And the sparkle of childhood followed us home…

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The light of childhood reminds us to embrace life
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It’s no secret there are things in this life that are ruined by adulthood.

I remember thinking this as a kid when I was jumping into the cold water of Lake Sakakawea on a hot summer day. The water couldn’t be too cold. The sky too gray. The wind too wild. None of those elements existed to me at 7 or 8 because there was the water and I needed to swim. And so I did. And when I emerged and looked over at my parents visiting with friends on dry land, I wondered how anyone could be so close to a lake and keep their hair dry.

When does it shift in us? When does that water become too cold? The sky too gray? The wind too wild? When do we decide that in order to have fun, the sun must be shining in the most optimal way?

I wondered this again as I watched my 3-year-old daughter put her nose down to the freshly fallen snow, stick her tongue out and lick it up. I laughed as her little sister mimicked her, sitting up to look at me with pink cheeks and a kiss of frosting on her lips, and I remembered then how fresh snow tasted, although it hadn’t hit my lips for years.

And neither had an icicle, even though every time I see one hanging sharp and crystal clear off the eaves of a house, I think about pulling it down and having a taste. But I never do it.

At least I hadn’t for years, until I became a mother, and then slowly, the magic of the world that seemed to have faded out to dull tones of beiges and grays started to glimmer and pop and shine again in the little fluffs of light and sparkle that follow in my daughters’ wakes.

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Last weekend, I wrestled my girls into their snowsuits and loaded them up in the pickup for a drive out into the pastures of our place, determined to get our Christmas tree cut, in the house, thawed out and decorated before the weekend was over. I was on a deadline. My husband was on a deadline.

But that morning, we stepped out into the bright sunshine after days of fog to find our whole world sparkling. We couldn’t make out a cedar tree from an oak tree in the hills because of the glare, so we got out and walked into the hills to take a closer look, to lift Edie on her daddy’s shoulders, to let Rosie eat snow. To come up for air.

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And when we were trying to find a way to get us all back to the pickup with a tree just a little too big for the space, looking down at a steep icy slope of a hill, I think it was the 8-year-old version of me that whispered, “Let Edie ride on its branches, like a sled! Her daddy will pull her down!”

And so that’s what we did. We stepped off the shore and let the fluffy, glimmering light of childhood follow us home.

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A little Christmas reality

I’ve been a mom now for over a year, so needless to say, I’ve learned plenty of lessons. Like, every day is a lesson on how much sleep you actually need to live. I’m still alive (I think) so apparently you don’t need much.

Last week was one of those weeks at the ranch that I think all parents look back on with fondness and then relief that it’s over.

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It started on Sunday when, after the church Christmas program, 2015’s Baby Jesus #4 turned 2016 Angel #6, leaned in for a snuggle and puked the puke of the mighty all over her mother, down my shirt and into the deepest unclean-able crevasses of the easy chair, and it just sort of went on from there….

and into a week that started with a sick baby and ended with a trip to the big town sixty miles away on the coldest day of the year (like -50 windchill) to pick up Husband’s broken brand new pickup from the shop only to find what we all already new…diesel pickups don’t start in sub-zero temperatures when unplugged and outside.

And in between (after rescheduling for the third time due to that damn month-long blizzard thing we’ve been dealing with) I finally got a chance to get Edie to her one-year photos and one-year shots only to discover upon arrival (and the arrival of her general foul mood) that the poor child was in the process of cutting all four molars and both of her eye teeth at once, just in time to smile for the camera.

Which she managed to do in true Edie fashion, in between fits of sorrow.

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Little did she know that the torture I was putting her through in the name of memories and photo books and embarrassing her at her high school graduation wasn’t going to compare to the torture coming to her next in the form of four big needles.

And that’s when I learned my biggest lessons since the birthday glitter catastrophe of November 24th:

#1: Don’t schedule shots and photos on the same day, even if it will save you a trip. Save your sanity instead.

#2: Planning a child’s photo session is a good way to invite disease or disfunction to your family.

But we made it through like we always do and everything is fine in the whole big picture. Last night I got home late from singing at a Christmas concert just in time to fall asleep and wake up again to rock my poor crying baby with a runny nose and a mouth full of teeth back to sleep in months between 3 and 4 am, which sets me up nice and exhausted for the week of Christmas.

But at least we finally got our tree. The week before the deep freeze, sub-zero temperatures, snow drifts up to my armpits and general good naturedness of an ongoing North Dakota blizzard finally had me persuaded to give up on the whole cutting-our-own-Christmas-Tree tradition and just get one in town for crying out loud. And so that’s what this week’s column is about.

It’s about the expectations. And then it’s about the reality.

And the truth is, the reality, in all its mess and mayhem, just can’t compete with the fantasy because, well, it’s real. It’s our life. And I wouldn’t trade it.

Puke and all…

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Coming Home: Christmas in my mind different than reality
by Jessie Veeder
12-18-16
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When I was dreaming of having a baby of our own for all those years, I ran through how it might look in our house at Christmas: cozy and warm tucked in the trees, hot cider on the stove, a fire crackling in the fireplace, our baby crawling playfully around the fresh-cut cedar we found together on the ranch under a blue sky and after a little impromptu snowball fight.

I held onto that dream through all those childless holidays, come hell or 75-below zero windchills. Even when daylight and landscape were against us, we rallied, we bundled up and took the time to find a tree and make a memory.

But that was back when we took our time for granted.

That was before we had a one-year-old, a house to finish, cows to feed, a broken pickup in a snow bank and a series of days spent getting stuck and unstuck, stuck and unstuck in 50-mile-per-hour winds and miles and miles of snow banks in our way.

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Yeah, this December all it took was one look out the window, the sub-zero temperature gauge and the calendar boxes quickly counting down to the big day and suddenly I became a little more flexible on that whole Christmas Tree Tradition thing. Not that I couldn’t count on my husband to try plowing through the snow banks to make it happen if that’s what I wanted.

But what I wanted was not to freeze my nose off having to pull him out.

And also, I wanted a Christmas tree before New Year’s.

So we went to town.

You heard me.

We had to get some things anyway, like light bulbs and doors for the rooms in the basement, so we might as well pick up one of the last sorry trees they had left in the back, all wrapped up tight and snug and out of the whipping winds.

And the baby loves to go shopping.

You should see her in a store, smiling and waving at everyone, babbling like she’s in a parade. So maybe we made the right choice, swapping a sled for shopping cart…

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Anyway, we picked out our rugs and our Lysol and our spindly, $35 Christmas tree and while I strapped Edie in her car seat, my husband strapped that sorry-looking tree to the roof of my SUV.

And it was a sight somehow reminiscent of both the Griswolds and Charley Brown’s Christmas as we drove an hour home, through the badlands and into a dark, 30-below zero, regular North Dakota blizzard, the heat blaring as we sipped the fancy grocery store coffee we grabbed on the way out of town.

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When I was rocking Edie by our tree last year, her tiny wrinkly body pressed against my chest, peaceful and innocent, I imagined what the next year’s Christmas would look like — a different kind of chaos, ornaments hung on the tree just above her reach, her squeals of delight at the pretty lights, an evening spent watching Christmas movies while we wrangled her up and decorated the tree together as a family.

Well, that’s sort of what happened … just replace the whole “squeals of delight” thing with my sick baby projectile vomiting down the inside of my shirt, all over her favorite blankie and in the deepest cracks of the easy chair.

Change “ornaments hung on the tree” to “the house strewn from wall to wall with partially unpacked boxes of frozen decorations and a tree losing about a thousand needles by the minute.”

Then finish it off by swapping “together as a family” with “my husband in the barnyard pulling Dad and his pickup out of another snow bank while my glass of wine and I found the least breakable ornaments to put on the tree at 10 p.m.”

No, it wasn’t the magical Christmas tree tradition I imagined, but it was real, and you know what? I’ll take it. For so many reasons, I’ll take it.

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The Christmas Tree Plan

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This is what -2 with a -100 wind chill looks like.

Don’t let the sunshine fool you.

And so the scene is set…

Ahem…

‘Twas the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and one of the last free weekends Husband and I have in December to spend traipsing around our countryside on the hunt for a tree.

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So it didn’t matter that our blood could freeze right there in our veins, or that our eyeballs could turn to ice cubes, our snot into icicles dangling from on our nostrils. It didn’t matter that our very lives were in danger of being taken by Jack Frost himself, we were gonna get my darn tree.

We were gonna put on 37 layers of clothes, load up in the new/old feed pickup,

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turn off of the gravel and onto the dirt/compacted snow/ice trail, drive really slow and discuss our options while looking out the window.

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We were going to spot a couple potential spruce bushes relatively close to one another on the side of the buttes, park the pickup, avoid a puppy-cicle and leave Gus inside, grab the saw from the back, trudge up the hill to the first option

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and mumble into our scarves with our eyes half open (you know, to avoid the whole icicle thing) about the potential of a tree that is a 10-foot tall version of Charlie Brown’s, but has possibilities really, because, well, it’s here and we might freeze to death if we stay out much longer weighing our options.

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But then we’re going to decide to risk it, spot another tree down the hill, walk over to discover it’s the same size as the one in Rockefeller Center and consider the possibility of building an addition to accommodate, because, well, there’s that whole freezing to death thing we’ll still be dealing with before I will turn my face toward the sun to discover one last option blowing in the wind among thorn bushes a quarter mile away.

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So I’ll decide we’ll never feel our legs again anyway and we might very well lose our noses to frostbite, but we might as well assess the bushy little tree, decide it’s not so bad, decide it will work just fine before Husband will stomp down the thorn bushes and start after the trunk with his battery-operated saw with a battery that lasts approximately 3 seconds at a time, you know, apparently death-defying cold applies to power tools too…

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And we are going to finally get the thing down after one big push, drag it to the the pickup a half a mile away,

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decide we might be dying, throw the tree on the flatbed, open the doors, get back inside the pickup, crank up the heat, blow our noses that will be miraculously still attached to our faces, and head back down the road toward home.

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Then we are going to get one mile from home and Husband is going to stop the pickup in the middle of the road, get out, run to the ditch and drag the tree back on the flatbed.

And when we arrive at home, we are going to put the tree in the basement to thaw out, I’m going to say goodbye to Husband who is crazy enough to put on one more layer and sit out in his hunting blind for the rest of the day, then I will pour myself a cup of coffee, consider adding whiskey, make plans for an evening decorating mission, because it will take me a good three to five hours to feel my fingers again and call it a Merry Merry Christmas.

That’s the plan.

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Fa-la-la-la-lahhh-la-la-la-laaahhhhhhhhh!!!!!

So many gifts.

Last Christmas Husband and I were planning the arrival of our new home. Husband worked during the coldest weeks of the year alongside his dad, Pops and our neighbor hammering nails with gloved hands, storing the air-compressor inside the heated truck so it wouldn’t freeze, climbing ladders and creating the walls to a foundation that our house was scheduled to sit on as soon as it arrived from Wisconsin.

I remember wondering what it would look like, having only seen what was to be our forever home in my head or on a blue print. I remember worrying that we wouldn’t meet our deadline, wondering how a house can possibly travel all of those miles and wind up in a place along a gravel road where a house has never been before and offering the guys a couple shots of Peppermint Schnapps as a celebration that the first step was done.

It was cold and frosty and the deadline was approaching with each passing moment, but right on schedule our house came rolling slowly down the freshly laid road and we could do nothing more but stand out of the way and watch as the crane lifted it and placed it on the concrete and wooden walls that were so carefully constructed during the depth of winter and into some long nights.

I will never forget what it felt like witnessing our home arrive out of thin air. Husband and I watched in silence with our hands in our pockets before admitting we were chilled to the bones and moving into the heated pickup where we did more of the silence thing, more of the watching. And although we knew when the roof was on and the men were gone there would be more work to be done, we were choked up at the sight of the start of it all.

That was one year ago. It was our sixth Christmas together as husband and wife and we were watching our dreams come true.

One year and I’ll have to say, nail by nail, scary ladder project by scary ladder project, and day by day it has been a test of our skills and our patience and a wonderful hand-made spectacle to watch it all slowly come together.

Two weeks ago they came to pour concrete in that basement.

Last week Husband built us some stairs.

This week we will put rock on our fireplace…

and last weekend we brought our Christmas tree home.

I have to tell you when we made plans for this house we thought out our specific needs. We wanted a lofted bedroom, an open floor plan, a giant mud room and a hardwood floor.

And we wanted to create a perfect space for a big and beautiful Christmas tree.

Oh, we still have so much to do, and realistically we should have been doing it. We should have been wiring that basement, putting doors on the closets or picking out carpet for our master bedroom. I should have been wiping saw dust off of things or washing our socks, but after our breakfast was cleaned up and all our coffee was gone on Saturday morning, my husband and I looked at each other, pulled on our Carharts and went out to find the tree we’ve had in mind since the beginning of it all.

I don’t know how to explain the magic I feel every winter I’m lucky enough to trudge behind that man in the snow on a hunt for our tree. It’s like the world goes calm and quiet, the wind stops blowing and my toes and fingers warm up.

It’s my favorite moment of the season, finding myself alone out here on the snowy acres my family has kept for almost a hundred years alongside a man I have known since we were children, searching for a little piece of our world we can bring inside and give a new life.




I remember every Christmas tree we’ve had together. I remember the first year’s drive out into the east pasture with a pickup and a small puppy. I remember how my new husband drug it up the hill with a rope. I remember the sun going down and the tires spinning as we backed up off the hill and got stuck.

I remember the puppy puke and the laughter and thinking about the long, dark walk home.

I remember getting unstuck and falling in love again as we pulled that oversized tree through the door of our tiny house and found a spot for it. I remember how it smelled.

Fast forward to the second Christmas spent tucked between mountains in eastern Montana, so far away from the familiar but together in a small apartment on the edge of town. There was no extra money that year and no Christmas tree, just a pretty centerpiece sitting on our table as a reminder of the season before we packed up and headed toward home for the holiday.

The third tree was purchased in the dark in a parking lot in a town a little closer to home and brought back to a house we were tearing apart and putting back together, the first house we purchased together. The tree had long pine needles and it didn’t smell like cedar or anything really. There was a fight about candy canes and tinsel and I cried while I put up the lights. I was unhappy, I think…or lonesome or out of place and something about that tree reminded me. There was no tree in that house the next year and after that I vowed I would never cry over Christmas again.

And I never did. We pointed our car north toward the ranch and moved back into that little house where we brought our first cedar tree in from the cold and promised one another that each Christmas we would do the same, no matter what.

We put lights on one more cedar in that little house while we planned for our future. We bundled up against the elements and fulfilled our promise to one another, speaking quietly into the hills that hold us all so close together.

I want to stand on top of those hills and scream that I take none of this for granted.

I want to open my arms and praise this life and the family who helped build it.

I want to say it out loud as if saying it will protect me from all there is that could lift this feeling of peace from my heart and set it adrift.

But for today, for this Christmas season, I will hold that feeling close. I will sit beneathe the cedar tree standing ten feet tall under the roof of our new forever home, its branches heavy with bulbs and lights and Christmas spirit, and I will breathe in its scent be grateful for today, for this life while I’m here.

Because we are not promised anything on this earth but a chance.

And I have been given so many gifts.

The (old school) Christmas tree thing

Christmas. We officially have 12 days until the big day (hmmm, that reminds me of a song…). And it’s beginning to look a lot like this much-anticipated holiday around here. I mean, we have snow. Lots and lots of sparkling snow, the lights are up, the wreath is on the door, and, much to the pug’s dismay, I scrounged up his Santa suit.

But really, you can’t wear a Santa suit, dog or human, without the Christmas tree. I mean, that would just be ridiculous. And out here at the ranch, hands down the best thing about Christmas has always been the Christmas tree.

Because the search for the perfect tree out in the wild pastures of western North Dakota is an event. It is a hunt. It is magic. It is anticipation and adventure and tradition in its purest form and everything that makes the season so damn delightful.

That’s right, we do the tree thing old school.

And by old school I mean bundling up in our snowsuits and neckerchiefs (and facemasks if it’s really cold out there) and scouting out the 3,000 acres of semi-rugged snow covered landscape for a cedar that looks like it might fit nicely in the corner of our little house covered in twinkling lights and sparkly balls and glitter and candy canes and presents and a cat climbing up the middle… well, hopefully that last part doesn’t happen.

And then, when the clouds open up and the light shines on that particularly spectacular tree the men of the land whip out their hand-saws and gently detach it from the earth and drag it home to live the remainder of its life on the receiving end of “oooo” and “ahhhh” while providing shelter to the perfectly wrapped presents placed beneath it.

Not a bad life for a tree. Probably beats being pooped on by birds….

Anyway, my family and the families who live out here as our neighbors and friends have been cutting Christmas trees off of their land as a tradition since the homesteading days. And that is the world I was transported to every time we went out with pops on a blustery, sunny December day to fetch ourselves the centerpiece of Christmas when we were young.

I found myself imagining how it used to be, hitching up a horse to a sleigh and venturing out into the hills on a mission to make a tiny, drafty, house standing strong against the season in the middle of a lonely winter farmstead feel a little warmer with the sweet smell of cedar–the land’s gift to those who had worked it all year.

I envisioned a family gathering around the tree standing humbly decorated in green and red singing the same carols we continue to sing to this day, opening their stockings, tasting the recipes that have been passed down, moving in close to one another under the branches, smiling in the glow of the season.

I imagine a simple, quiet holiday with the cattle in the yard and the snow falling softly outside and families giving thanks for the life that they lead….

So you see, the Christmas tree has never been just a tree to me. It has been a feeling. A process. A ritual. The best memory of the season.

And you can imagine I have quite a bit to say about the whole business of my Christmas tree, because last week, husband and I ventured out to find it…

…the same way I did when I was a kid.

A kid in my mini Carharts and Santa hat, with a little twinkle in my eye put there by the whole holiday spirit thing, stepping in my dad’s foot prints in the deep snow, hand shading my eyes, scoping out my world for a glimpse of the perfect tree—a tree that would bring Christmas to my house….and if I was lucky, Santa too.

I am not positive, but I think dad would have the tree located long before December and, in the snowy years, probably used the tractor to plow a trail right to its location. But my sisters and I were convinced we were essential company on this hunt and when we finally found it, we would exclaim over and over how beautiful, how perfectly shaped and proportioned, how lovely it would look in our house. And then–our favorite part–pops would cut us a couple branches that would sit in coffee cans in our rooms, decorated with our own set of colored lights and ornaments we had made ourselves.

Oh, I loved this. I loved having Christmas in my room. I would load that little branch up with so many lights, so much tinsel, an excess of reindeer shaped ornaments and snowflakes and popcorn and cranberry strands creating a Christmas explosion that caused that little tree to collapse under the weight of all that love and joy.

Yup, it would tip right over.

Every night—ka boom.

But I didn’t care, I just propped it back up, brushed off the glitter and climbed back in bed to admire the twinkling lights as I drifted off to sleep and marked another day off the calendar on my countdown to Christmas.

I know you all have been there. I know you can remember the feeling–that feeling when you found yourself as a child in the middle of winter in your bunny slippers, your heart full of wonder and joy and anticipation at the sight of the lights, the taste of peppermint on your lips, the smell of the cedar tree…

…oh how that smell transports me…

So here we are, husband and I, at the ranch for Christmas. And so it seems we made a little tradition, a little unspoken pact that as long as we were blessed enough to be here, we would celebrate the simple, time-honored things by venturing out and cutting ourselves a cedar.

But let me remind you here about the size of our house: it’s small. And we have a lot of furniture crammed in here. So I wasn’t sure we could manage a tree this year. And if we did, it would have to be pretty modest.

But apparently husband had a different idea entirely and as we headed out into the crisp, clear, December day, it became quiet evident that his eyes and his holiday heart were a bit bigger than the room we have in our house.

Because as we scanned the landscape in our snowsuits, eternally grateful for my brother-in-law’s generous donation of a snowmobile for this adventure, my suggestions and hand waves and hikes up to the reserved and unassuming trees I envisioned would fit nicely in our little home were met with the following statements:

“What, you want a Christmas branch?”

“A Charley Brown tree? We can’t have a Charley Brown tree.”

“Seriously, how small are you thinking?”

And my favorite:

“How is Santa going to know where to put the presents if he can’t find the damn tree?”

And so our search continued, up hills, around bends, scaring coyotes from the draws and the dogs, not to miss something this significant, huffing and puffing through the drifts behind us.


This one’s too big. This one’s too small. This one we’ll save for our next house. This one would look good in Rockefeller Center.

It started to get dark.

My cheeks were getting cold.

We split up, husband on the mobile, me on foot. Damn the machine, we had to do this the old way.

I followed my feet down a cliff and out into a clearing where a tree that looked the perfect size from half a mile away sure grew mighty fast as I crept up on it.

Husband took to the hills behind me, testing, I am thinking, his wild-man side on his new toy. And as I stood looking up in amazement at the giant cedar thinking we should turn in for the day and try a different pasture tomorrow, husband swept up behind me (not so quietly…not as peacefully as I had envisioned the whole process) and killed the engine.

“Oh, look over there…” he whispered behind me and I turned to find him pointing to the horizon where two big mule deer bucks were creeping along the top of the butte as the sun dipped below the landscape.

We sucked in the cold air as we watched those creatures, unconcerned by the entire spectacle of tree hunting and the snow monsters on two legs causing a stir below them. Our mouths hung open in awe, our breath creating misty puffs in the cold weather as the animals pawed and scraped at the frozen earth and then, finally found a proper place to bed down for the night…

I am not sure how long we stood in silence and watched the beasts hunkering down against the season, so quietly, so magnificently, but when we finally broke our gaze, we followed our eyes down from the butte and found they settled on a tree that looked like it just might work.

A tree that we just might have room for in our home.

Well, at least that’s what husband said to me and I agreed, caught up in the magic of it all.

So out came the saw and, just like that, the top of the spruce was detached from the land and tied to the back of the snowmobile, transforming it from a racing machine to a modern day sleigh.

Off we went, in the snow, into the sunset, me, my husband and my Christmas tree (oh, and the dogs… the shivery, snowy dogs in our wake.)

And when we approached the house with the cedar trailing behind, a bit of reality began to creep up on me. There was no way this magnificent tree was going to fit in that door. We were going to have to take out all of the furniture. We were going to have to build an extra room.

One of us was going to have to move out…

But husband was determined. Determined. And miraculously he got the tree into the entryway to thaw out, blocking us inside for a good day and a half.  And when I climbed out the window to get to work the next day, I came home to find that husband had indeed found a place for our Christmas tree.

A pretty perfect place really. I mean, I don’t actually need to get to my desk. And I don’t mind branches tickling my ears as I’m reading the paper on the couch.

I don’t mind at all.

So I spent a good two days decorating and humming Christmas carols to myself and falling asleep gazing at its twinkling lights and remembering that enchanting evening when it found us.

Our tree.

…and it hasn’t tipped over yet…

But if it does, I won’t mind, because I am eight again…

I am eight years old every time I walk in my door and the smell of cedar fills my lungs….

…I think husband knew that would happen…

And that, my friend, is the best thing about Christmas.

Hands down.