December 6, 2012

A Simple Christmas

We have more evergreen branches and pine cones in our little apartment than we have surfaces to put them on. After Thanksgiving I carried a pair of clippers into the woods behind my mom’s house to snap off the fragrant, feathery branches of a fallen white pine. They went into a garbage bag, then into my brother’s trunk, then into a taxi cab, and then were slung over my shoulder and carried up the steps to our second-floor apartment. They are draped on top of a mirror (still holding some of last year’s Christmas cards tucked around its edges), on windowsills, and in vases on the dining table and the bedroom, with a line of pine cones in front of the television. They are a very long way from home.

In that sweet week after Thanksgiving before December hit, I caught the same “make things!” bug Molly did. I bought cheapo squat candles from the grocery store and wrapped them in brown paper bags. I had been inspired at an overpriced restaurant. The candles on our table stood inside slim glass holders wrapped in thin brown paper. The light was pure warmth and the idea was dead simple, just my kind. I made them one afternoon while watching the final season of Lark Rise to Candleford. (My, is that Gabriel smoldering. But don’t tell me what happens!)

Now on a crafting roll, I bought charming, old-fashioned scrapbook paper and watched The Goodbye Girl (watch it! so good!) on Saturday, looping the cut strips into long paper trains for our tree. It’s a giant douglas fir that stands tall next to me in our living room corner right now in front of a street-facing window. It smells like heaven and nearly touches the ceiling. We carried it home Friday night, Sebastian leading the way holding the heavy base and me trailing behind carrying the light crown. I still have a sap on my jacket.

It does not escape me that three years ago, we couldn’t afford a tree.

I loved what Elizabeth said about Little Women being the inspiration for her holidays this year: “simple and charitable, but also festive and merry and creative.” I feel the same way, and keep slowly turning the pages of that book wanting its sweet perspective to inform my life for as long as possible.

And after such a long crafting lull, I’m using the quiet joy and creativity of the season to get out of my head and use my hands. It feels good to be creative in a new way, to not rely on the will of my intellect to twist a sentence until it suits. That’s been feeling hard lately. But crafting warm golden light and handmade decorations and artfully placing tree branches around our little home seems an important part of creating the atmosphere that is my favorite part of this season: one of warmth and generosity, care and homemade mirth. For me, the sweetness of this time of year is all about the feeling of it, the way all the sensory abundance adds up to something singular. There is a woodland tree in our living room! I light the candles when I get home in the evenings and drink saison. There is something slow-simmered on the stove, and a last-minute invitation for someone to come over and share it. If we can slow down to hear it, there’s a hush.

And I still have one more garland to go. Cranberries are up next.

I’m of course interested to hear how you all keep your holidays simple and meaningful, and what traditions mean the most to you. Please share!

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  • I thought I had gotten perhaps very boring…but now I realize the comments were turned off. Durh and sorry! Please do share those holiday tips for meaning & magic. xx5 years ago

  • Catarina: Since I married this is the second year we’ve put up an artificial tree. We think is more eco-friendly in the city. But I do miss the smell of the pine tree. Our tradition has to by a Christmas ornament every year but we’ve rethink this option and we’ve began to make it by hand. This year it will be a felt ginger man. I’m brushing up on my sewing skills and exploring new ways of expressing my creativity!
    Merry Christmas or was we say it in Portuguese Feliz Natal!5 years ago

  • Elizabeth: I’m so glad you liked my comment! Your Christmas looks beautiful; I love the candles. I’m going to string some cranberry garlands this year too.5 years ago

  • Melissa @ Hilltop Hausfrau: Haha…YOU boring! Never…

    I’m keeping things simple around here by not setting foot in a mall. Online shopping here!

    Traditions I love: helping my five year old guy make cards for his classmates. Also, I’d say keeping our schedules clear (means saying no to lots of invites) in December to make room for our little family is becoming a very well loved tradition for Mr. Hausfrau and I!

    My fave tradition: trimming the tree the Sunday before Christmas, just me and my man. We always have a cocktail and fancy nibblies while we decorate. It’s romantic time, and the kids are so wide eyed with surprise when they wake to a trimmed tree!5 years ago

  • Lana: Your description of lugging your tree home reminded me of the tree scene in “When Harry Met Sally”. 🙂5 years ago

  • Kelly Jeanne: I had such a wonderful time picking out and decorating a tree this year. Up until now, I’ve never gotten my own; my husband and I go up to Michigan to have Christmas with my family every year instead. I could never justify buying a tree, only to leave it up for a few weeks before leaving town.

    But this year, I was longing to display the pretty ornaments that I’ve been squirreling away. I wanted a tree in my own house, one that my husband and I could decorate together and enjoy. I wanted the smell of pine and the sparkle of saved-up ornaments that had been living in boxes. Some had been gifted, some bought on sale, some found in resale shops.

    So we stopped trying to calculate how many days the tree would stay up and went out and found a fragrant Frasier Fir. I love it. I love the sparkle, the warmth, the crisp scent of the woods in the house.

    Putting up a tree isn’t a new tradition for me by any means. I’ve been helping my family put one up since I was young. But putting up my own with my husband – that’s new. And what’s surprising is how grown up this all made me feel! I feel a new sense of ownership over Christmas that I hadn’t felt before. It’s funny – I also felt that way when we bought our living room set. It’s strange, these surprising markers of adulthood, isn’t it?

    I know that the tree will come down before we drive across three states to see my family, but it’s very much worth it.5 years ago

  • molly: Scrapbook paper garland? Brilliant!

    And if you can believe it, I’d almost forgotten paper chains. (With 3 kids. For shame. Mea culpa). So thank you for the reminder, and nudge. They will be just the thing, some quiet soon afternoon.

    Happy December, Sarah!

    Molly5 years ago

  • Julie: As a preamble to my real comment, I love that your “Simple Christmas” starts with chock-full assortment of cocktail-makings! Holidays – simple or elaborate – all need gin and St. Germain.

    I love getting our tree (and totally share that “We have a tree in our house!” glee you describe), going to a holiday show of some sort (this has ranged from The Nutcracker at Lincoln Center to the free Boston College Choir concert), forcing bulbs, and making peppermint bark. Things I’ve done in years past but will be skipping in an attempt to embrace simplicity: last minute shopping, hosting a party of some kind, and making any elaborate crafts. We’ll see if I actually feel better and enjoy the season more without them!5 years ago

  • Catarina, I love the idea of a handmade ornament each year. That’s a lovely idea.

    Elizabeth, Thank you for nailing the point of holiday simplicity home for me! I finished my cranberry garland Sunday night. 😉

    Melissa, I love that you made tree trimming a fun grown-up activity. So romantic.

    Lana, Ha, it was a bit like that, minus the snow. And thank you for reminding me its time for my annual viewing!

    Kelly Jeanne, You describe this feeling so beautifully, and I completely understand. That feeling of “our tree, our family” being in your own home is a powerful one, and one that I love.

    Molly, Yes! Perfect quiet time craft. In fact, they got me thinking I wish there were more dead simple crafts like this I could do in the evening that don’t require much fiddling or supplies. I’m all ears if anyone has suggestions.

    Julie, Ha! Well, yes…every holiday needs cocktail fixins! And thank you for reminding me about bulb-forcing. I haven’t stumbled across any bulbs so far this season so they haven’t made it into our house. But I think perhaps I just thought of a new New Year tradition: what’s all the Christmas greenery is gone, then the bulbs get their due. Thank you for the reminder!5 years ago

  • Susannah: Though I certainly love the pervading loveliness and pared-down simplicity of this post, I think my favorite part may be that your bar is appears to be basically 6 types of whiskey and a few aromatics. The bare essentials, as far as I’m concerned!5 years ago

  • Victoria: Cranberries! Every year I mean to do a cranberry wreath.
    I canNOT believe you are just reading Little Women! I think I restart it every Christmas and only get through a few chapters, but still. Talk about values. Can you imagine a family nowadays encouraging each other to give away their Christmas bounty?
    Have I asked you if you ever read the Ernest and Celestine books by Gabrielle Vincent (translated from French)? I had to find them on alibris for Sadie, but you’d LOVE them. I had the Christmas story growing up, and Celestine (a mouse) begs Ernest (a bear) to have a Christmas party even though they can’t afford it. So they wrap pears in ribbon as presents and make costumes out of curtains. It’s the best!!
    As I spin myself into a tizzy about holiday gifts again this year, I wish so hard for a time when an amazing piece of fruit would be a genuinely special and exotic gift. Sigh.5 years ago

  • Oh dear. I am getting a little self-conscious about all my booze! Seems to eradicate all my credibility on matters of “simplicity”–ha!

    Victoria, I’ve never read those, they sound marvelous! I’m also kind of loving the look of this book I randomly stumbled across called Christmas in the Country. I think the first several chapters are the ones most worth rereading of Little Women. Ever since (SPOILER!) Jo refused Laurie, I’m having a hard go of it. I don’t want to be in France with Amy! I want to be back at Orchard House with the twins and Marmee and writing Jo. Got to power through though.5 years ago

  • nicole: I make things – cakes, lemon bread, jam, toasted hazelnuts – to put into holiday packages; we get a wee tree; get a few poinsettias; throw a holiday party; go to my parents’ place where we eat good food and have fires in the fireplace. Simplest ever, I think, but the best, and my favorite things about this season. Happy holidays to you!5 years ago

  • Carrie: I’m reading Little Women right now too. I’m enjoying it much more than I expected. My Christmas tree is an artificial garland. I used to hang it on our stairway but our new Brooklyn apartment doesn’t have one so it is over a doorway. Ornaments from my childhood are the decoration. I like it because it is small (easy to store) and dead simple to set up/take down. My other family tradition is Christmas brunch. I’m not heading to my parents this year so I’ll be cooking brunch for the assorted family that will be around.5 years ago

  • Victoria: Ooh “Christmas in the Country” looks great! As does another by the same author, “When I Was Young in the Mountains.” I am currently obsessed by Barbara Cooney’s “The Oxcart Man”, which is exactly the kind of book I would have found boring as a child but LOVE now. For some reason I never read it before, but Sadie is hearing all about making linen out of flax and candles from beeswax. Sigh.5 years ago

  • Ginger: I’m desperate to see those glowy candles in paper bags! Sounds gorgeous.5 years ago

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