The Lights on the Tree

My son runs through the kitchen, tossing crumpled papers onto the counter. I shuffle through the math worksheets and drawings and find a letter from his music teacher about the upcoming Christmas program. In the letter, she outlines the outfits each grade level needs to wear for the performance. My kindergartener is supposed to wear dress clothes. But my second grader is expected to wear an all-green or all-red outfit—neither of which he has. 

Grabbing my phone, I add this to my growing list of holiday to-dos. In addition to our family to shop for, there are friends, two teachers, and the school bus driver. And I haven’t ordered our Christmas cards yet. The realization that December is right around the corner sends me spiraling with all I still have to do. Yet, despite the never-ending list of tasks, I feel a nagging to do more—to make sure I’m creating enough memories and traditions for my kids.

I glance at the calendar, knowing I won’t see a planned night to look at Christmas lights with hot chocolate as a family. We don’t do Elf on the Shelf. And we don’t have a special movie we watch while putting up the tree. We start a new Advent devotional each year but rarely finish it by Christmas. And every year, we leave a different kind of cookie out on Christmas Eve. Our kids are 8, 6, and 2; shouldn’t we have more traditions by now? 

The Sunday after Thanksgiving, my husband drags the fake tree up from the basement. The kids pull out the handmade and store-bought ornaments while I sit back, letting them fill the bottom half of the tree. They dig through the box, asking questions about each one. Once they hang the last ornament, I gently pull out the stockings my mom made. Holding mine up, I say, “This one is almost 38 years old! Can you believe that?” Their eyes widen, and we talk about how old their stockings are.

That evening, after everyone is asleep, I tiptoe into the quiet living room. One of the things I love about the tree is the quiet mornings and evenings when I can catch my breath from the holiday chaos in the warm glow of its lights. 

Out of a habit since childhood, I take off my glasses, watching the lights change in front of me. With my vision no longer corrected, the tiny lights become round balls. Their edges overlap, the glow taking over the whole tree. And with each step I take back from the tree, the lights become even blurrier.

In the coming weeks, we might see Santa, and we might make an impromptu drive to look at Christmas lights. There will likely be new holiday activities we try this year—things we may carry over to next Christmas. Or maybe we won’t.

Even though each year looks a little different, I know our family is making traditions—without me planning them or checking them off a list. 

Years from now, I imagine all the holiday memories strung together like the lights on a tree—glowing from the warmth of hundreds of lights melded together, not from one single bulb. 


This essay first appeared on this episode of The Mom Hour, “A Charcuterie of Holiday Emotions.”

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