Kristy Woodson Harvey: The year we became the Griswolds

Published 12:00 am Sunday, December 19, 2021

By Kristy Woodson Harvey

Decorating for holidays is an event at our house. Christmas has its own closet full of collected ornaments, inherited Christmas china, a nativity carved by a dear family friend, little trees, wooden reindeer, an Advent calendar with tiny ornaments just like the one I had when I was little.

Every year, I count down the days until we get to put it all out in our house in Beaufort, a pre-revolutionary town on the coast of North Carolina that, like me, really goes all out for the holidays. On the main street through town, full of white clapboard houses with black shutters and double front porches built in the early- to mid-1700s, ours is the super new and trendy white clapboard house with black shutters and double front porches built in 1905. (The original burned down.) We, like our neighbors, choose exterior Christmas decorations in keeping with the tone of the house: fresh garland, fresh wreaths with pretty bows, classic luminaries.

Well, most years, anyway.

But not always. In addition to writing books, I have an interior design blog, Design Chic, with my mom Beth and, a few years ago, a blogger friend of ours asked if she could decorate our house for Christmas for an ad campaign. Because the campaign had to be photographed, edited, and prepared in time for Christmas, on a balmy, early October day, we all donned too-warm but photo appropriate cozy sweaters as “work clothes.” Our then four-year-old was into anything at all that he could “build,” so he got to stay home from school to help and was there to witness the first big box truck roaring down the street. Followed by another truck. Followed by another truck that not five, not six, but seven company employees filed out of.

We formed an assembly line, unloading trees and wreaths, ribbon and glitter trees, giant reindeer and giraffes (Why giraffes I still cannot say.) and more twinkle lights than you could shake a stick at.

Mom and I got to work tying giant gold bows for the wreaths—with lights—for every window, while little Will began assembling surprisingly charming metal reindeer and giraffes with fur collars and, obviously, lights. One crew busied itself draping fake garland, with lights—are you recognizing a theme here yet?—on the railings of the upstairs and downstairs porches while another crew was in charge of tree construction. And the designer ran around town clipping magnolia leaves, greenery, and berries to wire into the garland and wreaths.

The entire operation took about six hours. It was still light outside when we all stood out on the sidewalk admiring our handiwork. In our tiny yard, resided a giraffe and two reindeer on each side of the front walk, and trees lined the interior perimeter of the fence. The left side of our wide front porch had been deemed “the forest” as it was also filled with trees, and big, white Christmas tree candles adorned every surface.

It was a lot.

As the sun began to set, the photographer was waiting with bated breath and people from town had gathered on the sidewalk in anticipation of what we could only assume was going to be a light show. As the sun sank, we even did a countdown. Three… Two… One… POP. The breakers blew. We spread out the electric load and tried again.

This time three… Two… One… Lights! Blinding, blinking lights everywhere you looked, a Christmas celebration the likes of which this one 115-year-old house had never seen. My mom and I were hysterically laughing, little Will was beside himself with glee, and the neighbors were in varying degrees of disbelief. My husband pulled up right about that time. He stood beside me on the sidewalk, quietly, studying.

Finally, he looked down at me: “Oh my gosh. We’re the Griswolds.”

As if on cue, a neighbor walked up to report, “You know you’re going to get fined for this, right?” Evidently, there are rules about how early one can put up Christmas decorations in the historic district.

The part of me that was embarrassed by the display thought that, after the pictures were taken, maybe we should take some of it down. But our son wanted his friends to see his house and we were having all the cousins for family Christmas. So, we decided to embrace it. Let the LED trees blink, so to speak.

And, you know, that little forest sort of grew on me. Those illuminated reindeer and giraffes too. Our house became a bit of a tourist attraction. Kids would exclaim gleefully, “Have you seen the Harveys’ house?” while parents, under their breaths said, “Have you seen the Harveys’ house?”

It wasn’t our usual luminaries and fresh wreaths, but that year taught me that sometimes getting outside your comfort zone is fun. Trying on a slice of another family’s life—or Christmas decorations, as it were—isn’t a bad thing. This year, the joke has been that we all need a boost so why not just skip ahead to Christmas?

And, well, why not? Last year, I was so bummed out about not getting to experience all our usual, magical holiday traditions, that to perk myself up I wrote the holiday season I wished we were having in the form of Christmas in Peachtree Bluff, which released just in time for a little early celebration. If you want that curled-up-with-hot-cocoa, jingle-all-the-way feeling, I think it will do the trick. That plus decorating early is a pretty no-fail combination.

No, our holiday traditions might not look 100 percent the same this year, so I say it’s OK to take that happiness and cheer and those good feelings wherever you can get them. Personally, I’m going to embrace a scaled down but still fun version of our Griswold house, no matter what the neighbors — or my light bill — say. Because they are a reminder to me that, no matter what this holiday season holds, there’s still fun to be had.  This too shall pass. Things will get better. They always do.

More than ever, I think now is the time to take the immortal words of Kathleen Kelly, bookstore owner in “You’ve Got Mail,” to heart. It has, in fact, become my mantra: “It will all shake out. Meanwhile, I’m putting up more twinkle lights.”

Kristy Woodson Harvey is a Salisbury native and the USA Today bestselling author of seven novels.

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