish and had two children) our family gathered at my grandparents' farm on Christmas day. My grandmother stayed on the farm until she passed away at 97. Everyone that could possibly make it came through the Manitoba winter to meet, and eat, and exchange some small gifts with Grandma and Grandpa. Some of the dinner came bundled up with my Mum and her siblings and some was cooked on Grandma's wood stove (and her electric stove too!). A turkey and a goose! Christmas pudding and mince pie! Shenanigans at the kids' table! After dinner we would go for a walk down the lane, and from time to time my uncle would hitch a horse to a 'sleigh' (a big homemade metal toboggan). My cousins and I would lie on the floor upstairs and listen through the stove-pipe hole to the grown-ups talking.
    It was wonderful and everyone involved remembers those Christmases with love.
    There was no tree. I don't think I realized that until today. :)

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    1. This is wonderful, Georgia! Not just that your grandmother stayed on the farm right until her death at 97 (impressive!), not just the rich trove of memories -- so very sensory! -- but how significant that all this magic happened without the tree, which has occupied such a central place in our seasonal imagery. I love that the child you were never questioned that your Christmas was missing anything. . . as indeed it wasn't! Thanks so much for sharing this!

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  3. This year we are not with either set of parents for Christmas - in fact, we're out of town, so there's no tree and very little decorating. My kids have just hit that age where they don't care about Christmas - they didn't even want their advent calendar - and I simply haven't had the time or energy to try to get them excited. So it's a bit of an involuntary 'downsize' of Christmas and I have to say it makes me sad.

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    1. Tiffany, I have to admit it would make me sad as well, but I'm pretty sure they will hit another age at which they'll demand you recreate this or that tradition, often something you were sure they'd forgotten, or that you'd forgotten yourself, or never thought of as a tradition. In fact, you may find something surprising you over the next few weeks...Or it may take longer for them to realize they do mind, and then they'll surely let you know! Meanwhile, you might decide you get to begin imagining new traditions for you and your couple. When ours got to an age when they preferred sleeping in on Christmas morning rather than getting up for our "special breakfast" and gift-wrapping, Paul and I started going for a run together, something we may not be able to pull off this Christmas with all the little ones visiting...

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  4. I am deeply moved by all three stories.
    My grandfather had horses and sleigh in my early childhood
    Beautiful memories,every one in its own way! And the answer to some of your questions Frances,in both Marie and Georgia comments!
    We live with memories in our hearts ,with a little help from photos or some tokens.
    During the last couple of years I started to feel better with less things to take care of (the other ones are in boxes ready to go some day-or not!). Konmari method only confimed some of my reflections: to have only sparkling-joy-things ,to "thank you " approach and to take photos of some things (like shoes :-),or Christmas trees.....)instead of keeping them.
    (The part of decluttering documents in Konmari method is absolutely impossible in my corner of the world,we have to keep everything almost forever,but that's another story)
    It is a good idea to offer to your children some of ornaments if they like it. If not,no pressure,there will always be someone who will like them if you donate. You'll have your memories.
    I have still tree but imagine for years to have 3 tiny live little ones in a jars (or only one). And always try to have quiet moment singing Christmas carols (out of tune) while decorating the tree
    I like your painted tree. And decorations!
    Have a wonderful Cristmas!
    Dottoressa

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    1. A friend of mine had a sculptural arrangement of several small live trees in place of one larger cut one, and it was very effective.
      As for the carols, we have the two oldest little girls arriving before their parents next week, and I'm planning to sit them on the piano bench next to me for some seasonal singing.
      May yours be a wonderful Christmas as well! (is your son coming home? or are you going to London?)

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    2. Thank you! My son is home from last Saturday for his Christmas holidays :):):)
      Your little girls will have wonderful Christmas and a lot of memories
      Dottoressa

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  5. Love your watercolors, Lots of depth, color and texture! My husband and I have been together 41 years also! I admit to having two trees worth of nice ornies, collected over those many years, even from my high school days. I am saying goodbye to the cheepies bought in the sparse days, and those broken etc. I'll have a considerable box for charity after this; have already donated boxes full of ornament and decor making things. I am downsizing though, the last few years I've had three trees!
    Have a wonderful Christmas with your family!

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    1. I've never had two trees -- you are a true devotee of the season.
      Going through the boxes today, I found quite a few of the older, hand-embroidered or stitched ornaments looking too tattered and like you, I'm saying goodbye to quite a few -- some went straight in the garbage, even ones that I had treasured for sentimental reasons. The important memories will survive, I think, and even what gets forgotten adds a gentle patina to the season overall. Have a festive Christmas!

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  6. I am only now getting ready to put on Christmas, if you will. Plans were up in the air, with my daughter in medical school, so I only found out I'd have both my kids home in late November. And by then I'd already made plans to visit my daughter down South, so, it's only today that I'm getting ready to decorate etc. Oops. I do like it. But I find the physical labor gets more daunting, and then I wonder if I'm a woos, but still, I'm happy to keep Christmassing in the big enough house for a while now.

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    1. So wonderful that you'll have them both home -- I love hosting it as well, especially in the house, but the logistics of island-living seem to get more noticeably challenging with each year (meanwhile, as we get older, the family's growing, so there are more mouths and stomachs to haul food and beverage over for!). I'm sure yours will be a splendid Christmas! As much as I love the stage mine are at now, I also relished the stage before they had kids, before partners even, when they were quite manifestly wonderful adults, and we got to bask in their company and they seemed to bask in ours. Merry Merry!

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    2. Lisa, I'm sure your son and daughter would be happy to help with the decorating. I agree, Frances, that it's wonderful to have adult children pre-partners, before their primary family shifts to their own. With my sons' future partners in mind, I've started a program of skill acquisition. Neither of them have learned to drive yet, their cooking skills are rudimentary. Now that the big college push has ended, there will be time for other things.

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  7. Ah, Christmas decor. I must confess to some ambivalence. I do love putting out treasured pieces each year (some treasured because they are beautiful -- white-and-gold Lucia figurine -- and others because they are silly -- Santa I made from a toilet paper roll and construction paper when I was about five). But we have about three times as many decorations and ornaments as we have room to display, and many of them were given to me/us and are neither my taste aesthetically nor really sentimental. It did finally occur to me last year that I could -- gasp! -- buy myself a Christmas ornament, and so now I have a few of those delicate, old-fashioned glass birds that clip on to the branches that I have coveted lo these many years. I know what Marie Kondo would say I should do with the other stuff, and yet to actually go through and cull and get rid of things seems, well, Grinchy. Contrary to the spirit of the season.

    (We have a lot of stuff, too, that belonged to my husband's grandmother and was passed down by my mother-in-law. Which sounds precious and sentimental, but really it is not. Lots of mass-produced stuff, of which my husband's grandmother had multiples, because she loved Christmas, which is lovely, but overbought, which is somewhat less so. So I look at our tree and sort of feel burdened by someone else's overconsumption. Oh, and now having confessed this I feel like a truly terrible person!)

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    1. It's particularly hard to cull Christmas stuff, especially because of that Grinch factor -- you put your finger right on it. "burdened by someone else's overconsumption" -- I think that sensation abounds at this time of year. You are NOT a truly terrible person at all, or, if you are, you have company here! ;-) Merry Christmas!

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  8. A timely post, Mater. I took time for a bit of solitude this morning and am the calmer for it. I can envision you painting with Alison - I'd love to do more painting/journaling, but that's on hold for now. I'm most inspired to do it when we're on the boat in the summertime.

    I've not read the Kondo book, but have heard much about it. Last December I culled a whole box of decorations. It felt great, although when I took out the decorations this year, I wondered where a few things were. I have some of the same themed ornaments as you have - the crossed stitched hoop, the crewel work figure. Archaeologists will be able to date by these things!

    Enjoy the run up to Christmas. Having family close by will be wonderful although you will miss those dear ones in Rome.

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    1. Curious to know how you organize sketching/painting materials to bring along on the boat -- I'm still trying to work out systems.
      Yes! The crewel-work felt ornaments probably link an interesting grouping of our age bracket, those of us with a certain aesthetic and skillset -- a girlfriend and I stitched our way through Vogue's pattern package, St. Nick's Knacks, I think it was called. . .I haven't finished the Kondo book, and am impatient with much of it, but it's a useful reference point and it does offer some useful inspiration.

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  9. Our tree is a tree of memories too & many of the little treasures must stay but I've released a bag of not so precious baubles & given them to the young family next door - so I can now see them twinkling on their tree as a I pass . It is lovely to read the comments here , everyone's personal angle on Xmas - an antidote to the commercialism bombarding us just now . This article might interest you & sort of explains why Xmas can be melancholy at times . http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/dec/14/shopping-hell-kindness-therapeutic-depression-christmas
    Wendy in York

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    1. I love that solution! The young family will be glad to fill up their tree for now, and can replace as they wish over the next decades. Meanwhile, you still have them nearby. And I love the comments here as well, a great antidote, as you say, to commercialism. The article you've linked to is instructive and poignant and should really be widely read. Thank you!

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  10. I've just put up a second small tree in our kitchen area. I love having one there as the sight of it keeps me smiling when I'm hot and flustered baking etc :) also it's lovely to take a break for some quiet time in the glow of the lights with a coffee or mulled wine. I make sure I have more of these times in the run up to Christmas to "enjoy the moment" otherwise it seems it passes too quickly.
    Our decorations, like yours are a mix of ones the children and I made over the years and ones we've bought each year that bring their own memories. Such as wooden Father Christmas ones my husband brought the children back from Germany and Holland when he was there before Christmas some years.
    Actually rather than reducing the tree decorations this year I planned to use some of my mums that I remembered from childhood only to realise they hadn't survived a fire in my brothers loft. I felt sad initially then realised thanks to my memories I hadn't really lost them .... seems a shame though as some of them were so delicate and beautiful.
    Your paintings are beautiful ...I'm guessing you enjoyed a few relaxing hours :) A painting class in Paris sounds perfect!
    I hope your week continues to be a happy one!
    Rosie

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    1. This makes me smile, imagining you in the kitchen with your own sweet little tree. Why not? It's the heart of the house, really, and deserves it's own tree.
      It's a shame those decorations were lost, and yet....the way you've reconciled that loss reassures me about some of what I'm letting go. It's great to have the tangible, material items that trigger memory, but there can be other ways to keep those memories.. .

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    2. I'm happy my little tree made you smile too ...its like an oasis of calm at the moment. Surrounded by bags of unwrapped presents and rolls of wrapping paper. It seems to keep me relaxed and grounded and encourages my faith that come Christmas Eve all will be calm and bright! :)
      Rosie

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    3. I'm happy my little tree made you smile too ...its like an oasis of calm at the moment. Surrounded by bags of unwrapped presents and rolls of wrapping paper. It seems to keep me relaxed and grounded and encourages my faith that come Christmas Eve all will be calm and bright! :)
      Rosie

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  11. Isn't it fascinating how Xmas condenses the combination of memory and change? For many years my sister and I joined families and celebrations for Chritmas, so we had one tree together and continued using the ornaments we had inherited from our mother (with a few additions or replacements). Then changed family sizes and compositions cuased us to extend celebrations over two households (one on the 24th, the other on the 26th) with a tree in each. so we divided the old ornaments into two lots and both of us bought some new to fill the tree (which I quite enjoyed because for the first time the tree felt really "mine".) But apparently a certain taste in Xmas decorations is acquired in childhood and doesn't change much after that - in any case our trees still look very much alike.
    This year, things will be different again, as the extended family comes together this sunday. Then my son and I will be on our own (looking forward to some peace and quiet) until the 26th, when we have "adopted family" for dinner - two very close friends who acted as additional aunt and uncle to my son with their respective spouses.

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    1. Eleonore, I thought exactly this when I was writing, but didn't get 'round to articulating it -- yes! Christmas condenses tradition/memory and change, all at once in a compelling continuity that links generations, if we're lucky.
      I like your observation about the taste in Xmas-decorating acquired in childhood. Makes me think I should try to make the rounds of my siblings' homes one season and check out their trees!
      Enjoy both the busy and the quiet celebrations of the season, both you and your son.

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  12. Funny how Christmas makes one a bit resistant to change...we used to go away quite a lot when the kids were small and then one year they said thanks but can we stay at home now with our friends? Turned out they didn't want a novel experience after all. And now one is on the other side of the world and one is home with us. Soon it will just be two of us. I plan on going to Rome. The decorations are not coming out till next weekend when we bring the tree in from the garden and every year I carefully pack the ornaments away in labelled boxes as I am the keeper of the glories. But I have started to think about passing some on soon. Not the very few that remain from my own childhood though. They will be prised from my cold, dead hands...

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    1. Yes, it's noticeable, the grip Christmas has on continuity, all part of that tension Eleonore mentions above, I think. When are you going to Rome? This Christmas, do you mean? or some Christmas in the not too faraway future. "Keeper of the glories" -- yes, in some ways, I've seen myself that way, but now mine take that role on in their own families, and I can loosen up, share the responsibilities. It's good, right?

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    2. I can imagine going in a couple of years. This year just three, perhaps next year kids will want to be somewhere else - it is about the time they do this, mid 20s. London is too familiar, Paris too cliched for Christmas but Rome has a resonance that will nail it. Plus great food and drink. That is my plan, anyway. Might be the workhouse!

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  13. We have hung the boxwood wreath on the front door, I have gathered greens and pine cones for the front porch...the traditional family green and red ball wreath with rhinestone brooches has been up in the dining room for a few weeks as have the outdoor lights...we have two cats who love to climb the fir tree that we place in our living room so we will do it this weekend and i am proposing that we just use white fairy lights so that the vintage decorations are not batted around the bungalow until they break.

    We have culled our ornaments and I am constantly editing what stays in our small bungalow....I have not read the book it is just a survival tactic...small homes do not need much to make them looks chaotic and cluttered.

    It must be strange to think that this might be your last Xmas in your home...onto new adventures and a new place to decorate...which really is an opportunity for a complete change...rather freeing getting rid of stuff and a chance to only keep what you truly love.

    Happy Holidays!

    PS Your art work is lovely...

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    1. Sounds just lovely, Hostess, and I can see that truth on your blog -- your decorating style suits your house so very well.
      I haven't edited nearly enough, partly by personality, partly because it's logistically challenging on the island to take things off (we carry all our own garbage "to town"), and I was too busy/lazy when working. Catch-up now!
      Happy Holidays to you as well! (and thanks re the watercolours -- it's all Alison's direction, really)

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  14. One ornament I kept is a bent pipe-cleaner Santa, which my mother attached to the Christmas box she sent my father, stationed for four years in the South Pacific in WWII. They both made it home. I could never part with it, and surely you have some like that. It will be hard to impart the sentiment to its heirs; "I'll Be Home for Christmas (If Only in My Dreams) always chokes me up.

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    1. Such a precious ornament that would be, and how great that it's pretty able to stand up to time. . . It's very true that it's "hard to impart the sentiment" the heirs of the most special ornaments, and in many ways, what I'm working toward is trust in my heirs' memories, which will be different from mine, no matter how much I might try to convey significance. Your sons will remember you being choked up by "I'll be Home," most likely, but the memory that triggers your emotion will be out of their reach. With any luck, though, they'll recount the story occasionally, and the little pipe-cleaner Santa may hang on one of their trees...

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  15. I have just come back to blogging and to more regularly reading blogs after a long hiatus, and I'm looking forward to catching up on some of your archives to catch up on the aspects of your life that you share here. This year we are traveling over the week of Christmas so it seems a little silly to have a tree, but I love the bright and cheer that it gives in the Arctic darkness so close to the solstice, so I justified not downsizing for yet another year.

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    1. Raquelita! Hello! We've missed you! I know what you mean about the light at this time of year, although we've never lived that far north. Even at my Grinchiest, I still wanted little lights inside.

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  16. As has been the norm for the past 23 years, since my mother died too early of ovarian cancer, we will spend Christmas in the north of Scotland with my father. Except this year he is likely still to be in hospital and we will be visiting twice a day. He is fit to go home but his council care package of 4 care visits a day has been cancelled while he has been in hospital, and we are fighting to get it reinstated. He is extremely upset.
    Things are easier now the children are grown, but when they were small I was frazzled creating Christmas at home while working full time, then packing up to spend 10 days up north, usually arriving on Christmas eve and having instantly to create Christmas again and cheer my father up out of his habitual deep depression at missing my mother. Boxing Day was always a great relief to have got the festive expectations over for another year. This year will be stressful in a different way if he is still in hospital! However my husband and university student daughter will pitch in and share the load. Over the years I have developed an extreme dislike of Christmas trees, which I loved as a child, because of putting up and taking down 2 of the things each year. It began to seem like the final straw. I wish it was different, and I wish I had the emotional and physical stamina to feel different. Heading off to a remote cabin in Lapland is my dearest wish! I do have happy memories of my own childhood but I am afraid they have got relegated by the annual fog of exhaustion.

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  17. Your ornaments are lovely, evocative of moments of joy and connection. As they should be. :-)

    I haven't done "Christmas" decorating in over twenty years after converting to Judaism (and then evolving into an agnostic learning toward atheist), and will admit this is the first year I haven't missed it as much. I still allow myself the indulgence of listening to Christmas music, mostly the cheesy, secular kind which was always my favorite, along with (of course) Vince Garaldi's Charlie Brown Christmas. As we usually do a New Year's Eve open house, I do put out some random strings of lights, and lots of candles, more of a Winter Solstice sort of thing, because we all need a little Festive. But accumulation...yeah. Twenty years of living in this house has allowed way too much of it, and next year I will begin sorting through lots of it and "releasing".

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  18. sorry to take so long get to this beautiful post. I just took down our tree yesterday. I know you are supposed to leave it up until Epiphany but that first Monday after New Years, I always want to clear every Christmas thing away, to make a clean, un-ornamented space for the new. This year I hesitated though- our tree was the most beautiful ever, a Noble Fir, we managed to get at the lot, before they had a chance to trim its graceful branches back. By the way, painting with you in my studio was also one of my favourite mornings of the holidays.

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    1. We didn't last either! Ours came down on Monday as well -- it was a bit of an odd duck, not as beautiful as yours, but it was great to have the kids around it.
      And I loved that morning as well, thanks!

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I'd love to hear your response to my post. Agree, disagree, even go off on a tangent, I love to know you're out there, readers. Let's chat, shall we? I apologize, though, for the temporary necessity of the Word Verification -- spam comments have been tiresomely numerous lately, and I'm hoping to break that pattern.

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