November 28, 2005

Rigidly Hidebound Llama Christmas Decorating Tips

[Originally posted 12/06/2004]

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.)

UPDATE: The local Giant is flogging an eight foot inflatible snow globe this year, complete with little electric motor to ensure a constant cascade of faux flakes. I have assembled a collection of pointed sticks just in case I see one.

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 electric 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, for example). 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 the Llama-ettes' birth), the cycle is a gradual, rolling one. The point is that such 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 - 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.

Posted by Robert at November 28, 2005 10:02 AM | TrackBack

Dead on, my friend. Perfect. Describes Colossus Hall at Christmas to a "T".

Posted by: The Colossus at November 28, 2005 12:04 PM

So, Robbo, what’s your policy on festive holiday sweaters? My father got one a few years back, and each time I see him in it, I become a little bit more certain that I was adopted.

Posted by: utron at November 28, 2005 12:40 PM

If memory serves correctly, I think the best way to describe Robbo's holiday sweater fetish is "Cosby-esque."

Hay Hay Hay!

Posted by: Steve the LLamabutcher at November 28, 2005 12:43 PM

Sorry, but for those of us who didn't grow up watching the servants wrap the Boxing Day gifts for the peasants, what you have described is a perfectly anal, emotionally dead Christmas. My grandparents lived on one of those lanes with the horrid outdoor displays and the horrifying droves of the unwashed driving by to gawk. Seeing that sight approach was the last landmark in the journey to a blissful childhood holiday season. So enjoy your WASP Christmas, I'll settle for those delightfully tacky mementos of Christmas Past.

Posted by: Brian B at November 28, 2005 12:53 PM

There is a good reason for not having a real Christmas tree. Allergies. I'd love to have one but I'd spend the month of December sneezing my head off.

Posted by: Techievampire at November 28, 2005 01:40 PM

Amen on the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Although, since we've all moved away and such, it now goes up 3-4 days before Christmas. When there's too much decoration, and too early, Christmas loses steam and becomes a chore.

Posted by: rbj at November 28, 2005 01:43 PM

Brian: Don't be a Christmas Nazi.

Rob: Great point on the scrapbook aspect of the Christmas tree, though I disagree about the stocking restriction. In our house, everyone gets one, filled with cheap toys and candies that protect the more expensive gifts from Christmas morning breakage.

There's more to music than Bach and Vince Guaraldi- Nat King Cole in particular rocks Christmas.

Posted by: Allan at November 28, 2005 01:49 PM

I can't believe that I agree with all of this! The only minor exception is that some of our indoor decorations also have scrapbook/sentimental value. Sure, I'd rather not set out the plastic santa bank with slanted eyes that plays a song when coins are deposited...but my boys (who are teenagers now) would miss it. I can imagine them divvying up our possessions on our death: "Here, you can have great-great grandmother's glass ornaments if I can have the santa bank."

Posted by: earth girl at November 28, 2005 02:21 PM

"Brian: Don't be a Christmas Nazi."

Right. I'm not the one telling people their Christmas decorations or traditions are "verboten", yet somehow I'm the "Nazi".

I'm just saying, you don't like that tuff, fine, don't use it. But calling people "hydrocephalitic morons" because they don't share your tastes, well... that's a bit much.

Posted by: Brian B at November 28, 2005 02:28 PM

So, I guess the menorah in the window is a little much?

Posted by: Marvin at November 28, 2005 06:38 PM

There is a street in Baltimore where the rowhouses go crazy with the decorations every year. While I don't have the patience (or the passion) to do something like that, it always made my day when I saw it.

Posted by: LB buddy at November 28, 2005 08:44 PM

I enjoyed your paragraph describing the tree as a depository of Christmas memories. I feel the same way. Some of the ornaments I hang on the tree have a story or a memory.

In regards to the outdoor decorations...I haven't been in Walmart for quite some time but I know Garden Ridge is at least partially responsible for some of those obnoxious snowglobes and blow-up santas. Gah!

Posted by: Chickadee at November 28, 2005 09:52 PM

Just one minor factual error: Bach could have reasonably expected most of his audience to listen respectfully, since he primarily wrote church music, but Handel, well...back in the day, concerts weren't such formal, hush-hush affairs as they are now. Old Georg Friederic, along with Mozart, Haydn, etc. knew full well that most of their audience would spend as much of the performance socializing as they would listnening, and a good portion of their music was actually composed fofor use as background music, sort of like a band you might hire to play at a wedding reception. There wasn't too much actual respect for those guys in their time. Which is most likely part of the reason why once in a while they turned out such HUGE sounding things you can't ignore, like the Hallelujiah Chorus-to get people's ATTENTION. Sure the king was so moved that he stood for that section of the Messiah and set the ground for a tradition that lasts even now, but more likely than not when the tenor was crooning Ev'ry Valley earlier in the performance, his majesty was complaining to the queen about something he ate that didn't agree with him instead of listening.

All that to say, if you don't like well aged art music as background music, that's fine, but do know that it was, indeed, meant to be just that.

Posted by: ninaradio at November 29, 2005 02:28 PM