Clean first, then decorate for Christmas

Published 10:02 am Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Column: Notes from Home

Ah. The magic day approaches. We’re all shivering with anticipation, barely containing our emotions as the Sunday after Thanksgiving dawns.

This is the day, we call out as we spring out of bed. This is the day, we chant driving home after church. This is the day, we sing as we pop Mannheim Steamroller in the CD player. This is the day … we haul out the boxes in which we hide Christmas the rest of the year.

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Behind the chanting, singing and dancing, though, the cheer of the day borders on false cheer for me as I anticipate another season of tree-decorating, Christmas light hanging and manger scene assembly.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the way our home looks when it’s all done. I love the aroma of all of the baking and the Christmas harmonies on the CD player – there’s a part of me (obscured by that oh-so-Vulcan façade I maintain) that is in love with the magic of Christmas.

Getting that magic in place takes work, however, like the feasts prepared by elves in the dungeons of Hogwarts which only appear to have been created by Dumbledore’s “magic” in the Great Hall. We don’t have elves, so somebody named me has to lift the bins, crates and boxes down from the shelves in the garage and the hall closet. Somebody has to put the tree together.

Part of the dilemma as we approach decorating is that we have to clean house first. The rest of the year we are all fairly indifferent to housecleaning. Our house leans — how shall I put it — more toward the shabby side of things.

It starts with the books stacked or piled everywhere and quilting supplies taking up more or less permanent residence in a corner of the dining room. Squash from the garden lie on a crate in the living room. Music spills onto the floor by the family’s piano and by the electric organ, while a collection of musical instruments — tuba, French horn, violin and accordion — are piled up in a corner with music stands.

Decorating over the top of that clutter is not an option. We have to tidy the house, and it needs to be a pretty thorough job. So we set to work, putting things away, vacuuming the carpet, dusting the furniture (that doesn’t get vacuumed to get rid of cat hair), and cleaning the glass in the cupboards.

About a month later, we open up those bins, crates and boxes and let Christmas take over the house. Okay, I lied. It’s not really a month later, just later that same afternoon; it just feels like a month of cleaning has intervened.

This is the only time she-who-must-be-obeyed and I decorate our house each year. The rest of the great festivals pass without a change to even the smallest pile of books. So why do we do it? Because Christmas is important.

Decorating for the season was something we both grew up with, and it’s a tradition we want to pass on. There’s the tree skirt we’ve been using since our first Christmas in our own home — coated with the fur of just about every pet we’ve had. (Cursed be anyone who washes it!) There are the ornaments I have from the family collection my mother gathered, and the ones we’ve collected as a married couple. There are the nativity figurines gifted to us by a family friend.

And there’s even the tree, the same hideous fake tree we’ve used for over a decade, but since it’s artificial, we can decorate it the first Sunday in Advent and take it down at Epiphany. Lovely, formerly living trees don’t last that long.

After all the work, the house looks more alive. All those lights and knick-knacks and wall hangings help brighten up a world that, outside anyway, looks pretty lifeless: Gray skies hang over leafless trees and dusty fields.

Something else I know about Christmas is that, ultimately, it is not about the knickknacks and bric-a-brac we strew about our homes, just like it’s not about the swag we gather from those packages under the tree. It’s about family. It’s about faith in a little child sent to bring the world hope. And it’s about magic — yes, the magic that raises the whole experience above the fray of decorating and consumer excess, into the realms of the sublime.


David Rask Behling teaches at Waldorf College in Forest City, Iowa, and lives with his wife and children in Albert Lea. His column usually appears every other Tuesday.