Scaling Back For The Holidays Helped Me Heal

couple with child outside in the snow

Six years before having a child, my husband and I bought a four-bedroom colonial. With two incomes and a heady feeling that life would always keep expanding, we tended to do things big. Like holidays: giant plastic spiders and gauzy webs, huge red hearts on the door, white plastic bunnies lining the steps. And then there was Christmas. Thanksgiving weekend was D-Day, when the attic yielded dozens of bins crammed with decorations—holiday towels for the bathrooms, pine boughs to wrap the banister, and holiday motif glassware, china and more.

I am not a crafty person, and Frank never built crèches for fun, so a good outing was a trip to Christmas Tree City. There was the 24-inch piano-playing Santa who moved and tinkled carols; the wreath of hammered wrought iron that played “Jingle Bells” when the door opened; cut crystal ornaments the size of grapefruits. Each year, some visitor always asked if we were expecting the photographer from House Beautiful.

Our first son was born into this giddy, much-too-much way of decorating. By 2, he was hanging Sesame Street ornaments, and was assigned the job of clapping the tree lights on and off.

Then, the September when he was 3, I had a miscarriage.

My son brought home paper bag jack-o-lanterns from preschool, and asked to "deck-rate." Zombie-like, Frank and I hung Bones the Skeleton in the doorframe and flung Blackie the Spider across the porch.

But by Thanksgiving, I was in emotional limbo, descending to apathy on a runaway toboggan. I declared D-Day canceled. Frank frowned and jerked his head toward our preschooler, playing with his miniature trucks. I ignored the unspoken question and took a nap, my new M.O. How To Avoid Holiday Exhaustion

I could not avoid the mall, though, and while I bought Christmas gifts for aunts and in-laws who were all waiting for me to "snap out of it," my happy child pointed to a towering tree bedecked in cascading gold ribbons and white globes the size of soccer balls.

"When we deck-rate?"

"Oh, look, let's get a pretzel," I answered.

Frank kept trying. "Let me put up the tree up one day while you're out," he suggested.

By then, however, I considered our home my personal respite from the forced frivolity I now ascribed to all decorations. I decided that Christmas was too commercial, a waste of time, money and energy. Since I was sad, I didn't want to look across my living room and be reminded that I ought to be happy. Who needs it? Not me. Not this year. How To Compromise For Christmas

I did let Frank talk me into a trip to nearby William Street, where one family had been putting on a colossal lights-and-decoration extravaganza for decades. I said I was cold and decided to watch from the car. Here's what I saw: my husband carrying our child across the street, his little boy mittened hands pointing, his head whipping right and left, features dancing in reflected light.

My insides churned as the now-familiar guilt, self-pity and bitterness returned. I kept trying to decide who, or what, I was most angry at—my own body, fate, God, or all the lucky other mothers in that driveway that night with more than one child in tow.

The longer I sat, though, watching the two people I loved most enjoying the scene, waving at the animatronics reindeer, their breath dancing above their smiling mouths, the more I began to realize that anger was the thing I least needed that Christmas. Something shifted.

I became aware of something else... a sense of possibility, even... a fullness. I recognized that this might be it: my little family might stay this size forever and, if it did, I did not want to go on feeling as if something was always missing, as if I was missing, too. 12 Ways To Love Yourself First

When we got home, I told Frank he could get the smallest tree from the attic. My son looked up from his trucks.

"Just the tree," I instructed.

Frank frowned, but I didn't think I could look at all the ornaments, collected over the decade we had been together, a partnership that until recently had flowed uninterrupted from one happy event to the next. But clearly, the tree couldn't stand there, bare.

"Can I deck-rate?" my son asked, clapping.

I looked at my boy, his eyes hopeful, sticky fingers holding his favorite little yellow tractor, spinning the tiny wheels with fascination, and then I sent Frank for a spool of thread.

To the boy, I said, "Bring Mommy the tractor, okay?"

I cut a six-inch length of thread and slid it through the window of my son's favorite little yellow tractor, tied a knot, dangled it and placed it back in my son's hand, pointing him toward the tree, where he placed it on a branch, nearly quivering with excitement.

I threaded them all—the miniature orange dump truck, the tiny multi-colored racecar, the egg-sized blue recycling truck, the small faded red 18-wheeler, the dented green backhoe—and watched as my only child tramped from tree to truck box in his footed green sleeper, his giggles balm to my battered but recovering spirit.

Over the next year, I became interested in decorating again, but never returned to our previous much-too-much methods. The vistas got smaller, more personal, focused on my child's awkward and lovely handmade offerings.

It's been 14 years now since we made the truck tree. While my now-towering teenage son doesn't really remember it, I do. Each D-Day since, the first thing we place on the tree is that little yellow tractor. When he was 3 years old, our second-born son had the honor, and I remember him asking, "Why putting a truck on the tree?"

I couldn't answer him precisely, except to say that without it, I'd feel that something was missing. Forget Shopping And Celebrate What Matters

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