Ruining Christmas

Children are prone to hyperbole. I understand this. Overstated pronouncements barely even move the needle on my parental reaction seismograph.

But last weekend I encountered a new psychological phenomenon that both amused and confounded me. Let me paint the picture for you:

Buying our Christmas tree
Despite Barron’s best Scrooge imitation, the Wallaces proceed to checkout at Lowe’s with our Christmas tree.

Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, our family goes to breakfast and then goes to purchase our Christmas tree. We spend the entire day decorating the house — inside and out — so that by the time our heads hit the pillow, we are ready for Christmas.

By a quirk of the calendar, this happened to be one of those years in which Thanksgiving fell on the earliest possible date. Carla and I decided that we would be OK to postpone our annual tradition by a week. Our tree is usually a pile of needles anyway by the time New Year’s Day rolls around, so we thought this might be better to preserve the tree throughout Yuletide.

So we spent the Saturday after Thanksgiving catching up on laundry, tending to the lawn, buying groceries and treating ourselves to an outing to the $2 cinema to catch the runaway blockbuster of last summer “Diary of Wimpy Kid 3: Dog Days.” Nothing gets you in the Christmas spirit like a summer movie.

The kids seemed to cope with this change of tradition OK until the following Saturday. We went to our closest IHOP, ingested copious amounts of pancakes of several international varieties and set out to buy our tree. This is where things began to go off the rails. The IHOP is literally in the parking lot of Home Depot. Naturally, we thought we’d just pull around, pick out our tree and be on our way.

The problem was that for the last four or five years, we have purchased our tree from Lowe’s, just a few miles down the road. When we announced we were going to Home Depot, we encountered resistance.

“Why are we going to Home Depot?”

“Because it’s right here. It’s more convenient.”

“But this isn’t where we buy our Christmas tree.”

“It’s the same thing except the building is orange instead of blue.”

They were not convinced. We piled out of the minivan and entered the huge tent outside the lawn and garden section filled with Christmas trees. As the aroma of Christmas permeated the air, our children began fussing. I looked over at our oldest who was doing his best “I just lost my best friend” impression, and I listened to the two younger ones debate Home Depot trees vs. Lowe’s trees. That’s when it came.

“You are ruining Christmas for everyone,” Barron said.

I laughed out loud.

“Seriously? We are ruining Christmas?”

“Yes! First, we didn’t decorate for Christmas when we were supposed to. Then we went to the wrong place to buy our Christmas tree. This isn’t the way we do Christmas.”

Still chuckling, I loaded us up in the van and hauled the family down the highway to Lowe’s.

As the day went on and more and more of their expectations went unmet, their emotional dam burst that night before bedtime. Barron was particularly affected by it.

Because we weren't doing Christmas "right," Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.
Because we weren’t doing Christmas “right,” Barron took over and tried by force of will to get us back on track.

After much reflection, here is my analysis of the problem: A good many of us have wonderful childhood memories of a few magical Christmas celebrations. Those four or five years, or fewer, make such a profound impact on us, that we are conditioned to expect every Christmas to be just as magical as those. As soon as the first stanza of “Jingle Bells” hits our ears, we revert into children, happily baking foods that we know will kill us, purchasing gifts we know we can’t afford, filling our schedules with parties and activities that we know we can’t endure, all in the vain attempt of recapturing our fleeting childhood Christmas experiences.

There is a time between adolescence and parenthood in which Christmas becomes disconnected from its roots. Blame it on Santa if you want to, but the absence of children makes Christmas different. So when we have children of our own, we relive our childhood through them, rekindling our excitement through their anticipation and impatience.

I’m not ready to pronounce this a bad thing. It just is. Dealing with unmet expectations at Christmas is a rite of passage. We all have to go through it. Barron may be confronting that this year, but I predict he will have many more years before he feels the same expectancy as he felt in his early childhood.

Our house still isn’t decorated for Christmas, and lest we risk ruining Christmas for everyone forever, we have to get caught up tomorrow. I am willing to play along and help our children have our “traditional” Christmas.

My real objective, though, is to help them break through the trappings of Christmas and uncover the largely ignored truth of this holiday. Our Savior was born because God loves us. The earlier in our lives we learn to focus on this dimension of the holiday, the sooner we experience true joy at Christmas.

So whether you have a Griswold Christmas, a Ralphie Christmas, a Peanuts’ Christmas or even a Grinch-Stole-Christmas Christmas, I sincerely wish you a Christ Christmas. That’s the best way I know to avoid ruining Christmas.

What are your Christmas traditions? What activities do you engage in every year to recapture the magic? What is it that if you skipped it would ruin your Christmas? Leave a comment and share your story.

O Christmas tree

“How about this one?”

I held the 6-and-a-half foot Frasier Fir at arm’s length, shaking it vigorously so the branches would fall into a more natural position.

“Nope. Too skinny,” my wife said, frowning and shaking her head.

“You keep rejecting these trees because they’re too skinny. I’m starting to get a complex,” I said with a Vanna White sweep of my hand toward my own slender physique.

Barron helps me pick a Christmas tree
The one on the left lost out because it was too skinny.

This year’s Christmas tree selection process went about the same as it has for the last several. Every year on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, we load up the family in our minivan, go out for a big breakfast at Waffle House or IHOP, then head to the most convenient tree farm with the best selection – Lowe’s.

I’m sure there was a day where good Southern folk went into the woods to select their trees, cutting them right where they stood. Those days are rapidly fading into memories.

My wife’s father, who grew up on a farm, loves to tell about their annual Christmas tree selection. It involved a lot of sweat and, occasionally, some blood and tears.

The only tears in our selection process come from our 3-year-old when his brothers won’t push him around on the rolling skid.

Growing up in Dallas-Fort Worth, where there ain’t but so many trees to begin with, this wasn’t an option for us. We went the live tree route for several years, until we figured out that my brother always seemed to be sick during the entire Christmas season. Turned out he was allergic, so we switched to an artificial tree.

As I handed Barron two trees to hold so I could get a good look at them side-by-side, I couldn’t help but wonder how families made these decisions when trees were still attached to the ground. Friends who grew up going to a Christmas tree farm describe how the family would split up, indelicately yelling across the farm when they had found one, playing a waterless version of Marco Polo. The advent of the mobile telephone changed all that, but they confess that they do miss the hollering part.

By the time we settled on our tree – a nice fat one – tied it down to the roof of our van, got it home safely, whacked off a few branches from the bottom so it will fit in the base and put it in its proper place in our living room, it didn’t look the same. It’s lost a few pounds. Apparently, like some of us, it was carrying all of its girth in those lower branches.

Our Christmas tree
The finished product

Because of relatively low ceilings, the 6-and-a-half footer is all that will fit in our living room, but with lights and ornaments, it was transformed. Never mind that its needles began falling before the first strand of lights was affixed, our tradition is our tradition and we stand by it.

“You know, it wouldn’t matter if we waited a week to get our tree,” I said, unwinding the cord on the vacuum to get up the needles. “They still cut all these trees in October.”

But the tree turned out to be beautiful, and with each personalized ornament, the telling of the story behind it, the excited skipping about and the breathless and repeated asking “Is Christmas this day?” I saw just how important this symbol is to our family.

Though they may be updated from time to time, traditions add meaning. Here’s hoping your traditions make your Christmas season meaningful.

How do you pick your Christmas tree? What are the characteristics you look for in a tree? Where do you get your tree? Have you gone artificial? Do you have a pre-lit tree? Share your tree traditions and memories by leaving a comment below.