December 30, 2019
He wants a real tree. She wants fake. She likes white lights. He wants colored. She wants her carved wood folk ornaments. He wants his laser cut metalwork. Why? “Because that’s what I’ve always done!” each cries.
When two established adults decide to get married or move in together, blending belongings is plenty challenging, but blending holiday décor is the topper on the tree. She wants the angel. He wants the star.
“The tree in a blended home can be very contentious,” said Mac Harman, owner of Balsam Brands, maker of artificial trees and all that goes with them. Both parties come to the threshold with boxes full of nostalgic sentiment and hearts full of expectations. But when holiday visions collide, joy flees like smoke up the chimney.
This is exactly why people started spiking the eggnog.
I was reminded of my lost nostalgic sentiment and dashed expectations recently while talking to a woman at a social event. After chatting a few minutes, she realized I wrote that quirky home column she read the newspaper. Our pleasant discussion took a turn. The expression on her face looked like she was experiencing a bad stomach cramp. Her eyes widened, and she cried, “Did your ex-husband really throw away all your Christmas decorations?”
“That was eight years ago,” I said.
“Who could forget?” she said. Clearly, not her. To her, losing all your Christmas decorations at once was on par with watching your house slide off a cliff with your family and dog inside.
Now my face was expressing flu-like symptoms. “That was rough,” I said. “But,” and I certainly couldn’t have said this then, “it was a blessing.”
I was moving out of my home in Colorado to Florida. I’d run out of room in the moving truck. So the Christmas boxes — the tree, its trimmings, the nutcrackers, the stockings, the … I can’t go on — remained on the driveway. My then husband was staying behind in Colorado, moving to a smaller place, with limited storage. He would take the boxes for now, we agreed.
But when his moving day came, he had to make some cuts. I don’t blame him. It was a tough time.
“A blessing?” The woman was waiting, staring at me with a how-on-earth look.
Yes, a blessing.
See, that first Florida Christmas, when I was building my holiday back from scratch, I lived in a home I was staging to help sell. My tree needed to look not too personal or overdone. Not having any décor made that easy.
As I moved to five more staging projects, I felt grateful not to haul all those decorations, nor open a loaded box of ornaments that would go off like hand grenades detonating memories.
But the greatest blessing of all was not having to cull through the Ghosts of Christmases past with my new husband, DC, when we blended our homes four years ago.
While I am not recommending tossing all your holiday decorations when a relationship ends, I have learned, in the intervening years, that letting go, even unwillingly, has its upsides.
My new book, “Downsizing the Blended Home: When Two Households Become One,” came out this week (Sterling Publishers). In it, I talk about merger math: One house plus one house must equal one house. Both partners have to lose half a house. I also talk about how blending takes bending. The lessons about blending home décor apply to holiday décor, too. For those of you blending holidays this year, here’s what works and what doesn’t:
What doesn’t work:
- The Ghost-of-Christmas-Past Tree: Hanging all the tree ornaments both of you brought to the party without editing, curating or discussing is probably going to look like reindeer poo, plus will remind both of you of a past you did not share.
- The One-Sided Tree. If one party comes with all the tree trimmings, and the other comes with nada, someone is going to feel like something’s missing, because it is.
- The Do-Over-Fast Tree. If neither of you has any ornaments, running out to Michael’s and filling your cart with all-new, meaningless ornaments guarantees your tree will lack soul.
- The One-for-Each Tree: Getting two trees for each of you to decorate your own way misses the point.
What does work:
- A unified style. Pick a tree décor style like winter white, nostalgic, chic, or eclectic, or maybe a theme, like Santas, angels, music or simply “us” to build around. DC and I get ornaments when we travel.
- A base color. Whether in a blended home or on a blended tree, color can make disparate items cohere. Pick one or two colors of shiny glass ball ornaments, say red and silver, and hang them near the tree’s center, where they will reflect light and add depth. On that unifying color base, overlay yours, mine and ours ornaments. “If one partner has a collection of fancy crystal ornaments and other has a collection of paper mâché cat heads, it can totally work,” said Harman.
- Veto power. Give each party nixing rights. You might love an ornament you got on your honeymoon with your ex-wife because it reminds you of Rome, but it reminds your new partner of your ex. Ditch it. Arguments about ornaments are rarely about the ornaments, said Dr. Margaret Coleman, professor of human development at the University of Missouri. “Most couples don’t see these acts as the power struggles they are.”
- Equal representation. If your kids are blending, too, hang ornaments that represent them all equally.
- Patience. If your relationship is new, and your tree is sparse, don’t rush. Rebuilding your tradition will take time.
- Make room. The goal of blending is to bring the best of you both forward, honor your respective pasts, and leave room for your future. Did I mention, there’s a good new book out about this?