“Il faut des rites.” (“We need rituals.”)
— Antoine de St. Exupery (via French Women Don’t Get Fat)
I have decided to decorate my apartment for the holidays. If you are not interested in why, you are welcome to skip the next fifty paragraphs and go straight to the nifty DIY instructions at the bottom. Intrepid readers/family members, read on.
When I was thinking of where to spend Christmas this year, I came upon a realization I never knew. I don’t like holidays! They make me anxious. There are a myriad of reasons why, but it probably has something to do with the fact that my dad was totally one of those people who hated Christmas and got depressed around the holidays. And despite growing up with my dad, I did not realize this until, like, five minutes ago.
In my dad’s case, he had sad memories associated with the holidays. Namely, my grandmother and grandfather had gotten engaged at Christmas. When my dad was two and my aunt was a baby, North Korea stormed the 38th parallel. Shortly thereafter, my grandfather was captured by North Korean troops and died in an internment camp. Over a decade later, my dad was in boarding school in upstate New York and my aunt was at Juilliard. My grandmother came to Manhattan to spend the holidays with them but still grieving, she would flee the house on Christmas eve. My dad and my aunt spent Christmases hand in hand, roaming the city in search of her. They walked from Central Park all the way down to SoHo. The entire time, they felt like they were surrounded by families who were intact and happy, celebrating Christmas together. My dad barely spoke the language.
When I was growing up, my parents put on very elaborate Christmases for me and my sister. We had a tree, nutcrackers, and a lot of really nice presents. When I was older and realized this, my mom told me she had done it all to cheer up my dad. She would take him shopping for presents and they would have such a good time planning the merriment that they went a little overboard. After years of this, my dad stopped being depressed at Christmas. Then my sister and I were no longer little, deficits from the Reagan era started piling on the economy, and my parents stopped doing trees and lights and presents.
After that, our only tradition was giggling in church on Christmas morning while the choir sang the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. My mom had performed the Hallelujah Chorus in junior high and was the only kid in class who sang a fifth hallelujah (the music calls for four). My dad, my sister and I would start snickering quietly as soon as the chorus began. My mom frowned at us, but she would sing a fifth hallelujah under her breath when the time came.
As for the commercial side of those Christmases, we started feeling the Futility of Material Things. My parents seemed to want nothing. There was one year when my sister and I had the genius idea of getting them coffee beans from Starbucks (my parents were staunch instant coffee devotees), which made our closets smell and gave us away. Then there was the year we inexplicably bought my mom a teapot from Eddie Bauer. We had it wrapped at the store, brought it home, and informed her not to open it until Christmas. A couple hours later, we went into the kitchen and there was the unwrapped teapot, sitting on the counter. One year I really thought I had it. I got my mom a set of nice makeup brushes because she only ever used the tiny brush that comes inside the compact. “These are really nice,” she said, on Christmas morning. “Here, you should take them.” And so on.
When we got to college, my sister and I realized we could take matters into our own hands. There were some Christmas lights that went up. And stayed up through the summer, got rained on, and never worked again. There were some dry steaks and soggy vegetables we tried to cook. There were more Hallelujahs (actually, we still do this). Nowadays we play it by ear and we celebrate or don’t according to the mood. Last year we had mulled cider around a fire and I wore a red plaid dress — very surreal. But I still haven’t hung a single ornament on a piney branch in close to 20 years.
When I think about it, I’m grateful we had both. Celebratory, traditional Christmases and no big deal, unforced if quiet holidays. I’m glad we learned it’s not necessary to push the matter for the sake of an ideal. But as I get older, I’m starting to miss trimming the tree, planning surprises, and the fun of trying to guess what your presents are. I am tired of relying on the lobby of my office building to provide Christmas cheer. And I guess I wish I had more tradition to rely on. The rest of the year is long, and here is a golden opportunity to celebrate something — why not take it? Besides, I just feel like eating a damn candy cane.
So, this is a very long-winded way of saying I have decided to put up Christmas decorations. As I don’t have any, I made my own. Here is my DIY guide to holiday garlandry. You can improvise however you want, but this is what I did. Also, when I foraged for supplies in my various art supply boxes and saw what was in there, I realized I am totally insane.
Handsome Holiday Garland
Cardboard, scissors, fast-drying paint (acrylics work fine), yarn, a big tapestry needle, and some festive music (I recommend the Nutcracker).
1. Stencil circles in pencil onto the cardboard and cut them out. I did 16 of them using the lid of a travel-sized candle as a stencil.
2. Paint the circles in various colors of your choice (I did reds and oranges, silver, teal, and dark green). Some might need multiple coats. Allow to dry, then coat with a water-based sealer (I used Mod Podge Glossy, available at art or craft stores, and applied it with a sponge-tip brush, but this step is also optional). Allow to dry. The paint and the Mod Podge both dry very fast.
3. Thread the tapestry needle with a thin yarn (you can find the tapestry needle, which is just a giant, dull needle, at any craft store like Michael’s, or a yarn store). Push the threaded needle through the side of each cardboard circle, in between the grooves in the cardboard.
4. String it up and adjust the spacing as you wish. Voila. Better than a Charlie Brown Christmas tree.