Last night I was at a Christmas party, and I noticed my friends lovely Christmas tree. As I glanced up at it from across the far side of the house, it seemed to stand out somehow, and as I looked again as I realized it was a real one. There is really something about a real tree. I actually stood and looked at it for a moment and just let the memories of all the real beautiful trees I had grown up with wash over me.

I do love Christmas…not just the day….the day itself can be so unpredictable…plans vary from year to year….flexibility is a must…..the day itself can sometimes go wrong on a practical level….and so for me, the season itself is what I love. I love the build up, the decorating, the baking, the parties….the music that’s in the air…and just that warm cozy feeling that overtakes us as we settle into winter.

Christmas is different in every family. Some families are bigger on different aspects of Christmas than others. It’s also slightly different depending on where you live, and what the weather is like outside. Over the last nine years of  living overseas, I’ve enjoyed Christmas in Ireland, England, and South Africa and I’ve always tried to bring a bit of my own Christmas tradition wherever I’ve been.

My first Christmas in Ireland I went on a total baking spree. I must have baked a hundred cookies and cakes as I was house sitting on my own for a friend and had a big house to myself. It was a great way of passing the time. Baking was big part of Christmas growing up. It was something I always looked forward to every year. There were cookies that we only had at Christmastime and it wasn’t that they tasted so good, (which they did) it was the fun of making them. My mom always let me help, and as I got older, I did more and more of the baking on my own. She also threw a cookie party for me every year, and I invited friends over to decorate cut out sugar cookies with frosting and tons of different sprinkles. It must have been the Christmas baking every year that encouraged my love of baking to this day.

The thing that struck me about Christmas on this side of the pond, was the way everyone really seemed to slow down. I mean, Christmas in America is big…but after the day itself…things quickly start going back to “normal” and apart from a brief rest on New Year’s day, most people are fully back into the swing of things, where here, it’s not uncommon to be off work for close to two weeks.  My first foreign Christmas was spent with O’Callaghans, who lived out in the middle of no where in County Clare, West Ireland.  It was very cozy. I have memories of drinking mulled wine and going for a walk on St. Steven’s day (Boxing day) and being invited into a random home where they insisted we partake in some very strong Irish Coffee.

Over the years, Christmas has been varied. There was the first Christmas in England, where I tasted the delights of an M&S Christmas Eve. Dinner….and Jason and Beth’s (who I lived with) endless supply of Chocolate that they put out on their coffee table for the month of December. Then there was the first Christmas Jon and I were married and we got a real tree. It felt special. I don’t think Jon had ever had a real tree before, and it felt good to be able to share my Christmas tradition with him.

Growing up, the tree was a huge part of Christmas in our family. Still to this day my nearly 70 year old mother loves decorating for Christmas. There was this exciting feeling I would get when the Christmas boxes would come out. Either up from the basement or from the loft in the roof these huge boxes would appear.  For the next few days the house was overrun with toilet paper and old dress patterns that we used to wrap ornaments in. I used to love plugging in that first set of Christmas lights to test and see if they still worked. It was like the official beginning of Christmas for me. Christmas just seemed to invade the house. The tree was always real and it was always big. Sometimes we went to cut it down from a farm, and other years we bought one from a nursery (Garden Centre). There was always  a bit of drama involved in getting it home and getting it into the house and into the stand and straightened out. The first day it just had to sit in the stand…then the next day we’d put the lights on, and only the day after that could we start to decorate it. We had so many ornaments. A whole variety. Everything from paper ones that we’d made as kids, to expensive ones bought from Christmas boutiques. I think many years it was my job to water the tree. I can still feel the pine needles pricking me as i crawled under the tree spilling water as I poured it into the tree stand.

So as the years have gone on, things have changed a lot. The first Christmas I had Iona, she was only 2 weeks old. My mother and brother who had been visiting actually helped with the tree that year. It all just seemed to happen around me though. It was frustrating as I was in those first few weeks of adjusting to a new baby and my hormones were all over the place. I vividly remember having some sort of melt down on new year’s day as I had to take the tree down and put everything away all with a small hungry baby to take care of. It all just seemed like a bit nuisance. The year after that we were preparing to go to South Africa so I think we may have just managed to put up a string of lights.

The next year we were in South Africa. That was completely different. My parents were visiting and my mom bought us a little tree to put on a table top. Somehow she made it look amazing with very little effort. It was just such a different atmosphere. It was warm. The sun was out. Christmas day we went to the beach. It was just so strange. I must admit I was craving Gingerbread Latte’s from Starbucks, and that warm cozy inside feeling when it’s cold outside. It was a special time though. We had a little girl from the local township living with us and we had lots of fun doing Christmas morning with her and Iona who was two, and only just starting to get her head around opening presents.

So since then we’ve been back in the UK. Last year we quickly bought a “temporary tree” to see us through the year and it’s ended up being our tree this year as well. It’s really fine. My mother says trees always look great once you get the decorations on, not matter what type. (She has long since invested in a quality artificial tree)

So this year, I brought out the Christmas box. We did it the day after Iona’s birthday so that her birthday would not get lost in Christmas. I have some great shots of her unwrapping ornaments and I can only hope she has happy memories  of the Christmas season. One of the reasons I enjoy decorating on the early side is that I think it helps everyone to really enjoy the entire season of Christmas and not just focus on the day itself which is always over too quickly.

So yes, I did sigh a bit as I looked at the lovely real tree…. hopefully next year we’ll get one! The most important thing to me in the season though, aside from remembering the amazing miracle of the birth of Jesus…is creating a lovely warm environment that my children will remember long into adulthood…and seek to replicate, with their own individual twist of course.

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