damn blues and freaking hope: two christmas trees

by christie shumate mcelwee

Christmas. To many it is a time of bright lights and colorful presents and joyful noise unto the world. To others it can be a difficult, and even blue time of the year. One is bombarded with jolly messages and flocks of red and green, but these things can be reminders of things lost or broken. Often, the heart can’t take all this forced Christmas cheer.

Then came 2020. 

Plans altered. Trips postponed. Family gatherings changed. More and more of us are experiencing those damn blues.

Not even Hallmark movies that depict the “perfect” small town Christmas, complete with caroling townspeople and a magical Santa, can lift our spirits. The onslaught of heart-wrenching songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Please Come Home for Christmas” that focus on missing loved ones who are far away during the holiday season bring ugly sobs when heard on the radio. Even holiday classics like It’s a Wonderful Life reinforce our blue funks.

Instead of cheerful, we feel melancholy. Our expectations are way out of whack with reality. We are gloomy, even when surrounded by holiday lights. Crawling in a dark closet and staying there until February sounds surprisingly appealing.

How do we combat the 2020 holiday blues? There’s tons of advice out there. Exercise. Eat well. Drink more water than alcohol. Step away from the news. Simplify. Learn to say no. Have gratitude for what you have instead of focusing on what is missing.

Blah. Blah. Blah. Sometimes you just have to sit with the damn blues.

Me? In our old house, I had a blue Christmas tree. We’d tramp out to the tree farm for a real one that went in the family room, and the artificial tree was set up in what was the living room and eventually became my writing office. This was the tree I decorated with all the blue and silver bulbs and ornaments I  collected over the years. It sparkled and glittered and reminded me that even when I was glum during this crazy season, I had only to look at this shimmering tree to experience joy.

This strange year I’ve decorated two outside trees. One is my blue tree. I tried to put colored lights on it, but experienced an electrical shock when I attempted to use an old extension cord. I believe it was just another one of 2020’s messages to me, so no lights this year, just blue and silver globes. I also decided to place stars and sparkling snowflakes on our “little tree that could.” This fierce guy came back from the brink of death after I watered and sang and danced around it during quarantine. It is a reminder that even in the darkest of times, we must keep freaking hope in our hearts. 

I find Brave Joy in both “Charlie Brown Christmas” trees. They remind me to breathe, slow down, and acknowledge the blues (and hope) are part of the human condition.

    “And when those blue snowflakes start falling

    That’s when those blue memories start calling

    You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white

    But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas.” 

    –Blue Christmas Songwriters: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson

A New Christmas

“Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” – Charlie Brown

The tree is up. Lights are hung. A collection of Santa Clauses grace a front table. Twinkling fairy lights glow from the bookcase. Christmas has come with all its greenery and delight, except…except everything is different this year. Since our move we have had to adjust to all types of changes, including our images of Christmas.

As I was packing up Christmas last year I knew we would be moving, so I carefully went through all my decorations and packed a box to be donated to a local charity. I hoped someone else would grow to love my old nativity or the large metal reindeer that used to stand guard at the front door. My precious Mary Englebreit Santa flag was gifted to my step-daughter and the little lighted tree to my son. A former student came one Sunday afternoon to load our artificial tree in the back of her boyfriend’s red truck. I whittled down Christmas to just a few plastic bins.

I unpacked a few decorations before Thanksgiving, pondering placement in our new, smaller home. Where would I put everything? In our old house I arranged things in a certain way every year: Santas on the mantel, blue ornaments on the tree in the living room, a string of silver bells on the hallway mirror, glass ornaments in crystal bowls. This year I would have to rethink everything. Slowly, I began to pull out familiar items, not really knowing where they would go. For a moment, a sense of melancholy swept over me. So much had changed in the past year, and now Christmas. Instead of my usual excitement, I felt sad, as if I was drifting through a foggy night. I took a breath. I would tackle this just as I had tackled everything else in this move. I then spied new places to tuck my angels, snowmen, and Santas. My blue ornaments found their way to a humble little evergreen out by the front porch. The vintage red and gold balls still fill the Tiffany glass bowl given to me by my dear friend Nancy. Last weekend we found a tree farm out in the country, and that afternoon while I watched a hokey Hallmark movie and arranged my ornaments, my husband figured the placement of the outside lights. Christmas did arrive, despite the locale shift. 

Webster defines tradition as, “an inherited, established, or customary pattern of thought, action, or behavior (such as a religious practice or a social custom). A belief or story or a body of beliefs or stories relating to the past that are commonly accepted as historical though not verifiable.” Sometimes we are forced to rethink our traditions. Often the old ones don’t fit as we grow and move. The past doesn’t work any longer, so we look to fresh stories. This year I am reimagining the old and the new. My customary patterns have been rearranged, and I am learning to accept this passage as an important challenge as I settle into this community. It is as if I’m a child again, seeing Christmas with fresh, almost innocent eyes. Every light sparkles and each carol sings. I’m embracing it all.

“Christmas waves a magic wand over the world, and behold, everything is softer and more beautiful.” – Norman Vincent Peale

“We are better throughout the year for having, in spirit, become a child again at Christmastime.” – Laura Ingalls Wilder

 all our hopes, loves, and dreams surrounded by new christmas lights.
all our hopes, loves, and dreams surrounded by new christmas lights.

My Blue Christmas Tree

Christmas. To many it is a time of bright lights and colorful presents and joyful noise unto the world. To others it can be a difficult, and even blue time of the year. One is bombarded with jolly messages and flocks of red and green, but these things can be reminders of things lost or broken. Often, the heart can’t take all this forced Christmas cheer.

What is to blame for this “holiday syndrome”? Was it created by psychiatrists and psychologists in order to increase their patient loads? Is it because so many are overwhelmed with all of the family obligations, school concerts, office parties, and the overabundance of food and liquor at every gathering? Could it be the Hallmark and Lifetime movies that are shown around the clock that depict the “perfect” small town Christmas, complete with caroling townspeople and a magical Santa? Or is it perhaps the onslaught of heart-wrenching songs such as “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” or “Please Come Home for Christmas” that focus on missing loved ones who are far away during the holiday season? Or could it be the popularity of the holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life that has contributed to the mythology that the suicide rates spike around Christmas?

Whatever the reason, this season does bring out the blues in many of us. Instead of cheerful, we feel melancholy. Our expectations are often way out of whack with reality. We are gloomy, even when surrounded by holiday festivities. There is so much going on this time of the year that we sometimes want to hide from it all. Crawling in a dark closet and staying there until February sounds surprisingly appealing.

How do we combat the holiday blues? There’s tons of advice out there. Exercise. Eat well. Drink more water than alcohol. Stay away from the news (especially good advice this year!). Simplify. Learn to say no. Have gratitude for what you have instead of focusing on what is missing.

Me? I have a blue Christmas tree. We have had two trees since we moved into this home. We tramp out to the tree farm for a real one that goes in the family room, and the artificial tree is set up in what was the living room and is now my writing office. This is the tree I decorate with all the blue and silver bulbs and ornaments I have collected over the years. It sparkles and glitters and reminds me that even when I am glum during this crazy season, I have only to look at this shimmering tree to experience joy. In fact, I have the timer set that it is on all day and into the evening, so as I sit at my desk trying to find the right words for a story or blog post, I can gaze at my blue tree and see hope illuminating from every twinkling light.

I find “comfort and joy” in this blue tree of mine. It reminds be to breathe, to slow down, and to acknowledge the blues are part of the human condition.

    “And when those blue snowflakes start falling

    That’s when those blue memories start calling

    You’ll be doin’ all right, with your Christmas of white

    But I’ll have a blue, blue blue blue Christmas.” 

    –Blue Christmas Songwriters: Billy Hayes and Jay W. Johnson