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Ever since I was a child, Christmas lights have cast a magical spell over me. Mood, color, ambiance– combined to create a winter fantasy.
This year Michael and I decided to scale back on the interior decorating and focus primarily on the exterior of the house– since that is what the most people see.
With the unseasonable warm weather we had this year, I was able to work on outdoor projects longer– like repairing and painting stairs and porches, all the way in to November. The trees held their leaves much longer this year, postponing yard clean up as well. So, I didn’t really start decorating until the week after Thanksgiving.
The majority of the decorating took approximately 60 hours over two and a half weeks. I used over 900 feet of garland, 10 artificial trees, 65 bows, thousands of LED lights, 24 egg strobes and 10 laser projectors to complete the effect outside. Every year it’s a little different, depending on time, resources and whatever mood strikes me.
Inside, I didn’t put up any traditional, full-size trees but did decorate 12 ‘stick’ and tabletop trees (3 ft. to 9 ft. tall) along with some mantle and stair garland. In the windows I used 27 LED snowflakes, 28 sets of icicle lights and 36 battery operated candles. I experimented with LED ‘curtain lights’ in 6 windows in place of Christmas trees I’d used in the past.
The lights will be on display through at least New Years’ weekend.
It was hot and uncomfortable where we sat, in folding chairs, on a dimly lit stage. We were all turned upstage, facing an old, out-of-tune piano. Our music teacher, Mrs. Blanchard, came in– carrying her usual load of music and instruments. She was followed by the scent of her trademark perfume, Tabu– choking us all, within minutes of her arrival.
She asked one of my classmates to help pass out the freshly mimeographed copies of the Christmas medley she’d put together for us to perform at our Christmas concert, in just a few weeks. Us, sing? In a concert? We were quite a motley crew. While most of us tried to sing, my friend Alex was busy trying to distract everyone. Always the class clown.
Mrs. Blanchard would try to ignore him. Often she’d grab him by the ear or the arm and make him sit on the bench next to her– which usually only made things worse.
She’d give him the evil eye and turn her back to us, facing the piano. Her long, manicured nails would click and clack on the keys of the piano as she would bang out the notes, trying to teach us harmony:
Spinning the dial from station to station,
We hear Christmas songs old,
And some that are new…
Mrs. Blanchard, would stop and look at us, usually grimacing; her painted on eyebrows raised. It was a look that put fear into us. A look, that would sometimes melt into a smile, sending audible sighs of relief around the room. At times, she reminded us of the witch in the Wizard of Oz; but we loved her and wanted to please her.
Somehow, we did managed to put on a Christmas concert that year. I played the drum for The Little Drummer Boy. And it was magical.
One year– I think it was kindergarten, I was a toy soldier. Years later, I played Joseph in the nativity. Christmas concerts, church cantatas and pageants were a big part of my growing up.
I can still remember believing in Santa and the anticipation of gifts on Christmas morning. I remember my sister and I sneaking into my parents’ closet— trying to steal a peak at our hidden gifts.
But, what I remember most about Christmas— was the lights. I still have vivid memories of seeing the amazing Christmas lights and giant Christmas cards that surrounded the Indiana War Memorial Plaza, in the heart of Indianapolis, with my parents.
I remember riding in the car, either coming home from Christmas shopping or visiting relatives– trying to look out the window and see all the Christmas lights along the way.
I remember pulling out boxes of old Christmas decorations with my Dad and spending hours— trying to untangle lights and replace burned out bulbs.
As a child, snow and Christmas lights were magic to me.
So there should be little wonder as to why I decorate as much as I do today.
Christmas is magical.
It’s the one time of year that it’s okay for us all to be kids again.
Every Christmas I feel especially close to my Grandmother, who passed away when I was a senior in college. She taught me so many things without really intending to, I imagine. She brought out a lot of my creativity through the many hours we spent baking and crafting together when I was young. My grandparents weren’t rich— but the Christmases we shared with them were always magical.
My parents were always careful to balance all the different aspects of the holidays, careful to keep the emphasis on the real reason for the season. We didn’t have a lot growing up– but we had everything.
To me, more than anything, Christmas is a feeling. Sometimes I feel it in my heart and sometimes in my gut. Sometimes it’s magical and sometimes it’s bittersweet. It’s a time to look ahead– and a time of remembrance.
Christmas is a time of wonder and awe– that the birth of an innocent child so many centuries ago, could ignite generation after generation with promise– and lead the world on a journey towards the eternal search for light and truth. The miracle of birth and rebirth.
Christmas is the time for us all to take a step back and view the world through the eyes and heart of a child. The eyes of innocence. The heart that can still believe. Where a world can still be guided by love and peace. A world where there is still hope. A world full of magic. A world where dreams and miracle can come true.
Christmas really is for children.
May this Christmas reawaken the child in all of us.
As promised, here are a few Christmas pictures inside our house. We’re currently celebrating the house’s 125th Anniversary.
I finally finished my Department 56 Christmas in the City village yesterday even though it was the first thing I started back in November. There are approximately 80 houses and 200 accessories.
I tried to include a variety of pictures featuring some of our 12 indoor trees.
Live or Artificial… Large or Small… I hope you’ll find some tips here to take a little stress and frustration out of prepping your Christmas tree this year. I highly recommend adults setting up and prepping the tree prior to having young ones participate in the actual decorating.
Choosing Your Tree
There are many things to consider when selecting a new Christmas tree that rely heavily on your own personal taste and the space where it will be displayed. Height , color, fullness and shape are all considerations… pre-lit or not? There are also safety issues to consider, and things you can look for to anticipate the longevity of your tree.
Live Trees- Benefits include: scent, natural and no storage concerns. I have friends that always insist on using a live Christmas tree. Part of their holiday tradition is going out and cutting their own. Very nostalgic. For those that don’t have that luxury, you are likely purchasing a tree that was cut and stored in a refrigerated truck back in August. No wonder there is often little scent and the needles barely make it past Christmas Eve! I’m not going to say a lot here, there is a lot of information online about things to consider and to watch out for when selecting a healthy, safe, live Christmas tree. Remember, the cost does not indicate the freshness!
Artificial Trees– The possibilities here are endless. Height, color, fullness, thick or thin… it’s out there if you look hard enough. Benefits include: Reusable, many are made from recycled materials, more cost effective over time and they are considered safer to display than live trees.
Best Tip of the Day: Strapped for Cash? Did you know there are lots of people giving away trees on Craigslist.com?
There are affordable options out there but artificial Christmas trees can be quite expensive. Remember no tree is perfect, live or artificial. Here are a few things to consider when purchasing a new artificial tree:
- Fullness and strength of branches. When buying a tree online it’s really difficult to check the quality and details. You want sturdy branches that have lots of tips for a full look.
- Check the tips for needle drops. Better quality trees tend to hold their needles because of how they are manufactured. Cup the tip (a finger of the branch) and run your hand back and forth on it. You should little or no needles fall off on a new, good quality tree. Overtime, of course, the needles will become more fragile. I have one tree that is 10 years old and it is so well made, the only way I can get any needles to fall off is to pluck them off.
- Pre-Lit or Not? Personally, I prefer a tree that is not pre-lit. Even though the lights are hidden in the branches and it makes it easier to prep the tree, the light will inevitably stop working. Finding that one missing bulb or short in the wire in nearly impossible. Removing the lights if they stop working can be difficult but you can always add strings of lights to the tree if they do stop working. NOTE: Pre-lit trees can be very, very heavy. Something to consider for moving and storage.
- Branches. Check to see if the branches are individual and have to be added one by one or if the branches are all hinged to the pole. A tree with individual branches can be stored easier if space is an issue. You have to be careful because the plastic fittings where the branches attach to the pole can crack if there is too much weight or force on the branch. The plastic also becomes more brittle over time causing breakage.
- Collapsible Pop Up Trees? They do exist! I’ve seen them in traditional evergreen styles and collapsible tinsel garland trees, that seem to be in most of the stores this year. These aren’t usually very full and most can’t hold many or even any ornaments. They are easy to set up and to store but I wouldn’t expect that these would last more than a year or two.
- As always, shop after Christmas to get your best bargains. Every tree I’ve used for the past 15 years was purchased after Christmas for 70-90% off!
Prepping Your Tree
Decorating your Christmas tree is the fun part. No one looks forward to setting up and prepping the tree, which for me, starts when I take it out of the box, through adding the lights.
Tree Stands. Whether you are using a live or artificial tree, it’s very important to have a good, strong tree stand that is the right size for your tree. It’s also probably a good idea to make sure your live tree stand can hold plenty of water. Most artificial trees come with stands appropriate for that tree. In rare cases, I’ve had to find a better stand so the tree would stand safely and securely in place. If you are reusing an old tree and have had tipping issues– you need a better stand.
Fluffing the Branches. This obviously only applies to artificial trees. Once your tree is out of the box and assembled in its stand, you need to fluff out all the branches before you add any lights or ornaments. I highly recommend wearing a cheap pair of work gloves during this process to avoid scratches and skin irritation.
Start at the bottom of the tree and work your way around and then up, fanning the tips on every branch as you go so they aren’t laying flat and clumped together. This accomplishes two things:
1) It makes the tree appear to be much fuller; and 2) It will actually help stabilize and support the surrounding branches.
(If the tree still looks thin or sparse, I’ll cover what you can do to add fullness in the next blog post– and this works for both artificial and live trees.)
Now you are ready for the lights.
Lighting Your Tree.
Stringing your lights on the tree can be one of the most frustrating parts about decorating. I’ll talk about the different types available in a minute– but here are some things to consider when actually lighting the tree: If you prefer a more sparse or uniformly decorated tree, then you want to try have your lights evenly spaced without holes or dark spots in your tree. If you use a lot of decorations, you don’t have to be as concerned with this as some of the decorations are inevitably going to block some of the lights anyway.
I find to get the best coverage, you should move around the tree completely, all in one direction. Save a few strings of lights to fill any troublesome dark spots once this step is complete. I personally prefer to to move around the tree in circles, from the bottom moving up in a slow spiral (horizonally) instead of stringing the lights up and down (vertically) on the tree. I have tried winding lights around the branches to help hide the strings, only to find: a) it’s very time consuming; b) you need a lot more lights; and c) you still end up needing to run additional strings around the tree to fill the dark spots. After I run the lights completely around the tree, I’ll take my extra strings and move around the tree diagonally, to hit the dark spots and to try and avoid creating a noticeable light pattern.
LED lights are the newest technology and also the most costly to purchase. The good news is that after a few years, the energy savings will outweigh the initial investment. If you are purchasing white, pay attention whether you are getting cool or warm white. There is a definite difference and you’ll want to avoid accidentally buying both. I’m in the process of switching over to LED lights completely. One of the best things about LED lights is that you can connect up to 40 strings together end to end, eliminating a lot of extra outlets and cords.
Mini lights make up the bulk of what most people currently use today. They can still have different covers or shapes but if you use different styles on the same tree. Make sure you spread out each type evenly or you will likely be disappointed with the result. Most mini lights can be connected end to end with a maximum of 3 strings without blowing fuses on the plugs. Mini lights are currently the most affordable and come in the largest variety of colors and styles.
C-Series lights should not be used indoors, period. These are the larger old fashioned bulbs. They are still available but designated for outdoor use only. They can get extremely hot and become a fire hazard, particularly on live trees. I will admit that I have used them on an artificial tree in the past… and they melted the needles on the branches that they were touching.
Multifunction Mini or LED lights. If you want twinkling lights, flashing or fading these are the ones you want. If you use these, you need to run them around your tree more random than uniform and overlap them to get the desired effect. One of the drawbacks is that they cannot be connected end to end and must each be plugged in separately.
White, Colored Lights or Both?.
Completely based on your individual taste, adding colored lights to your tree can create several things you’ll want to watch for. If you use all one color or use the multicolored strings, you should be fine. If you mix colored strings of lights, you need to make sure you evenly distribute the different colors evenly throughout the tree. If you don’t, you could end up with unwanted patches or blotches or color.
The other day I notice one store selling trendy pink, lime green and lavender lights (the wire was colored too.) If you decide to go with something trendy, keep in mind the cost, longevity of the trend and by all means, make sure you purchase enough to finish the job. Keep in mind that 6 strings may work this year but next year you may need 8 and they are no longer available. Then what? Back to the drawing board.
AND, make sure the lights you are purchasing are green wire and not white wire! You may need to look in the box to be sure. White wire strings of lights are very difficult, if not impossible to hide on a traditional green tree.
Now you’re finally ready to decorate!
After you have all your lights on the tree, you might want to take a moment to vacuum up any dropped needles so they don’t get tracked all over the house, especially if your family will be decorating the tree together.
One Last Thought– Say NO to Canned Snow!! The only situation where this might be a good idea would be a live tree. If you do, try and spray it outdoors or take careful precautions to protect furniture and walls if you must spray the tree indoors. Never spray canned snow on an artificial tree unless you plan on throwing it out after that use. And please, please, PLEASE… only spray a tree BEFORE you add lights or ornaments. The spray will ruin them for future use. If you want the snow effect on your tree, buy a flocked tree. They are some other options that I’ll share with you in the next installment.
If you have any questions or comments, please contact me! I’d be happy to help.
Next Up: Decorating Your Tree– To Stuff or Not to Stuff?
In a few hours we’ll begin our first read through of the script, Ragtime, our spring musical, at school. I spent most of the morning getting copies of a character development sheet ready to pass out to the students. The long rehearsal process begins!
I also spent time outside taking down Christmas lights, using this unseasonably warm weather to my advantage.
What do these two activities have in common?
They made me think about how much of our lives we spend creating illusions.
Whether we are decorating for the holidays, or daily life… landscaping, painting the interior or exterior of our homes, we are in affect creating an illusion. Without plantings, color and furnishings we basically have a relatively plain, hollow shell.
In preparation for performance, actors develop characters– their look, how they talk, move and appear to the audience. By carefully manipulating their behavior and appearance, actors can completely become someone else.
How much time do we spend creating these same illusions in real life?
We all live our lives as actors creating illusions. We may want to appear smarter, or richer, or younger, or older. We try to adjust our look in a way that will appeal to others in certain situations. In some cases, we may want to appear sick or tired or unattractive.. but it’s still an illusion. It’s only when we strip off the make up, the clothing, let our hair down and stop trying to be something else –that our true selves are evident.
In the end, don’t we really want people to just accept us for who we are underneath the disguise?
The true reality is that without the costuming and pageantry, most of us would be completely overlooked. Society expects certain efforts towards appearance. Success doesn’t come to most without great efforts of visual transformations.
I say, the most successful people are those that can see beyond the illusion and measure the person hidden underneath by their inner beauty.
In the end, that’s all that is all that we really have.
Today’s Pic of the Day: Down comes Christmas. Just the beginning of the process.