Christmas Decorations & Remembrance Day*

A few days ago, I asked a question in my Facebook group: I wanted to know when people put up their Christmas decorations. I figured it might be a bit of a divisive topic, so I quietly sat back and watched the responses roll in. As I expected, there were multiple views on the topic, but thankfully I seem to have a wonderful group of friends and readers, and the conversation stayed civil and respectful. (Thank you! <3)

As soon as November 1st hits the debate about when it’s “appropriate” to decorate for the upcoming holidays begins… and I feel like it has intensified every year as I’ve watched from the shadows. The social media memes and status updates begin rolling out, urging people to wait until after November 11th before shifting their focus to Christmas.

I understand the reasoning– the concern is that it takes away from the sacredness of Remembrance day, that by focusing on Christmas too early, our veterans do not have our undivided attention on November 11th. That it dishonors the sacrifice of those that have served, or those that are still serving. As we move further and further away from the Great Wars, our connection to those that served then weakens just a little bit further. With each new generation the understanding and impact lessens just a little, as evidenced by the group of 14 year old boys laughing and calling each other “Jewish” and “an Auschwitz” in my class a few weeks ago. It’s much less likely for these kids to have really known and loved a veteran who served then, or even who is serving now.

But I did.

My maternal grandfather served in WWII. I don’t know much about his service, only that it forever changed him. The man that I later knew and loved was simply “Gumpo”, but even as a teenager I knew there were many layers beneath that surface that he kept hidden. To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember exactly when my family decorated for Christmas. I believe it was somewhere around the 1st of December, or at least the first weekend of December. Mom would haul the boxes of decorations in, then we would decorate the tree as a family with Gene Autry and Bing Crosby blasting in the background. After the tree my mom would transform the rest of the house into a Christmas wonderland with garland everywhere and red bows on everything.

Decorating my grandparent’s house was an affair. They had lights inside and outside, two trees, and seasonal items and decor throughout the house. As they grew older the task of decorating fell to us “young spring chickens”, and my sister eventually became Chief Christmas Decorator while my grandmother pointed directions from her blue chair. When we were little, we would pile into our family’s blue vanimal and drive the 20 minutes to their home to visit often through the Christmas season. It gets very cold and very dark up north in December, and we would all huddle together in the van seats while we waited for the heat to kick in.

…which usually happened just as we were pulling in my grandparents’ driveway.

I have these vivid memories of sitting squished together with my siblings in the backseat of the van, drawing hearts in the ice on the rear side windows. Sometimes, if we were feeling festive (and weren’t fighting) we’d sing Christmas songs and caroles while we drove. Dad always picked up the tenor line, K or I alternated between alto and melody and everyone else filled in the rest.

We’re just a regular Northern Ontarian Sound of Music family.

One of our family favourites has always been Silent Night. We learned the harmonies long ago, and it was often requested by our grandparents when we arrived at their home. It was my Gumpo’s favourite… even more so in his later years when he got sick. Grammy and Gumpo proudly lived and managed in a large, five bedroom home until he was 80 or so, then as his health declined his need for care increased and he moved into a facility better suited to meet his needs. Occasionally he would be able to come home for special holidays, and one of my clearest memories of him was of his last Christmas with us, when I was 16. He was frail and very tired, and couldn’t speak much.

But he asked us to sing Silent Night for him.

We gathered together as a family in front of the family room, and began to sing. He closed his eyes, leaned back in his chair and silently mouthed the words to the song with us. I think he knew that his time was short, and the emotion in the air was palpable. To this day, every time I sing that song I remember that moment and feel close to him. I rarely make it through all the verses without crying… and to be perfectly honest, I’m a complete mess right now just writing about it. I miss him. I feel grateful to have had sixteen years with him when I know so many others who served did not return home. For me, Christmas is so wrapped up in my memories with him. He loved the togetherness of it all–he was so proud of his family.

I’m proud to be part of his family.

So, I absolutely understand and respect those that wish to wait until after November 11th to decorate. But I also totally understand the pull to decorate early and bring that magic into your home as soon as possible… I do believe there is a different spirit and feeling in the air through the Christmas season, and for some, I imagine decorating earlier might be a way to welcome that feeling in a little sooner.

For me, I think it’s possible to listen to Christmas music, have your tree up in your home and still honour Remembrance Day. On many levels it’s such a personal thing–how we honour those who served, are serving or that have been lost won’t look the same for you as it might for me. Before today you probably couldn’t have known that listening to Silent Night makes me feel close to my Gumpo, and helps me to remember him, and what he gave for my family. His service photo hangs in my kitchen, where I can see him often and help my family to know him.

I proudly wear a poppy, and I teach my children about service, freedom and gratitude.

I also plan to decorate my house in the next few days.

I guess what I’m getting at is that I don’t believe one has to negate the other. I think it’s possible to honour Remembrance Day and still decorate whenever you choose. After all, didn’t they fight for us to have the freedom to choose?

I sometimes think more is being lost in the debates and arguments around Remembrance day vs. Christmas decorations… it almost seems like the battle itself is really what is distracting us from the true meaning of Remembrance Day.

So, decorate, or don’t decorate. Do whatever feels right to you. Just remember that how I remember and honour might look different than you… and I think that’s okay. Somewhere in heaven I know my Gumpo is closing his eyes and singing with me as I listen to Silent Night.

And that’s how I’ll remember him.

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