December 06, 2004

Reactionary Christmas Decorating Tips

I've been flooded recently by emails along the lines of this one:

Tom, what is the grouchy conservative overview regarding Christmas decorations?

Well it's funny that so many people should ask li'l ol' me, as there are very few things about which I am more cranky and hidebound. Herewith, then, a general summary of my Christmas Decoration Laws. I understand that you may not agree with some or even any of them. That's cool. After all, we live in an open, tolerant and pluralistic society. If you want to expose yourself as a cretinous, hydrocephalitic moron, why go right ahead and God bless.

1. Outside Decorations. There is nothing I love more than a big evergreen wreath on the front door with pinecones and a large red bow. To me, this is the epitome of the exterior decoration. This year, we are actually expanding on this theme a bit by also wrapping the lamp post at the end of the sidewalk in garland and red ribbon. You can even go so far as to give this treatment to porch or stair railings as appropriate and available. branches and red ribbons.

But this is where it ends. Any kind of mailbox decoration is going to encourage teenagers with baseball bats - don't do it. Exterior lights - bad. Yard ornaments of any kind, including the eight foot tall illuminated blow-up Snoopy on display three doors up from us - worse. Nativities, sleighs and/or reindeer either on the grass or the roof - wrong, wrong wrong. And if you try to simulate snowfall in any way, shape or form, don't ever come back to this blog again.

In short, all that Griswold Family Christmas stuff is right out. I read about those neighborhoods that pride themselves on their yearly displays and recoil. I read about people who actually drive around to look at such neighborhoods with horror, meanwhile fumbling around for my branding irons so I can stamp a large letter "L" on their foreheads.

(N.B. - On the other hand, if you must, putting those fake candles in all your windows is acceptable, so long as you confine yourself to one per window and they don't flash.)

2. Interior Decorations. Rule Number One: Do it yer damn' self. Hiring out someone else to decorate your house is loathsome enough as it is. Hiring them to put up your Christmas decorations is infinitely worse. Don't do it.

Now, some general guidelines. As I noted above, there is no such thing as too much garland. Ditto ribbon and candles. Mistletoe is fine, too. And pinecones, whether mixed in with the greenery or in a nice glass bowl as a table centerpiece. Go nuts. But keep in mind that all greens should be real. Plastic garland is a flogging offense. So are electic candles. (Don't laugh - I've seen them.)

A creche is, of course, perfectly fine for those who wish it. But be plausible- no Disney or other theme nativities. No mechanized ones. None with built-in illumination, dialogue or soundtrack. (Okay, I don't know if any of these actually exist. What I DO know is that most creche sets available are pretty hidious. Just go with the one that is the least garish, if possible.) And fer cryin' out loud, nothing "edgy" or "hip"- this is supposed to be a solemn religious symbol, not an opportunity to show off how cool and ironic you are.

Many folks like to set up miniature villages, rail lines and that sort of thing as well. I have no problem with this in general and merely rely on ordinary standards of taste to judge on a case-by-case basis. Something Dickensian is fine. Something Ewokish is not.

In a special exception to the taste rule, it should be noted that all crafts made by kids at home, school or church, no matter how hidious, may properly be displayed. The sole exception to this is gingerbread houses. I don't know whose bright idea those things were, but it was a bad one.

Here is my list of prohibited indoor gew-gaws: Santas; reindeer; plastic candles or snowmen; anything at all related to Mickey, Elmo or some other teevee or movie figure; all Nutcracker dolls of any sort, period; anything legible - whether wall hanging, crockery, sculpture or otherwise - with the possible exception of cocktail napkins.

3. The Tree. Here we are at the center of things, so to speak. Needless to say, the first rule of trees is that they must be real. There is no excuse whatsoever for a fake tree.

Again, decorate the damn' thing yourself. I mean, that's half the point, isn't it? Having it done for you simply tells the world that you are a very shallow person who cares about nothing except surface appearances. And no "theme" trees, please.

Now for some of the basics: I prefer those small, white lights and lots of 'em. But we'll also allow tho older, big-assed color lights on grounds of nostalgia. The latter may also flash. The former never should. And don't mix them.

Increasingly, I think tinsel is a mistake, particularly those "icicle" things that you'll keep finding scattered around the house well into next September. Long strands of gold and silver beads are fine, as are red wooden cranberries. Popcorn is a tougher call. I suppose if you've got the patience to actually string that many kernals, you are entitled to hang your trophy. Good luck keeping the kids off it, tho. Ditto candycanes.

For the top, an angel, star or (as was the case when I was a kid) a dove is nice. A Santa hat is not.

There is an interesting reversed value-added phenomenon with respect to some ornaments. One can go to Wal-Mart or CVS and spend ten bucks to get more than enough simple glass balls in a variety of colors, for example. These are much more aesthetically pleasing that the overdone baubles you might pick up from more fru-fru places at infinitely greater cost.

With respect to other ornaments, again, be plausible. Bows, fiddles, drums, trumpets, angels, birds, bells, mementos of places been, etc. All of that is just fine. (One of our favorite ornaments, in fact, is a pair of sand dollars with red ribbons sent to us by some dear friends in the Carolinas.) But anything with a brand label, for example, is out (no Mercedes hood ornaments). Ditto references to pop culture, politics, technology (no boom boxes) or the macabre. The two great themes to aim for here are festivity and non-commercialism.

A Christmas tree is also a kind of depository of family memories. (This, by the way, is another major reason why having someone else decorate for you is so wrong.) For example, I still have a a number of cheap ornaments that my parents picked up over the last forty years or so. They are falling apart and fading. I put them on the tree every year anyway because of their sentimental value. Sooner or later, they all will come to grief, but because new ornaments are constantly being added to the collection (as, for example, the silver stars to mark the year of each of our childrens' birth), the cycle is a gradual, rolling one. The point is that ornaments represent a kind of tangible scrapbook. The memories they invoke each time you take them out, like good wine, improve with age.

4. Timing. When I was a kid, we had a tradition of putting up wreaths and whatnot a week or two before Christmas, and then decorating the tree itself on Christmas Eve. I've loosened up about this somewhat in my old age - we did garlands this past weekend and plan to go get the tree next Saturday (although we probably won't trim it until the week after that). As a general rule, I think once Advent starts, you should consider yourselves at liberty to get going. Thanksgiving is too early. Halloween is preposterous.

5. Miscellany. A few other thoughts. Stockings: If you're old enough to date, you shouldn't hang one. For the kiddies, stockings should be functional (i.e., able to hold the smaller bric-a-brac). My mother used to put our stuffed stockings on the landing in order to hold us off for an extra hour or two on Christmas morning. Music: There is nothing wrong with playing lots of holiday music, but be respectful - Bach and Handel are not meant to be background noise. Don't try to listen to them and do something else (especially with other people) at the same time. There are plenty of other tunes available. Also be wary - most holiday music gets very old, very fast. Consider this when you think about turning it on. The only exception to this rule that I know of is the Vince Guaraldi Trio's "Charlie Brown Christmas".

Well, there you have it. Follow these simple guidelines and you will have a Stodgy Old Christmas indeed. Next time: Reactionary Christmas celebration.

Posted by Robert at December 6, 2004 04:48 PM

Generally in agreement with you, sir. (Don't like Dickensian villages much myself, but I do understand how others might appreciate them.) Would respectfully have to disagree about external lights, though -- there are about five houses in the country who have managed to do them tastefully, and that can be nice. An outline of the sidewalk and flowerbeds, for example. Nothing flashy, though, and Absolutely No Net.

Posted by: Adrianne Truett at December 6, 2004 05:48 PM

Heh. The really stodgy Christmas decoration attitude: don't decorate at all, it's just a pain in the ass anyway. :-)

Posted by: Dean Esmay at December 7, 2004 02:56 AM

My mother has a cool It's a Wonderful Life village. That's pretty limited in scope - Bedford Falls is only so big. ;-)

Posted by: jen at December 7, 2004 01:24 PM

Outrageous Sir!! I shall have to write the papers about you, possibly even sue for libel! You call yourself a grouchy conservative and yet advocate this modern LIBERAL NONSENSE!
Decorations go up after dark on Christmas Eve. Not one moment before. They must come down before dusk on 6 th January. Those are , after all, the 12 days of Christmas. Extensions are only allowed if you have a Russian in the house, although why you would do that Iím not sure. Weíve found that the sheds are considered acceptable.
External decorations? Humbug, the little street urchins will run away with them or next doorís cat will urinate upon them.
We ourselves will in fact be having a small decoration outside our front door this year. Now thatís cured weíve given him a sprig of holly to attach to his hat and he insists that he wishes to stand guard for us for the entire 12 days and nights. Itís a little difficult for we really donít want to impose upon him but he just wonít listen, saying itís the least he can do after all we did last year. So, when you come round for your eggnog do remember to say hello to Tiny Tim wonít you?

Posted by: Tim Worstall at December 7, 2004 01:43 PM

When we lived in SoCal my husband put up so many outdoor lights that I think our house was used as a navigational aid for the planes landing at LAX.
When the electric bill came in at the end of January my husband remarked that my mother, who visited us over the holidays, sure left the TV on a lot!
We have an annual argument about two ornaments; a horrible glass pickle that my husband loves and a furry gorilla my mother in law gave us named Rodney because it reminded her of us! Go figure... I hang both toward the back of the tree.

Posted by: babs at December 8, 2004 11:18 AM
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