My Family's Traditional-ish Approach to Decorating for Christmas

But really, this is just a story about a headless fireman named Tim.

December 11, 2021
Photo by Rocky Luten

Decorating for Christmas with my family is a big deal. It’s a drop-everything, plan-your-month-around-it, kind of deal. It didn’t matter if college finals were happening or how cold it was outside or if there was yet another Harry Potter movie marathon on TV. The first weekend of December is always reserved for cutting down and decorating our Christmas tree, hanging lights, sticking vintage Rudolph and Charlie Brown window clings on every glass surface, and filling a wooden manger with religious (and not-so-religious) figurines.

Every family has their own way of decorating for the holidays. They have their preferences of white or colored lights. Some stick to sentimental ornaments, while others may prefer a set of matching glass balls, but every family cherishes their own traditions the most, and I’m no different. Here’s how my family does it:

One Fat Tree

The start of the Christmas season is inaugurated when all of us pile into my dad’s Subaru Outback (or, previously, a Chevrolet Impala) and head to a tree farm to cut down one of our own. We don’t always get it from the same farm (it depends on both the quantity and quality of trees available), but there’s always lively conversation about which tree we should take home. I’m a traditionalist. I want a classic, pyramid-shaped tree—one that’s not too skinny nor too plump—with plenty of branches at the bottom and a tapered top. We have to find one that smells nice, doesn’t have prickly needles, and looks healthy. My mom always chooses the fattest, fullest tree possible (seriously, one of our trees actually broke the farm’s baler; it was so big)—and it’s often the one we end up with, albeit with a little trimming.

The Manger

I was raised Catholic and my family still practices today. One of the hallmarks of the Catholic faith during the Christmas season is having a manger in your house filled with miniature statues of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, an assortment of farm animals, and later, on January 6th, the three wise men. My great-grandfather crafted a large wooden manger decades ago and somewhere along the way, it became in our possession. The roof is decorated with blue garland and it’s always prominently displayed in our living room.

Over the years, Jesus’ birth has been celebrated with a rousing guest list of Barbie dolls, vintage plastic M&Ms broken off from string lights, a headless fireman named Tim, clay snowmen made in 3rd grade art class, Polly Pockets, stray strands of tinsel, and the entire cast of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Anytime my sister and I would find an old, petite toy, we’d collectively decide to put it in the manger. Our manger also features not one, but two sets of the holy family and six wise men rather than three, but I don’t think Jesus would mind. After all, we did convert a Charlie-in-the-Box​ to Catholicism.

The manger is truly a one-stop shop for celebrating the birth of Jesus. There’s even a bar inside it, crafted out of an old Bud Light 4-pack box, which my dad named the “Dew Drop Inn.” Here, the wise men hang out drinking brews until early January when they begin to make their trek six inches north towards Jesus’s cradle.

The Light Ride

Another long-time family tradition is our “light ride,” which we take at least once (sometimes two or three times) during the month of December. For years, I thought every family did this but I learned through conversations with friends that this was not normal. But it’s a really good tradition (especially when it involves a trip to the local Friendly’s beforehand to get ice cream for the road). It’s a simple practice that everyone can participate in no matter where you live or who you’re spending the holidays with.

Here’s how to do it: pile into one car and drive around your hometown looking at the Christmas lights that everyone has strung from windows and rooftops. Comment on the people who maybe went a little bit overboard with an inflatable Homer Simpson, an array of both colored and white lights, a pre-lit family of deer, and animatronics. Take note of the tasteful homes decorated with candles in each window, a reserved amount of white lights strung delicately on trees, a door wreath illuminated by a single spotlight, and a 10-foot tall tree in the front window. Along the way, shout “Christmas lights out Kelly’s window!” or “Christmas lights out Stephanie’s window!,” depending on where each person is sitting. And then a couple hours later, arrive back home and wait for your parents to say, “We need more lights.”

Chocolate Cake With Sprinkles

The culmination of Christmas actually begins on Christmas Eve in my family. The house is fully decorated, the presents are (mostly) wrapped, we’ve had lasagna for dinner, gone to church, completed another short light ride, and finally arrived at my grandparents’ house. For weeks, Grandma has been baking every kind of cookie for a full Christmas spread—Italian anise cookies, chocolate chip walnut, rocky road bars—but the best dessert of all does not come in the form of a Christmas cookie but rather, a multi-layered chocolate cake.

Some 10 years ago, we arrived at their house to find the usual spread of cookies, nuts, and coffee, plus a covered cake stand. Beneath it was a two-story high chocolate cake covered in chocolate frosting and a generous amount of rainbow sprinkles. Our eyes went wide, our jaws dropped, and there were likely some tears of joy. It was a Christmas miracle. God forbid Grandma ever forgets to bake the cake (she wouldn’t) or covers it in something other than rainbow sprinkles (we make sure she’s fully stocked in the days leading up to Christmas).

After We Feed Ourselves, We Feed the Reindeer

Once we get home from my grandparents’, we carefully walk across our often-icy driveway with full bellies, feeding the reindeer. Reindeer food apparently varies (my fiancé’s family fed the reindeer carrot sticks and left a glass of Grand Marnier for Santa) but in my family, it consists of a mixture of rolled oats and Christmas confetti, which we scatter generously across our front yard, the walkway to the front door, and our back patio. I’ve heard murmurs that this might not be biodegradable, but I don’t really understand what the concern is, since the reindeer will obviously eat it all overnight.

How does your family decorate for the holidays? Share your traditions in the comments below!
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