Country Accent

Vivian Howard’s Holiday Decorating Dilemma

A nuisance tree finds redemption during the holidays

An illustration of a woman wearing a sweater and scarf waving down a garbage truck carrying a huge decorated Christmas tree

Illustration: JENNY KROIK

The philosopher John Currin Howard once said (and then continued to say), “The man who does the most with the least is the man I admire.” If you know my dad, you also know he wasn’t talking about his approach to holiday entertaining—John Howard doesn’t entertain holidays at all. Instead, his mantra offers a road map for his approach to life, one I have heard and seen the fruits of for forty-five years. 

Stay in Touch with G&G
Get our weekly Talk of the South newsletter.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.

Whether of my own accord or to please him, I began manifesting his beliefs as early as the fifth grade, when I hawked raffle tickets to kindergartners on the school bus for a prize that I planned to lift from the ragged collection of toys that continued to hang around my soon-to-be-middle-school bedroom. When I started a soup business in my apartment at twenty-three, I made him doubly proud by dodging the cost of a commercial kitchen and selling a product that in theory consisted mostly of water.

Today I lead the JCH life in myriad ways—which to me means I make the most of what I have and then try to figure out how to make more. I’m the mom who packs her kids’ sandwiches in shredded cheese bags, and I’m the entrepreneur who closed a busy restaurant in hopes of saving its mother ship. I am also, confoundingly, the same person who has dedicated a growing section of her small attic to Christmas decorations, wrapping paper, and gifts that never got given; bags and bins of red, green, and silver stuff I schlep out, unpack, uncoil, untwist, hang and hook around my house to “enjoy” for less than a month every year. But I don’t want to be that person anymore. That person does the least with the most and doesn’t feel good about it.

Before you write me off as Queen Grinch, hear me out. I know people who pour a glass of bubbly and jam out to “Jingle Bells” while they trim their tree and tinsel their ceilings. Decorating often becomes a family affair, a tradition in which even the least festive of us can find slivers of joy. But—and this is a big but—I don’t know anyone who looks forward to the undoing of all that doing. Sure, we want our houses to look and smell normal again, and we are all sick of hiding the dang elf, but the act of breaking down all the Christmas stuff, packing it up, and putting it away is demoralizing and burdensome, and never a family affair.

Last year, with my limit met and a pickup truck in the driveway, I said goodbye to the Vivian of Christmas Past and threw away more than half of my holiday paraphernalia, including a six-foot, white-frosted fake tree strung with at least seven strands of working lights. I’m known to love a good purge. Getting rid of things that don’t serve a purpose or bring me joy is not a practice I learned from Marie Kondo—it’s an impulse I’ve had my whole life that calms my nerves and makes my children want to lock their bedroom doors before they go to their dad’s house.

What I don’t do is purge something so I can buy a replacement. That’s why Christmas Present represents a new frontier for me. This year, I plan to deck my halls with natural materials I can then burn up, backyard bonfire style. By doing so, I can make both ends of this holiday season, and a few nuggets in between, invitations to participate. I want more family affairs and less time alone in the attic.

illustration: JENNY KROIK

This is not an entirely original idea. In fact, it is probably the original idea when it comes to holiday decorating, and it happens to be a practice I’ve dabbled in before. In the eighties, my family went through a short streak in which we strung popcorn and cranberries into garlands to adorn our otherwise plastic-focused tree. I relished the opportunity to sit and craft with my sisters, who were well into their teens and would never spend time with five- or six-year-old me unless forced. Unfortunately, for me at least, after two years of popping corn and pricking fingertips, our garland-making days ended abruptly when a mouse crept in and ate every kernel from our meticulously strung masterpiece.

Now times have changed. I’m a mom of seventh graders, and it’s my turn to mandate the production of edible garlands and weird memories. This year Theo and Flo will cover okra pods in silver spray paint to add to the string. Not only will the dried vegetable’s icicle shape punctuate the popcorn and cranberries nicely, but by destining my overgrown okra for somewhere beyond the compost pile, I will have performed a sort of Christmas miracle.

I really owe my interest in sustainable decorating, though, to the sweet-gum trees that flank my yard. If you aren’t acquainted with the fast-growing nuisance, you are lucky. Known as the sandspur of the forest, the sweet gum produces oodles of round spiky seedpods roughly an inch in diameter. They aren’t edible. They don’t flower. If you step on them barefoot, it is undeniably painful, and if you mow the grass near one of these towering deciduous weeds, wear goggles, because flying sweet-gum pods can take out a person’s eye. 

That’s not to say the sweet gum is good for nothing. I chose to plant one less than a decade ago because they rapidly mature, and my house in the middle of a field needed shade yesterday. Now I’m surrounded by sweet gums that provide just that, but also litter my grass, gutters, and driveway with an unfathomable number of spiny balls. 

For years I just tried to overlook them—easy enough if you wear shoes in the yard and are skilled with a leaf blower. But while everyone was making sourdough during the height of the pandemic, I was roaming around Howardville looking for things to repurpose. I drilled holes into old pig feeders and called them planters, polished tractor discs into art, smashed dandelion flowers into balm, gathered truckloads of fallen leaves for luxurious mulch, and yes, squirreled away trash bags full of sweet-gum balls because my mom told me my grandma Iris used to make Christmas decorations out of them.

Mom didn’t know much about the look of the finished ornaments, except that their construction involved a colored toothpick. So the balls and I kind of floundered. Year one, I just put them in a red bowl and threw colored toothpicks on top. Last year, I forgot about them until Christmas Eve, when I rushed outside, grabbed a handful, and tossed them haphazardly around the tree. The ones that landed made an impression, though—their brown roundness set against the tree’s white plastic branches elicited a sort of reverse twinkle.

Too bad I threw that tree away. This year I could have done more with even less.