“Just don’t say anything about it at school,” I cautioned my children. I was fairly sure that if their teachers heard about our December scheme, they would suggest putting my kids on the school’s free lunch plan.
But it wasn’t really a matter of economic hardship that inspired us to try skipping the Christmas tree this year. It just seemed that there were several good reasons to take this seemingly radical step. True, we usually spend about $70 on our tree – we have a big house with big rooms, and it’s hard to go with something that feels out of proportion to the space where you plan to put it – and this is a year that we’d rather put the $70 toward Christmas gifts. But we could have looked for a tree costing half that much. We could have even gone outside and found one to cut down or transplant: although the forests surrounding our house tend to generate spindly needled pines that look more like the one in Charlie Brown that the densely branched, triangle-shaped Douglas fir of a Christmas card image, there have been several years in the past when we’ve chosen a tree from the nearby woods.
The cost was a factor, but there were other reasons too. Christmas trees are messy, leaving needles all over the floor, both from when we first bring it into the house and when the needles begin to fall off. They need to be watered regularly and even so can seem like a bit of a fire hazard sitting in the corner of the living room.
And much as we support the idea of buying local, we spend less if we drive to another town for our tree rather than buying it right in town – but none of us really felt like doing the drive this year.
“How about we skip the tree?” my husband suggested nonchalantly.
I expected the kids to be horrified. No tree? “Is it even Christmas without a tree?” I imagined them saying, certain the kids’ disappointed faces would drive us straight into the car heading to our favorite nursery, checkbook in hand.
But to their credit, the kids were circumspect. “What about all our decorations?” they asked. Every year we set aside much of one December weekend to pulling plastic storage bins down from the attic and unpacking decorations together, one fragile piece at a time.
“We can still put up decorations,” my husband assured them. “We just won’t necessarily hang them from tree branches.”
“What about lights?” the kids asked next.
“We’ll wrap lights around the ficus tree by the living room window!” Rick suggested.
“Decorate a houseplant?” Holly asked, looking over at the three-foot-tall ficus tree. “But that means….”
I braced myself, imagining all the different icepick-to-the-heart ways that Holly might finish that sentence. “But that means…Santa won’t visit us. But that means….it’s not really Christmas. But that means….we’re not celebrating right.”
“But that means,” Holly continued, “that I’ll be able to reach the top of the tree and put the star there without any help!”
So Holly, unassisted, placed the tree’s singular ornament at its apex. And then the kids went on to spend just as much time this year decorating as they normally do. They strung cranberry chains along the banister, placed candles on all the tabletops, suspended mistletoe from the upstairs railing. Then they went around the house hanging ornaments from other surfaces: the edges of tables and counters, windowsills.
When they were done, the house looked beautiful, just as it does every December: luminous and sparkling with small pretty objects sprinkled throughout the house. And while it’s true that we have no scent of pine in the house right now, it’s a small price to pay for not having needles strewn across the floor.
Last week a friend asked me if I had any suggestions for how she could simplify the holidays as she tried to balance the needs of four children ranging in age from four months two nine years. “Primarily, make sure you discuss with the kids which traditions matter most to them,” I told her. “Be sure you’re not doing anything just because you think it matters to someone, when in fact it really might not.” Or, as the company I used to work for often said, “We have no sacred cows.”
If anything was a sacred cow when it comes to celebrating Christmas in our household, I would have thought it was the tree. And yet when Rick suggested we try going tree-less – less expensive, neater, and more environmental – everyone jumped on board. We’re not ready yet to make a permanent change. Next year it’s quite likely we’ll decide we want it back. But this year, we’ll gather around our ficus tree, lit with tiny yellow lights and perched on a gold tree skirt with presents encircling its base, and celebrate the holidays as merrily as ever. Holly has been singing all weekend, “Deck the halls with Tim and Holly!” And indeed, that’s what we did. We decorated the halls, and it all looks beautiful. Different from past years, but beautiful nonetheless.