Holidays. A time for family, friends, giving—and decorating.
The season is just around the corner and, for some of us, thoughts of finding the perfect tree, untangling lights, digging out old ornaments and maybe buying some new ones to keep up a tradition started long ago, brings mixed feelings of joy—and dread.
Written by Stephanie Bertholdo
Photos by Richard Gillard
Who doesn’t have a busy life? For many, the day after Thanksgiving is a time to start the Christmas decorating, but my family and I have, at times, been so tardy with Christmastime rituals that we’ve gotten discounts on our fresh tree and hung lights just in time for St. Nick to find our house in the vast universe.
This year, seeing as it’s only October, there’s still time to pull out the strands of Christmas lights and the special handmade-with-love decorations from our children from Christmases past. And, when it comes to holiday decorating, hope springs eternal that this year we can get a jump on our traditions so we can actually enjoy the holidays with ease.
Mary Ann and John Cossentine of Oak Park decorate their home to the nines each year, so much so that many of their holiday decorations remain up all year long. The Cossentines have four bigger trees donning their digs, ranging in size from 4 to 8 feet and, according to Mary Ann, “lots of little trees in the bedrooms.” There’s even a tree in the bathroom—it’s covered in Christmas brooches that shine all year long.
For Mary Ann and others, Christmas decorating is both nostalgic and fanciful.
The retired couple raised five children in their home and the Christmas traditions grew as steadily as the kids. In the early days, the Cossentine family would chop down their own tree, but then a fresh-enough tree from a local lot sufficed. The lure of artificial trees finally won when Mary Ann realized she could keep the holiday spirit alive longer with a good imitation.
The boys in the family were never fond of helping with decorating duties, except for some of the heavy lifting. Mary Ann’s husband, John, would rather be reading than decorating.
“I enjoy them as long as she doesn’t make me work with them,” John says of his wife’s penchant for all things Christmas. “It’s her hobby and she enjoys it. Everyone getting together is my favorite part of Christmas. That’s what it’s all about for me.”
John said he has retired from the job of putting up lights and is happy to pay “young men” to tackle that chore each year.
But Mary Ann’s enthusiasm for the holidays has never waned. She has a Victorian dollhouse that is decorated year-round and the stair railings are wrapped in garlands each year. Her large collection of ceramic holiday villages is also displayed year-round.
It’s all about memories for Mary Ann. In her mother’s old bedroom, trees are decorated with mini-ornaments. “It makes me think of my mom every time I put it up.”
For Heather Wilson of Simi Valley, the holidays are a time of sharing. Decorating the front of the home is a gesture for the neighborhood kids, who get an eyeful when they pass her home on their way to school.
Heather says her husband, Nathan, is as anti-decorating for the holidays as she is in favor of it. Each year she puts big red bows on the three trees in front of her house, wraps the trunks in sparkly garlands, plants a bunch of lighted snowmen on the lawn and hangs lights on the house.
“When I turn on the lights outside at night it gives me a happy feeling,” Heather says.
Inside, Heather temporarily showcases her collection of Christmas snow globes in a curio cabinet and decorates a freshly cut tree with her teenage children.
Even though her kids are far beyond the magic of Santa Claus, she can’t help but hang on to some of the childhood traditions, like leaving cookies and milk for Santa by the fireplace and carrots for his reindeer. She even admits to planting evidence that Santa and his flying reindeer came to town. The trail of tinsel from the chimney to the backyard and carrot crumbs left by Rudolph and his reindeer buddies are signs that the magic still lives at the Wilson house.
Sophia Fischer of Oak Park says she and her husband, Mike, decorate their home with family heirlooms for Hanukkah, including treasures their four children made when they were young.
“We have chanukiahs (menorahs) they made of clay, wood and mosaic tiles. We have cards and pictures they drew or painted of the Hanukkah symbols, the dreidels, Maccabees, latkes and candles; and Stars of David they made using popsicle sticks that they decorated and taped their photos to.
“Each year when we unpack these precious home-made treasures they bring back wonderful memories of their childhoods and the many special holidays our family has enjoyed together.”
The Fischers also set up four menorahs, one for each of their children. The menorahs, which feature each of her children’s names in wood, were a gift from her brother-in-law many years ago. “We add the colorful candles and when lit, they envelop us in a glow and warmth that is absolutely beautiful,” Sophia says.
“When everything is up, it is festive and everyone, no matter what age, gets excited. Although Hanukkah is considered a minor holiday in Judaism, there are many important lessons to be learned from the story and it provides an opportunity to enjoy special time together.”
Women seem to care more about holiday decorating, but the men in our lives may grudgingly make sure that the tree is placed evenly in the stand or the lights are hung straight on the house.
My husband jokes that his favorite holiday ritual is preventing the water in the tree stand from getting moldy and spilling onto the carpet when it’s finally time to kick the tree to the curb for recycling.
“The second best (ritual) is picking a new curse word when there’s a big dark segment of lights on the roof eaves, after testing all the bulbs like Clark Griswold (from the movie ‘National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation’).”
Heather says that by the time New Year’s Eve rolls around, her Christmas spirit is waning and fatigue begins to set in. She alone packs up her snow globes, dismantles the lawn snowmen, and wraps up and stores all the ornaments for next year.
“It’s kind of sad,” Heather says. “We have all this anticipation and then it’s over.”
Mary Ann Cossentine found a way to lesson her load during the holidays. She simply keeps most of her holiday decor up all year long.
I, on the other hand, fantasize about the day that my family doesn’t want a “real” tree anymore. I just wish they would agree to one of the funky trees that my daughter, Maria, and I think would be a nice change. Like the 5-foot-high enameled tree created by an artist that costs a mere $5,000. I’d display all kinds of stuff on that tree throughout the year. Or that funny tree with feet might be a nice change. Even a Charlie Brown Christmas tree with sparse branches and brittle needles could be fun.
But, whenever I’ve steered away from the traditional—like displaying decorated thyme and rosemary bushes on a bench under our living room window—I’ve gotten a thumbs down from my family. Seems they’re more traditional than I knew.