Keeping Christmas Simple

We’ve taken a step toward a more traditional holiday this year. Our DIY Christmas tree has taken several different forms over the last few years–some of which barely resembled a tree at all–but the same idea was behind them all.  We wanted to use what we had to celebrate.  We wanted a holiday that focused on creative reuse rather than consumerism.  This year we were given a hand-me-down artificial tree, and we have a small collection of ornaments that have been gifted to us, so our tree is pretty traditional.

In keeping with the DIY spirit of our holiday, we made a few ornaments out of wrapping paper glued to cardboard.  A pre-publication copy (F&G) of Holly Hobbie’s new version of The Night Before Christmas made for a few cute ornaments in the same way.  They were simple enough for our almost six-year-old to do with minimal frustration, and I think they look charming too.



In all honesty, my favorite traditions are the ones that are different every year.  They are familiar without being tired.  They grow with us, but keep us grounded to our values.  That’s all I really want in a holiday.  More than elaborate decor or expensive presents, I want to spend time with the people I love, share what I have, and think about what we value.

May your holidays be full of love, hope, and happiness. :)

This blog will probably be fairly quiet this month, but you may check out previous years’ posts for more holiday related content:

Our Holiday

perfectchristmasThere is no perfect Christmas.  There is only the Christmas that fits your family.  That’s the stuff of a picture book right there.  But we’ve taken it to heart.

Our holiday isn’t totally traditional, but it fits us.  We value simplicity, generosity, and togetherness.  Those values are all at play in our DIY Christmas tree, a tradition that started on a whim in 2010 and has become a family favorite.  We always give a nod to the traditional, but there are a few rules.  We can only use what we have or can borrow, and we have to work together to create the tree.

Here is this year’s creation:


The ornaments have been gifted to us.  The snowman, with the year 2007, was a baby gift to commemorate our December baby.  The only purchased items in the above scene are the little stockings.  It’s minimalist, and that’s just right for us.  (Compare the past few years of DIY Trees on my photo blog.)

A colleague once commented to me that my daughter will not appreciate our unusual holiday tradition when she’s old enough to realize that her friends do it differently.  He might be right, and our traditions might shift in the years to come.

We’ve already experienced a slight change in our Christmas celebration as of this year.  It seems we are a Santa family this year.  In the past, I have fallen Very Seriously into the anti-Santa camp.  I had no idea when we decided to be Santa-free that this would be such a controversy, but it seems that every year the issue arises again in the media/blogosphere.  I try to stay out of the argument in general, but I have been known to rant about the whole business in the privacy of my own home.

All that said, my daughter, who is now just about five years old, has requested that we pretend the Santa story is real this year.  The moment we agreed, the onslaught began:

  • “How is Santa going to get in our house since we don’t have a chimney?”
  • “What if Santa forgets our house?”
  • “What if Santa can’t find our Christmas tree and doesn’t know where to put the presents?

The list goes on.  Even though she knows the truth, she’s still thinking through all the counter-factual scenarios that the Santa story involves.  She’s learning to think in a causal, rational way, and we’re stretching our imaginations together.  I have to admit, it’s pretty fun.

We have more Christmas fun planned–along with birthday and anniversary plans–so watch this space (or the photo blog) for more about our minimalist holiday.

If you missed it, here are some Christmas picture books we like.

Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links.

The Spirit of Christmas in Picture Books

What does Christmas mean to you?  For me, it is a cultural holiday centered on family and generosity.  Here are a few books that I think capture the spirit of Christmas that will appeal to families who also celebrate culturally.


christmasquietThe Christmas Quiet Book is Deborah Underwood’s follow-up to The Quiet Book and The Loud Book, and it is perfect for sharing with kids during the holiday season.  Each page shows one quiet moment.  There is “hoping for a snowy day quiet” and “trying to stay awake quiet.”  All the familiar sights of Christmas are there, including the tree, presents, and a Christmas play.  The play’s quiet moments are “forgotten line quiet” and “helpful whisper quiet,” and only observant readers will likely notice the three kings bearing presents on the stage.  Other than that, the book is quite universal in it’s celebration of the quieter side of Christmas.

christmasevegoodnightI think The Christmas Quiet Book would make a great bedtime book during the holiday season, but in case you need another sleepy story in your Christmas bedtime repertoire, try Christmas Eve Good Night by Doug Cushman.  In cute rhyming verse, readers are asked how various Christmas or winter related animals and others say good night.  We see a polar bear mother and cub who “grrr” good night, a nutcracker father and son who “crack!” good night, and many others.  We end with Santa calling good night to all as he flies over the earth with a giant bag of presents.

justrightJust Right for Christmas by Birdie Black is a great book for sharing the spirit of generosity that many of us associate with the holiday season.  It has a similar story as Mr. Willoughby’s Christmas Tree, in which one giant tree makes several smaller trees.  In this book, a beautiful piece of cloth makes several gifts when the scraps are shared.  At the end, we see everyone skating together, from the king and his daughter who started the book to the little mouse who made a scarf from a small scrap and everyone in between.  This is a great opportunity to talk about how we can give from our surplus to help others.  I also like that most of the characters make their gifts since my family is going to be giving some handmade gifts this season.

merrylittlechristmasA Merry Little Christmas: Celebrate from A to Z by Mary Engelbreit is an alphabetical look at one little mouse family’s celebration from the angel that tops their tree to the “zillion ways Christmas brings cheer.”  We also get occasional looks at Santa’s workshop for E (elves) and N (North Pole), but the focus of the book is really on the family.  They do everything together and exude happiness in almost every spread.  Other than the angel tree topper and the Yule log, which I was only vaguely familiar with, their Christmas was pretty universal.

pynThe last book is my favorite.  A Christmas Tree for Pyn by Olivier Dunrea is a lovely book about a father and daughter living in a wintry home.  The gruff father tells his daughter “My name is Oother” when she calls him Papa, and he says “We’ll see” to little Pyn’s wish for a Christmas tree.  Pyn is persistent, however, and the two end up bonding over a tree they cut down together after saying a prayer to thank the tree (the only religious aspect to the story). I love the depth of emotion in this book from Oother and Pyn.  It beautifully captures the way that holidays can bring families together.  I highly recommend this book.

What are some of your favorite Christmas picture books?

For more about secular family life, see my Secular Thursday page or check out the Books for Secular Families Amazon Book Shop.  A portion of purchases made from links on this site benefit Proper Noun Blog.  Thanks for your support!

Our First Holidazzle

My last post about Anni-birth-mas traditions neglected to mention our trip downtown to the Holidazzle parade.  We tried to go last year, but the weekend we had planned to go was the same weekend that we got 16 inches of snow.

Our first Holidazzle was just what I had hoped when I heard about the concept of a winter parade in downtown Minneapolis.  People lined the streets (and the skyways) waving glow sticks or drinking hot chocolate as the lights of the season danced down the street in front of us.  What better way to celebrate winter?  As you might imagine, we are huge fans of the St. Paul Winter Carnival as well. :)

Of course, this story from of a suburban family going to see the parade only to say “Screw Downtown!” at the end is pretty hilarious.  Maybe it’s not for everyone.  :)

It was, however, for us.  As was the kettle corn from the street vendor and the butterscotch pudding we indulged in later at Nick & Eddie.

Twin Cities residents, this weekend is your last chance to see the parade until next year.  It’s a cool 35 degrees outside, and you can ride Metro Transit for free from 4 to 8pm.  Have fun and don’t let winter get you down!

Happy Anni-birth-mas!

In my family, December is about more than just Christmas.  The succession of special days in December has been dubbed “anni-birth-mas,” and our traditions have come to be about all of us–Ladybug’s birthday, our wedding anniversary, then Christmas.  It’s a jumble, at least for now.  We try to give each day its due attention, but we don’t draw too many lines between the celebrations.

As I wrote last year, we have our own take on holiday traditions:

“To be honest, I still trip over the words to Christmas carols I’ve heard a million times but only recently started to sing.  I didn’t manage to get Christmas cards out before the holiday (or the new year), and I’m quite sure no one had a Christmas tree like ours.  Our Christmas was ‘us,’ and I loved it.”

Our DIY tree is far from most people’s idea of traditional, but it makes me smile every time I see it.  It represents our influences from Christianity and Buddhism, as well as our anti-consumerist tendencies.  The most important thing to me is that it be fun.  It’s also kind of funny, but that is just a bonus.

If you can’t tell from the photo, the Buddha sits in the middle of our “tree” this year–flashing the peace sign.  It is part shrine, part art project, part holiday celebration.  Completely ours.

Not that I don’t want Ladybug to know what a more traditional holiday looks like.  That’s what books are for.  We read Celebrate Christmas for context and The Perfect Christmas to emphasize that everyone celebrates differently.  Then we read A Christmas Tree for Pyn to talk about family and simplicity.  (FWIW, this is one of my favorite picture books this year.  Read the review at Waking Brain Cells for more details.)

This is what works for us.  I hope your family has found what works for you.  Merry holidays!

See more posts about science, religion, and secular family life on my Secular Thursday page.

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Monday Morning Music: Holiday Edition

There are a couple of local music stories that have people talking recently.  First, Bon Iver is up for a few Grammy’s, and that has prompted some people to wonder who Bon Iver is exactly.  If you are one of those people who doesn’t know Bon Iver, seriously, take a listen.  It is so good.  Second, Polica has announced a CD release show on Valentine’s Day 2012 at First Avenue.  Listen to “Wandering Star” here.  However, as exciting as those bits of news are, that’s not what I want to talk about today.  My topic is much more timely.

It is now officially December.  Thanksgiving is over.  The Christmas tree is up, and we can pull out our Christmas music without feeling guilty about it.  Problem is: We have no Christmas music.  That’s what happens when you don’t grow up celebrating Christmas (strict religious childhood = no Christmas or birthdays).  I spent my life quietly daydreaming during holiday songs at school or just blocking out the music at stores from mid-November through December, so, now that I do choose to celebrate the holiday with my daughter, I’m at a loss.  In all honesty, I can barely sing “Happy Birthday” with the right melody, and Christmas songs are an even bigger mystery to me.

I’ve been exploring my holiday music options, and so far, we’ve opted for the MPR Classical Holiday Stream for the most part.  But I’d love some suggestions from the audience.  What Christmas songs are “must listens” to you?  Build my collection, for my daughter’s sake. :)

Meanwhile, here is a song from one of my favorite band’s Christmas record to get you in the holiday spirit.

A Santa-free celebration

Our DIY Christmas Tree

I love Christmas. I didn’t grow up celebrating it (that’s another story for another blog post), so the traditions are still new and exciting to me.  I’ve been around Christmas my whole life, but it’s a new experience to be participating myself, to be creating family traditions for our little one.  I want her to grow up with holiday memories that bind her to her peers throughout her life.  I think that’s an important part of what the holidays do for American culture.  But I also want to make sure that our holiday traditions reflect our values.  Our holiday included giving and making.  Ladybug is only three, so we kept it simple.  She drew pictures as gifts for her cousins, and she watched as we constructed our own DIY Christmas tree.  As she gets older, we hope to spend more time volunteering, baking, and crafting.  Every year gets more fun and brings new possibilities for holiday magic.

“Maybe magic is just love.”* This is the magic that I’ve known.  This is the magic that I want my daughter to take away from this family.  There are those who say that children need to believe in Santa Claus to have magic and wonder in their lives.  I disagree wholeheartedly.  We see magic everyday in the way we treat each other.  Kind words are magic.  Paying-it-forward is magic.  You are magic.

Parenting Beyond Belief by Dale McGowan

As for wonder, I like how Dale McGowan put it in Parenting Beyond Belief: “It is so precious to get a glimpse of real knowledge, so breathtaking, that no lesser standard than trial by skepticism will do.  It leaves behind only those things wonderful enough to make us weep at the pure beauty of their reality and at the equally awesome idea that we could find our way to them all.”  This is one of the main values I want to impart to my daughter.  I want her to look at what is real and see the wonder in that.  I don’t want her to believe that the wonder ends when you start asking “why?”

I think we’ll save Santa for when Ladybug is old enough to be in on the fantasy.  We love pretending, after all.  We love stories.  Perhaps I would feel differently if I had grown up with Santa myself.  I can’t say for sure.  I can only say what feels right for us.

To be honest, I still trip over the words to Christmas carols I’ve heard a million times but only recently started to sing.  I didn’t manage to get Christmas cards out before the holiday (or the new year), and I’m quite sure no one had a Christmas tree like ours.  Our Christmas was “us,” and I loved it.


* This quote is from Weetzie Bat by Francesca Lia Block.  A favorite of mine.