Love, not money

It doesn't show the whole tree, but you get the idea. Yorktown, Virginia, 2010

It doesn’t show the whole tree, but you get the idea. Yorktown, Virginia, 2010.

“The Christmas tree is a symbol of love, not money. There’s a kind of glory to them when they’re all lit up that exceeds anything all the money in the world could buy.”
― Andy Rooney

OK, for those of you who don’t already know it, I confess that our Christmas tree is WAY, way overdone.  I always insisted on a live one until the ever-increasing quantity of my ornament collection got to the point where it would kill even the biggest, thickest “real” tree.  In 2000, we got our first and only artificial tree, and it’s a dandy.  Though it loses a ton of needles every time we put it up and take it down (and I thought it was only live trees that did that!), it’s still thicker than anything I’ve seen in any store recently.

Our tree is my personal scrapbook, so lots of things that aren’t really meant to be ornaments end up getting transformed into something I can hang on the tree.  Since I put about 4000 colored lights on it, and some more conventional baubles as well, the oddball artifacts somehow blend into the scene without creating too much disturbance, at least not to us.  The real drawback to our tree is how much time it takes me to finish decorating it each year.

Or maybe it’s not a drawback at all.  Maybe that’s actually a strong point.  Once I finish wrestling with those branches that get bent out of shape sitting in the box all year long, and put 40 strings of lights and a star on it, the fun part starts.  Hanging the ornaments can be very relaxing, even with a tall ladder, as long as I don’t rush myself.  While decorating I listen to Jeff and Matt reading, or have an audiobook on, or play Christmas music. I take it a little at a time and usually don’t totally finish up until just before Christmas (or Thanksgiving, if we are hosting company for a big party that weekend).

My love of Christmas trees goes as far back as I can remember.  In fact, here’s one of the first photographs I ever made, using my cheap K-Mart plastic camera and some black and white 127 film, which I used to buy for 25 cents a roll.  I’m guessing this was around 1964 or 1965:

Daddy always started with the star.

Taking the tree down is almost — but not quite — as time-consuming as putting it up, and is a lot less fun. So each year, I tell myself that perhaps this will be the last year I undertake this rather ambitious task. Not to worry, though…the torch is passed to a new generation!

Do you have a Christmas tree or any other special traditions? What decorations, games and treats do you love best?  Tell us about them and we might get some ideas for our own celebrations.  And while you’re at it, if you need any ornaments, let me know what kind you like best, and I’ll send you one from our personal collection.  Whether you deck your own halls or celebrate Christmas mostly in your heart (or not at all), I wish you a December full of memories to treasure for a lifetime.


  1. Janice Barker

    Julia I enjoy reading all your blogs so much. You are an example and encouragement to so many people. My Christmas tree is a memory tree and I would love one of your ornaments so that I can think of you and your family when I put up the tree each year. I think my Christmas tree is the best part of Christmas, I love you and your family and I miss you so much. It is time for an update. Love, Janice Barker

    • Janice, I was just writing a Christmas card to you last night (it’s all sealed up and will go out in today’s mail) and thinking of you, how much we miss you, how much you and I had been through together in the years we have known you. I would truly LOVE to send you one of my ornaments! What kind do you like best? I remember how beautiful your home always was at Christmas (and still is, I’m sure), and I treasure the memory of hearing Ben play his baby grand piano for us all when you hosted us there. I think I tucked a short newsletter-style update in the card, but maybe we should have a phone conversation (or longer letter exchange) to catch up on all the sorts of little details I would be telling you if we were together. As a holiday treat, here’s a mini-visit from the Ghost of Christmas Past, a snapshot of you and me in Tammy’s kitchen. Hope your holiday season is wonderful for you and all your family!

      • Janice Barker

        Thank you for the picture. Our small group always had such a good time together. Ben and I were blessed by having the small group over at various times after he became sick. My tree is not a theme tree or a certain color tree. I have handmade
        ornaments from children all the way to fancy ones. It is a memory tree. I would like anything that you choose. If there happens to be a story behind it, please let me know.
        I hope Drew and his family will be spending time with you over the holidays.. Your grandson is just precious. Love, Janice

        • Janice, before you wrote this, I had picked out one to send you that does have a sort of story behind it. Part history and part essay, and of course you know I will give you more details than you want or need, hee-hee. Your tree sounds a lot like ours. Drew and Megan and Grady will get here on Christmas Eve and will be the first to stay in Matt’s new apartment (which we built on/in the detached garage). It’s not quite finished yet, but it should be better than camping! Gloria is coming too. Denbigh is hosting the PORT shelter this week; I wish we could be working there. This is the first time to host at our building. We will be hosting for an entire week, with other churches helping out as usual. Sending you our love and best wishes for a wonderful holiday!

      • Janice Barker

        Julia, I don’t know if my reply went through to you. I am not very savvy with the computer.
        My tree is a memory tree. It has all colors , shapes, handmaid by children, fancy, etc.I would like for you to choose, If there is a story about the ornament, please share with me. I enjoy looking at the tree and remembering the people who gave me an ornament or the places we have been represented by an ornament. I hope Drew and his family is able to enjoy Christmas with you. Your grandson is just precious. Love you, Janice

        • Janice, the first comment you sent did get through; for some reason I didn’t see this one til now, I think it was on a second page I didn’t catch. Hopefully you will be getting your ornament very soon. Hope your Christmas was a merry one — Happy New Year!

  2. Julia, I have been thinking of ya’ll for a while now. I am so thankful for your blog. It has helped me endure so much. Our well pump went out Saturday so I am without water. This is upsetting to Ron because it upsets his routine. Keep us both in your prsyers for patience. I hope it will be repaired this week.

    I would love an ornament. I love blue glass of any kind. MERRY CHRISTMAS!!!

    • Oh, my, what timing! I can understand why that would upset Ron; that’s the sort of thing that Jeff gets upset about too, and when things like that go wrong, he can’t rest until they are fixed. I hope you have your pump back soon. I just sent up a prayer for patience for you, Ron and ALL of us (meaning the entire planet Earth) because patience can be in such short supply at this time of year. Based on your described preference, I already have an ornament in mind to send you. But I’m not sure I have your current address — can you email that to me? It still probably won’t get to you before Christmas, but maybe it will get there before you take your decorations down! 😀 Merry Christmas to you and your loved ones!

  3. Carolyn

    I can’t believe it is time to say Merry Christmas, but it is here. I have a tree that is filled with ornaments from the places we have been and pictures of the grandkids. I also have many that friends have given me. I will always put up my tree as long as possible. I also have a Santa collection. My Emma said to me, Mimi you most like Santa because you have so many. I always give the grandkids a new ornament each year, that way they will have lots for their first tree. Love you and the family and still praying for our 5 year reunion. Hugs to all. Carolyn

    • Carolyn, I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks Christmas seasons are getting closer and closer together. When I was a kid it seemed like forever; of course, it didn’t get started quite as early in those days. You have inspired me by saying that you will put up a tree as long as possible. Maybe I should have that spirit. How sweet of you to give your grandkids a head start at Christmas! That will be a big help when they go to set up their first tree. I can remember our very first Christmas tree in 1980 — I had not realized until then that it’s pretty expensive to decorate a tree if one is starting from scratch. We had NO money (and bought a very spindly cedar tree for $3.00 which my friend Alex called “a Christmas Weed!” I had a small ornament collection already, and Eric and Sherry gave us a string of lights. It was much better than nothing, though. From there, the rest is history! I too am hoping and praying for that five-year survival celebration. Merry Christmas to all the Miller family!

      • Rene

        That’s funny, our first “tree” was/were the branches my mother cut off the bottom of her tree, stuck in a vase of water. I decorated with 3 or 4 ornaments we bought at Gemco during one epic shopping trip. Another time, Johnny cut the top off en evergreen in our yard. Nowadays, we alternate between a live and an artificial tree each year and I’ll need to get a new fake for next year. Our ornaments are all memories now: gifts, travel souvenirs, items made by the kids, and even two from an ugly ornament gift exchange (they look like rawhide dog chews). My family decorated the tree for me while I was making Christmas Eve dinner, just like I’d hoped!

        • Rene, I think your mother gave you an ingenious idea for a tree. In fact, that might be an approach I take sometime in the future. WOW, having someone else decorate the tree feels like a fantasy from an alternate universe for me. I’m so picky I’ve always preferred to do it myself, but as I get older and more worn out, the perfectionist tendencies in me are giving way to reality — which is a welcome development; I wish I had started moving in that direction long ago. Like 50 years ago! 😀 I like your idea of alternating between a real and a fake tree. I’m also mulling over different ways to enjoy my special ornaments year round, a few at a time, but not sure whether I want to do this, since it’s special to bring out all those memories at Christmas. The rawhide dog chew ornaments made me smile! I could give a lot of my ornaments away in an ugly ornament exchange, but to me they are all beautiful. Hope you have a great week!

  4. bobmielke

    I think a Christmas Tree is a family’s key expression of the holiday. I have plenty of fond memories of our annual tree that was always real growing up in the Midwest, There was the fun of parakeets and house cats in there somewhere as wel, always managing to get in trouble. The bird just wanted to survive the cat.

    As an adult with a family we had two trees each year, one inside and the second on our all season patio with astroturf carpet and plenty of great lit decorations that could be seen driving down our road. We actually had a bird hatch baby robins in a nest it made in our outside tree one year. All these memories added to the fun.

    • Bob, for us the tree was always the centerpiece too. It must have been great fun to have the parakeets and cats to keep things lively! Our friend Darla has both indoor and outdoor trees. The one outdoors is on her screen porch, and is covered with cardinal ornaments (the cardinal is Virginia’s state bird). I love driving past homes that decorate an outdoor tree. It’s really like a gift you gave to your neighbors and friends for the season. Having the robins would have made it all the more special. Thanks for sharing these lovely memories with us.

  5. Ann

    I love the video of Grady trimming the tree. The close-ups showing Grady directing his mom as to exactly where the ornaments should be placed followed by a look at the whole tree showing the whole tree! What a wonderful family.

    • Thank you Ann! Of course I think so, but I’m biased. 😀 We look forward to seeing Grady and his parents tomorrow! I’m so happy you enjoyed the video.

  6. What a pleasure it’s been reading through the comments following your post. I don’t think a tree is “too much”, as long as it makes you happy.

    I like the image of a tree as a scrapbook. Ours, too, is artificial, which allows us to set it up right after Thanksgiving and leave it up through the epiphany. I grew up taking the tree down on New Year’s Day, but Mike’s family kept it up through the sixth so I go with that.

    The boys enjoyed hanging ornaments when they were young, and could choose one every year. Some are from the Hallmark store, others from museums or trips. We have many hand-made ornaments from school and home as well, now faded but still part of the joy of the tree. I’ve kept a journal detailing what they chose each year and why. My hope is to pack them up and give them to them for their own first tree when the time seems right, along with the pages from the journal.

    These past few teenage years, when their interest has waned, I started order each of them an ornament from Shutterfly. I put a photo of them along with one of the cats or a special friend, then add their name and the year. I ordered one for Mike, too.

    Traditionally Mike sets up the tree and adds the lights. Then I take over with the ornaments.

    We have old super 8 footage of my dad adding the angel to the tree in Canada, probably 1965.

    Great post, Julia. Merry Christmas!

    • Alys, how wonderful that you kept a journal for your sons about their ornaments. I kept a sort of inventory for years, telling where each ornament came from, but I finally gave it up as time seemed to grow shorter each year, and the number of ornaments grew. You are SO lucky that Mike does the tree and lights. That’s the part I dread each year. Have you considered having the Super 8 of your father digitized, or have you already done that? I finally got up the nerve to send out the old reel-to-reel tapes of Daddy reading Dickens’ Christmas Carol (previously I had been afraid of having them lost in the mail, but realized they are not doing us any good as they are, since there is no machine to play them). It was wonderful to hear it again this year.

      Merry Christmas to you and all your family!

  7. Hi Julia, This blog reminds me so much of my family. Since my birthday is 01 December, our tradition for years was to get a tree that day, and decorate together with Christmas music playing in the background. Without a doubt, my happiest of birthdays. I remember the stage when the kids would decorate what they could reach … and typically on some random localized cluster on one side of the tree! So I’m loving the Grady video!
    As my kids got older, they got better at it, but eventually lost interest. When the day came that I was not only the only person taking down decorations (on the 12th day of Christmas), but also the only one decorating, I switched to back-yard bonfires. Quite a shift, I know!

    • Susan, I’m glad you were able to celebrate your birthday in such a memorable way. Was the shift to back-yard bonfires a tough one to make? I remember in 2012, right after Jeff’s diagnosis, we didn’t do a tree at all, but I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I would. Of course we were preoccupied and rather numb with shock, but I do remember it being so nice not to have to mess with the work of putting it up and taking it down. That year, we didn’t do any of our traditional holiday activities (except some Christmas cards), but the season was a time of peace and respite for us, quite lovely really. Maybe that should be our new normal. Still, I wonder whether I might tell myself “Not every year, but maybe sometimes.” Have you ever wanted to go back to having a tree at least every few years?

  8. Sheila

    Julia, isn’t it wonderful that we’ve become a “tradition” to each other? I’m so thankful for you, your family, your kindness, your inspiration and your special friendship. 🎄 For at least 30 years, I’ve had a beautiful handmade “Smoking Santa” by our Christmas tree, a gift from a very artistic friend. His little pipe, when incense cone was lit, would smoke and be such a treat to all. I gave it to Ashley and family last year to enjoy by their tree, in their home. And I miss it just a little, then think of what it means to them… It will always be “Mimi’s Smoking Santa”! 🎅🏻 Your tree is so beautiful, you must enjoy just stepping back to admire it! I love the photo of your Daddy, too. Thank you again for the package. 🎁🎁🎁🎁ANTICIPATION! Merry Christmas!

    • Sheila, I have to confess — I didn’t wait for Grady after all!!! When Gloria got in this afternoon, we broke open BOTH TINS of cookies!! They are so delicious. The new flavor is great. Not too sweet, just right. You won’t believe this, but I have a smoking Santa too! I got it in Germany in 2005, when we went to visit Amy and her family. I saw several of them in a shop, and when Amy explained to me what it was and how it worked, I just HAD to get one! I don’t use it as much as I should, though. I have some incense that is supposed to smell like a real wood-burning fireplace (I got it when we moved to a home that had only a gas one). I should bring old Santa out and let him scent our fireplace here.

      Thanks so much for your kind words and friendship. I too am deeply grateful for YOU! I hope you all have a Merry Christmas — and after all the festivities are over, the dishes washed and the wrapping paper recycled, join me at Club Verandah for some hot cocoa by the fireplace– or maybe I should say iced tea on the deck, since it’s supposed to get to 80 degrees here on Christmas! Wow, I don’t wish for ice and snow, but 80 is a bit much!

  9. HarryS

    Our Big Book says, “When we draw near to God, he draws near to us”
    It doesn’t matter that our lives, or our families or world are not perfect. What matters is that we make a space, no matter how small, for God in our hearts. When we do that, God will do the rest, and He will once more be born in the Bethlehem of our lives and the mangers of our hearts. –Br. James Koester

    These eternal truths are borne out for us in Alcoholics Anonymous.

    • Harry, those are beautiful thoughts, and I’m so sorry I am just now seeing them. There were three comments from Christmas Eve that I somehow did not see until today. I am sure I must have not realized they were on a second page. In any case, I appreciate your sharing this wisdom with us, and I hope you had a wonderful Christmas…I guess it’s almost time to be saying “Happy New Year!”

  10. Oh Julia, your tree is a big ol’ helping of delightful madness. LOL 4,000 lights!! I’m thinking that’s some kind of record. I brought all my ornaments up from the storage closet in early December, then carried them all down again last weekend. It’s rather liberating to know the post Christmas put-away will be such a breeze this year. But I did miss all the pretty ornaments on the tree. Your tree trimming tradition sounds very relaxing and look what transpires! A labour of love I would suspect, and you do it brilliantly. That picture of your dad placing the star brought a lump to my throat. The first Christmas without his company will be emotional I’m sure. It’s a great candid shot and remarkably clear for a plastic
    K-mart Camera. I always seem to appreciate the non-posed shots so much more. Your dad looked really young there. Did he ever ‘not’ have a moustache? I get a kick out of the longer hair in the day too, he looked like a hip guy 😀 Everyone’s going clean cut these days. I’ve noticed a lot of men are going for haircuts from the 20’s and 30’s right now and don beards. I’ve never been a fan of a beard, thankfully Jim’s unable to grow an attractive one, LOL You’re probably fast asleep right now, but sweet dreams Julia. xo Love K

    • About those lights…I learned something this year: they create a lot of HEAT, which I never noticed because it’s usually chilly. This year, it got up to 85 degrees for Christmas and I kept turning the tree OFF because every time I walked past it, I could feel it making the room hotter. Almost like a space heater that radiated heat without a fan. Hmmm, I’d better check the long term forecast before I decorate another tree.

      There was a brief time in the early 1960’s– a couple of years at most, but probably less than that– when Daddy did not have a moustache. But it soon returned, by popular demand. Very few men wore facial hair in those years, too, so people were always commenting on it. Perhaps he enjoyed the attention he must have gotten with it. Later, Sgt. Pepper’s LHCB came along and suddenly things were groovy and lots of people started wearing them, a la Peter Max…but Daddy was there first. He wasn’t hip so much as different, but then again, I guess in the late
      60’s, different WAS hip…

      I SO envy your easy post-Christmas clean up this year. But I will take it slowly on the packing up, and listen to some great books on tape while I’m winding the lights and stashing the trinkets. It’s a labor of love for sure, but as with cooking, sewing, hostess duties and other such fun things, the need for it wanes over the years and it begins to seem less practical. Or maybe that’s just my old age kicking in and saying I’m too tired for it now. Maybe my tree should become a biannual or even every-five-year event. But I’m glad I did it this year.

      Happy Ukrainian Christmas!

  11. Sheila

    MERRY CHRISTMAS! 🎄 My first wish today comes to you, that you have joy and happiness today with Jeff, Matt, Drew, Megan, Grady, and Gloria that will last long after the holiday season. I sit by my Christmas tree, in the quiet of first light, and think of so many blessings, my family and friends. Joy really fills my heart! When I count my blessings, I count you twice. 💛 🙏

    • Thank you Sheila. I loved the mental image of you sitting by your tree at first light. I’m grateful to you for so many things, but most of all for being you!!

      P.S. the sugar cookies are even more addictive, if possible, than the ginger snaps…

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