Self-reliance and sustainability in the 21st century.
On any given day in December, you’ll find me within a five-foot radius of my Christmas tree. If you visit on the right night, you might even find my feet sticking out underneath. Coming across a grown woman sitting under a very large tree in a very tiny living room could be unnerving for some people, I’m sure. But trust me, there’s a very good reason. Let me explain.
I come from a very tight-knit family. We were together all the time, and the end-of-year holidays were especially special. In my family, we made a tradition out of almost everything, beginning with the Christmas tree.
Every year, the entire family piled into the van, which was stuffed with snacks and blankets and anything else we could think to grab. We’d stop for lunch after our two-hour drive, generally in the same spot, year after year. Once we were sufficiently stuffed, off we went to scour the mountainside for the “perfect” tree. My parents held back, always half-heartedly looking, allowing one of the daughters to have bragging rights for that year’s tree instead. There were always lots of laughs and pointing out of recognizable landmarks along the way. It was a day I looked forward to all year.
Decorating the tree was a family affair, as well, with everyone having their special ornaments to hang and their favorite decorations to set up. My very favorite ornament was a small, gauzy, magical fairy. She had hung on my grandmother’s tree and, for as long as I can remember, I’ve loved her. Every year I would dig through the ornaments, looking to grab her before one of my sisters did, until I finally spied one of her peach-tinted wings or delicate facial features. Once I’d hung her in the most visible spot I could find, the magic of Christmas was set alight for me.
Christmas morning was full of hugs and warmth and always three identical gifts in three different colors for each of the girls. It was, quite simply, a big old Christmas card, and for this, I am profoundly thankful.
Over the years to come, life happened. I got married (to a holiday hater, no less!) and had two beautiful babies. A decade later, I found myself divorced and overwhelmed in the aftermath. My first year as a single mom was rife with challenges that seemed to accumulate at Christmas. Adjusting to one salary was more stressful than I knew how to handle at any point, let alone at Christmas. Strike one. I went with my parents to find a tree but ended up at Home Depot in place of our traditional trip. Strike two. Once home, we set up the tree and strung the lights before I realized my vintage ornaments, along with my beloved fairy, were gone. Strike three. I’m out!
And for a couple of years, I was indeed out. I decorated and wrapped, smiling the whole way for my kids’ sake. But something was lost: my Christmas spirit.
Thankfully, this returned when I committed to a simpler way of living. I was learning to accept what I couldn’t change, which was A LOT, and to focus on what I was grateful for instead. Day after day, I headed out to the garden and saw miracles that had grown from my hard work. I volunteered and gave back. I spent days with the kids hiking and picnicking in the park, savoring the moments in the sun and finding balance. I learned to budget and buy only in cash. If I can’t buy it with cash, I don’t buy it. (This is still my mantra.) All of these little things sound small but they amounted to something bigger: peace of mind. Simplicity in life affords you so many greater gifts than you could imagine when you first commit to it. When Christmas and New Year’s arrive and I review my year, it is full of moments, not expensive things.
When my spirit started to return, I became almost obsessed with vintage Christmas ornaments and decor. I’d lost many ornaments in my move and needed to replenish my tree, but instead of buying mass-produced boxes from a run-of-the-mill store, I decided to peruse consignment and antique stores for items that really mattered to me. The act of finding these little gems has been a joy for me. Walking into a small store chock full of decorations and ornaments from the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s instantly brings me back to my grandmother’s house, decorated lovingly with shiny glass balls and tinsel and full of love. It’s a mix of these warm memories that has made this season a renewed delight for me.
Part of those warm memories for me, like many others, is making this season one of giving as well as receiving. My parents and grandmother were constantly helping people, whether that meant taking in people in need, delivering a hot meal, or putting gifts under someone else’s tree, even when we didn’t have too much to put under our own. Keeping this alive in our family is very important to both me and my sister, and this year we were able to sponsor quite a few kids’ birthdays and some of their Christmas at the local homeless shelters, bringing our kids a new personal awareness of homelessness in their own community. It is my hope that they will continue this year after year, as we have done. I want them to recognize that there is more joy in giving and helping.
This year, I posed a question on my Facebook page: “What is the one decoration that reminds you most of Christmas?” I got a lot of great responses, including one from my dad, who said the red Christmas bells that open like accordions were his favorite. I promptly ran out to my little gem of a consignment shop, were you can find almost anything retro Christmas, even accordion Christmas bells from decades ago. I grabbed a couple to pass along to him, and on my way out, I spotted something that made my heart skip a beat.
There in the corner stood the most ridiculous foil-wrapped orange candle set you’ve ever seen. Standing at the base of the candles, however, were two gauzy, peach-colored angels with halos of faded silver. Just like the one from Grandmom’s tree that I had raced my sisters for as kids. Just like the one I’d lost the year my spirit had faded.
It is with great joy that we decorated our tree this year. Along with my boyfriend and parents, we finally made the return trek to pick out our perfect tree. Sitting under blankets and snuggling, my teen watched “It’s a Wonderful Life” with me for the first time. We hung shiny globes of all colors that had seen many holidays past. We layered on 5,000 strands of shimmering tinsel and, after years of missing her, I hung my angel in her rightful place, high on the tree, where she reminds me of what I’m most grateful for in this world: family, memories, divinity, love, and miracles, great and small.
Although she’s something of a newbie homesteader herself, Michelle comes from serious pioneer stock: Her great-grandmother literally wrote the book. It’s this legacy, in part, that led Michelle to trade in her high-stress life for a home on the grounds of a Pennsylvania CSA farm. You can read her monthly posts on beginner homesteading with kids and more here in HOMEGROWN Life, and sometimes you can find her popping up in The Stew, HOMEGROWN’s member blog.
Photos by MICHELLE WIRE