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rockwell v. griswald

Another year, another tree decorating night come and gone, and another shot at holiday idealism shot to hell. Perhaps in a past life I lived in a Norman Rockwell painting. Where else would I have gotten the idea that the days leading up to Christmas are filled with cheer, good will, smiling children and calm adults? When I think of decorating the Christmas tree, I imagine a family gathered around a tall, perfect spruce, carefully hanging heirloom ornaments on the perfectly spaced branches while Christmas carols played in the background. Steaming cups of hot cocoa piled high with marshmallows sit on a tray table (for some reason, my imaginary tray table is decorated with horses pulling a wagon through a snow forest), next to a plate of home baked cookies. The aroma of pine needles hangs in the air, mixed with the sweet smell of gingerbread baking in the oven. Mistletoe hangs from the ceiling and every once in a while the mom and dad sneak a kiss while the kids giggle. And everyone's eyes twinkle. The funny thing about all this is I don't think we've ever - from my childhood up to last night - had a tree decorating night quite like that. Have I really been harboring this Rockwell fantasy for over 40 years? You would think by now I would get it - it's never going to happen. And if it did, it would seem so out of place, so wrong, that it would probably ruin my entire Christmas. Because, like it or not, the Griswald type Christmas experience is the only one I know. Anything else would seem foreign, no matter how many times Martha Stewart and her cronies tell me that I'm doing it wrong. Aha. So perhaps that's it; outside forces made me believe we were doing it wrong. Maybe somewhere out there exists a family in which Martha Stewart has married Norman Rockwell and the kids are all as sweet as Cindy Brady, but I'm now inclined to believe that family exists only in paintings, made for tv movies and commercials that make you think if you only buy the right products, your family will be less dysfunctional this Christmas. Apparently, Coca-Cola and Campbell's soup are all the therapy we need. So last night we brought the tree inside (we bought it Sunday evening, but didn't dig out the tree stand until yesterday), shook about six pounds of needles from it and, after an hour or so of cursing and much mumbling under breath, we got it to stand up straight. This is our first year in our own home. We have a beautiful bay window in the living room and it excites me to no end to be able to have a tree all lit up in that window so everyone who passes by the house can say gasp in awe as they witness a display of stunning Christmas decor. A half hour of decorating went something like this: We have three extra feet of tree this year, you should have bought three extra feet of lights. These ornaments are ugly. She touched me. He looked at me. Stop yelling. Put on some Christmas music. Blink 182 is not Christmas music. If you want hot chocolate so bad, make it yourself. Is something burning? Why is the tree naked over here? Close the curtains, the neighbors do not need to see you choking your brother. What is that smell? Eww DJ, stop farting on me! And so it goes. We are part Griswalds, part Simpsons and a product of ever other tree decorating experience I've ever had. The sibling fights are so ingrained into our Christmas traditions, that we actually stage arguments when we decorate my parents' tree every year, just to get in the spirit. What would Christmas be without the burnt cookies, the spilled cocoa, the shed tears and the overwhelming panic that comes when you realize it's ten days before Christmas and you're going to have to sell a kidney in order to get all your shopping done? It's only now - after 42 Christmases (14 of those as a parent) - that I finally accepted the fact that not only are we not a Rockwell painting, but that I wouldn't want that. We've made our own traditions and even if they involve farting and fighting, they're all ours and we always end up laughing at our exploits later on. No one wants to hear the story of your perfect family decorating your perfect tree and the perfect behavior of your perfect children. Those tales are easily forgotten. But the one about the tree going on fire? That's one the grandchildren will be hearing about years from now. Long live dysfunctional traditions.


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» In praise of Christmas tradition from Darleen's Place
Michele writes both longingly about her wishes for what a family tree-trimming should be like and about how her family falls short of her dreams. She concludes, though, that the day has become a family tradition and she's not sure... [Read More]


We always had a real tree too. They truck them down to Florida from wherever these things grow. Setting them up always involved a lot of swearing from my dad. In fact, it's a little less like Christmas now that the musical sounds of Da's cursing no longer floats into my ears.

Then there was the year the cat had kittens. Eight kittens. They liked to climb trees.

It's a little embarrasing to admit this, but that perfect Christmas scene? That was my house growing up. Heirloom ornaments, hot chocolate, and all. My mom didn't make cookies, but she did build 100% edible candy houses.

I'm the oldest of four siblings. And no, I have no idea how Mom pulled it off.

This year the twins (2 y/o) learned glass balls don't bounce.

This is my first year at my own house without family. I'm not married and I don't have any kids, and frankly, I think I actually miss the fact that yes, my brother used to fart on me. I did have the mumbling and cursing trying to put that ******* tree by myself though.

Christmas is invariably a disappointment when compared to the hype leading up to the big day.

I'd much rather experience Christmas as another form of Thanksgiving rather than have the pain of commercial/material disappointment lived and relived year after year.

Damn, listen to me...I sound like some kind of leftist....

What I miss about Christmas from my days of growing up with the holiday is the practice of decorating.

Decorating the tree was a huge tradition in my mom's house - one that I miss terribly every year now.

By the way Michele, the comments won't accept the word social-ist without the hyphen because the spam filter gets caught on the c i a l i s portion of the word.

My childhood Christmases were extremely happy, but we never fit into a Martha Stewart vision of perfection. I believe that holidays are most enjoyable if we invent our own set of traditions. Borrow a little from Norman Rockwell, some from the Griswalds, add some stuff of your very own and don't give a flip what anyone else thinks about it.

I'm thinking it might be more like THE CHRISTMAS STORY with the giant leg lamp at our house.

I remember about ten years ago my sister and I decorated our tree with the Pulp Fiction soundtrack playing in the background. Our dad walked in during the Ezekiel 25-17 dialog track. He was very proud of his spawn.

Hmph. If ever you need some more tree lights, ask us.

Of course, you'd have to untangle the Gordian Knot From Last Year, first.

Every year I start the untangling. After an hour, I say fuck it and go and buy new strings.

The Army shouldn't use barbed wire -- just last year's Xmas lights. No one could get through that stuff.