Ornaments: Christmas Traditions

Wendy Lawton

Blogger: Wendy Lawton

Last week while in Houston I visited with a professional Christmas installer. Apparently, many of the well-to-do hire professional installers to create holiday themes and decorate every room in their homes. A full install costs upwards of $10,000. (Definitely a first world occupation, right?)

I’d never want to give up decorating my home. It’s one of the best traditions. Every year as I deck the halls for Christmas I savor the day. Each ornament reminds me of the person who gifted it to me or the year we bought it. To me these are some of the touchstones of our family.


But before I even begin to take those ornaments out, we set up the foundation. We assemble two trees, testing lights– one in the family room and one in the living room. Lights go up on the house. (No small feat because there is always a strand or two out.) Garlands are refurbished and draped. Wreaths hung. Those are the bones, so to speak. The ornaments flesh it out.

As I was hanging ornaments on the tree it struck me that it’s much like our books and our stories. We need to get the bones right before we begin to flesh them out. The structure may not show but the ornaments won’t hang properly unless we have the foundation in place. I love the way Tacitus said it: “Style, like the human body, is specially beautiful when the veins are not prominent and the bones cannot be counted.”

Like the human body and like Christmas. And like our writing.

I talk to many a novelist who tells me that he or she writes “by the seat of their pants.” They like the style to develop organically. They say they just follow the characters and watch where they go. I admire that kind of writer but I could never let myself in for that level of work. They may allow the story flow in the first draft stage but at some time they must deal with the structure. It’s like our Christmas “install.” It’s a lot harder to fix a flaw in the structure when you have ornaments all over the tree.

It’s the same with nonfiction. A writer can certainly just start writing but much time will be spent on words that will fall outside the eventual parameters of the  book. I’m too stingy with my time to meander around until I see where the book is going to go. I want to come up the structure first and then hang the words–hang the ideas– on it.

How about you? How do you decorate for Christmas? Does it bear any resemblance to how you write a book?



Decking the halls or writing a book: It’s all about the bones. Or is it? Click to Tweet

Writing a book. Don’t put ornaments on it until you have the structure worked out. Click to Tweet 

Decorating for Christmas illustrates a key structural point for writers. Click to Tweet

52 Responses

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  1. Amanda Dykes says:

    I’ve fallen in love with structure over the past year, in great part thanks to you and your wisdom! Thank you, Wendy.

    Happy travels this week, and may they be sprinkled with refuge-moments! 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You are a wonderful storyteller, Amanda. The structure under your stories doesn’t even show–like Tacitus said, no bones sticking out– but I think it’s the reason the reader moves flawlessly through the scenes.

      Thank you for your wishes for refuge. I’m committed to finding time to ponder the miracle of incarnation.

  2. Great structure makes my heart soar. Many of my critique group evaluations started with “You know that I’m a structure geek.”

    Three years ago we moved from a Victorian house to a renovated barn. I don’t yet have the bones of Christmas decorating quite right. I’m learning through trial and error. I try something different every year. What I like becomes tradition. What I don’t like doesn’t get a repeat performance. What I hate is an immediate do-over. Not so different from writing and editing, I suppose.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I love structure-geeks. I’m a fellow geek. I wonder if it’s a trait of linear thinkers.

      What fun to live in a barn– the perfect structure in which to create an open floor plan. And to move from the fussy beauty of a Victorian to the spatial potential of a barn must be freeing in many ways. (We moved from an historic house– the upkeep and responsibility to maintain the integrity of the era was daunting at times.)

    • Amanda Dykes says:

      Shirlee, I’ve DREAMED of living in a barn (no joke!) ever since reading Grace Livingston Hill’s “The Enchanted Barn.” Thanks for making my day with your comment!

      • Thanks for the tip, Amanda. I put the book on the list for my next trip to the library–sounds like great Christmas reading:^)

        Our barn isn’t exactly enchanted, but . . . before it became a home in the 1970’s, the owner let the neighborhood boys shoot hoops in the haymow (now our bedrooms). We keep running into local guys who say, “I used to play basketball in your house.”

  3. The way I decorate for Christmas resembles my book writing in time investments. I’m not a do-it-all-at-once kind of gal. Decorating (or writing) in focused sessions with specific goals accomplishes sweeter results than rushing to do it in a single rush. It reminds me of the layers of decorating the tree that you wrote about, Wendy.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Now there’s a good bit of wisdom, Carol. I decorate the two days after Thanksgiving. It’s a push. Hmm. When I wrote I tended to be a deadline cruncher as well.

  4. I’d be more inclined to liken writing to the development of a fetus (and subsequently a child) – the structure develops in concert with the outer form, continuing after birth. Perhaps birth is the completion of the first draft?

    The best Christmas tree I ever put up was in a place rather far from here in both space and time. It was a bit of twig, stood up in a 40mm shell casing filled with sand. Ornaments were a couple of empty 5.56mm brass casings, polished to catch the light. Having a Christmas tree was a bit at odds with the job at hand, but there you go.

  5. I have a specific order for decorating. The lights HAVE TO come first. Then the kids are let loose to decorate, but they need to remember not to mob the decorations all together. And since they’re sweet, kind, tender-whispers-of-encouragement type siblings, they remind each other in kindness, “Are you blind? The ornaments are too close!”
    Then I remind them that a blind person might hit them with his/her cane for that snide remark. Where do they get their attitudes from???

    I save the uber delicate ornaments to hang on my own. I like that time to add the elegance to the tree that happily abides alongside the ornaments made by kindergarten sized hands and boast tiny little photos taken so long ago that my heart aches. I get my 6 foot 2 inch son to put the star up, because, well, he can.
    Only recently have I begun to purchase really, really beautiful decorations from craft stores. I have some huge, red and silver votives that simply glimmer when the candles are burning. I love beauty and elegance, but with 3 boys in a small house, that narrow window of time over the holidays is all any of us can handle.

    I used to think I was a pantser. But now I realize that I am a closet plotter. I need the structure to be firm before I decorate and re-arrange. I am not 30, I started writing sort of late in life. I don’t have time to ponder which branch is perfect for the gingerbread man. When I was at Canyon de Chelly 2 weeks ago, I saw a literal hole in the canyon wall.
    Within a minute, I had Book 4 in my head!! That hole was the perfect size for a man to hide in the depths with a nice Whitworth, ready to gun down the innocent. But what if his conscience tore him apart like the Whitworth’s bullets tore apart the people 1000 feet below? What if he went insane with guilt? What if he returned 5 years later, with penance and restitution driving him to his knees before the very people he hunted?
    I should really email someone with this idea…

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Don’t you love it when a story is delivered to you like that? MY best stories came about like that.

      The hard part is waiting to write the story. I think it would be so much more fun if you could drop everything and write that one but. . .

  6. With a small-er country home, there is only one spot to place the tree. One spot for the stockings. And I can’t decorate too much, or my house feels cluttered. The girls have taken over the tree and decorations. I used to be a perfectionist, but I have released the reigns to them on decorating the tree. Their creative juices flow. And it brings me a little freedom.

    My work right now has a frame … definite structure … only one place to go. But I have a little freedom within the chapters to get creative and go where the wind blows!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Shelli, those kinds of parameters help though, don’t they? I have always liked the discipline of small spaces. My office is small by design because I must keep it perfectly organized.

      And the parameters of your book will save you a lot of time in having to impose structure on top of a story.

  7. Jeanne T says:

    I’m an organized Christmas decorator. I always go by room and dusting as I go. 🙂 The tree is last, but it’s also my favorite because it’s what my boys can help with. We have the non-breakable ornaments in one bin, and they have free rein with that bin. The breakable ornaments are in the other bin, and my hubby and I hang most of those, the boys helping with more of them as they grow older.

    I used to be what I’ve termed an “uber-plotter.” I had everything planned. But I’m finding a mix of letting the characters breathe within an outlined structure makes my stories more organic. I know the big plot points, and I work toward them, but my characters sometimes respond in unexpected ways to what’s happening. I’m learning to give them space, but to rein them in when needed. 🙂 Kind of like how my kids decorate our tree.

  8. I’m very structured in decorating the tree. Certain ornaments, our favorites, have to go on first so they get the best spot. Then it’s on to the lesser favorites, then the plain filler ornaments.

    But in my writing I’m a pantser. I have to discover the story as I write. When I begin, I know the beginning and end and several key turning points along the way, but that’s it. I compare it to our trips home to Chicago. I know we’ll leave Kansas City via 35N and that we’ll go through Des Moines and take I-80 east, but I don’t know the names of all the little cities we’ll pass. I’ll discover those as we go.

    It’s also like sprinting in the dark while holding a lantern as far out in front of me as I can, but the other example is less scary sounding. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      You mention scary sounding– that’s why I’m a planner. Holding a contract with no idea where the book is going to end up would paralyze me. (True confession.) But who knows, maybe the story would take some wonderful twists and turns.

      It would be fun to find out if tight planners have control issues in other areas of their life and spiritual journey. . . 😉

  9. Lori says:

    My technical writings are usually planned out. This is where my years of being in Quality Assurance kicks in since QA has to be planned out.

    Any other writings outside of work are usually done by the seat of my pants though I may have an outline in my head or a note or two jotted down that I know I would like to use. As for Christmas decorating, that is definitely by the seat of my pants.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Interesting that you can write one way for work and another for your own writing.

      Guilt, Lori, each time I see your name. I owe you a photo! Can you email me your address again and I’ll send it out forthwith.

      • Lori says:

        My email address is . . . .

        I am definitely more organized at work than I am in my personal life which I think would surprise many people who think they know me.

        My writings for work can have tight deadlines. Since my boss has to go in front of a board regularly and defend what I wrote for the engineers then I have to be a very organized because my job depends on it. The board can refuse to fly the equipment if the deadline is not met or if the reports do meet their expectations.

      • Guilt, eh? I owe her a one song phone concert!

      • Lori says:

        Sugery is done for now, Jennifer. As of now, I am doing well. Not sure if anymore will be needed yet. (I am waiting for the results and I see the doctor again right after the first of the year.) Can fit you in for a phone concert in the mean time.

  10. Love this, Wendy! My oldest children like to do a lot of the decorating, but I took extra care this year to teach them that some things have to happen in the right order. Like Jeanne, we dust first. When I start a new story, I need a clear desk and a clear mind. Then we build the tree (yep, artificial) and the branches have to be spread out just so or it won’t look right. In my writing, I figure out characters and their backstory, their goals, motivations, and conflicts, which help to determine major plot points. Lights next, after making sure they all still work. In my WIP, I’m thinking about theme or the take-away for the reader, how my story will illuminate their life. The children needed reminding this year that garland goes on before ornaments. In my writing, I prefer a detailed outline, then the details seem to pop up during the writing.

    Hmm, I think I have an outline for my blog post for Hoosier Ink (ACFW – IN chapter blog) for December with a link back here. Thanks! 🙂

  11. I’m a structure girl. I agree, I couldn’t write by the seat of my pants–it’s too much work in the long run! With a house full of little ones, my writing time is precious, so I need to get all the bones in place before I can lay down the flesh of my characters! The analogy I use is building a house (my brothers are contractors). You have to have the foundation laid before you put up the studs, then you wire in the electricity and all the plumbing/heating before you put up the pieces that people see, like the drywall, paint, and trim. Story structure has to be firmly in place before I add the pretty things. 🙂

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      I think this is a perfect metaphor. In fact, I taught a writing track at Mount Hermon on Building the Nonfiction book.

      And yes, when your kids are little you need to make every moment count.

  12. Some of you know that my life changed greatly–and wonderfully–three years ago when I married my hero in combat boots. Not only did I move to a new state, but I also acquired 7 stepchildren (all but 2 are grown) and 6 grandchildren in the process. A huge change from just my college-age daughter and 3 twenty-something sons, to be sure. Add to this the fact that my husband, who had decided he was a confirmed bachelor, rented a home that just fit his solitary lifestyle. Suddenly that 1950s modern glass house was filled with me, mine, and ours! A big change, especially during the holidays. Letting all those grandbabies run wild is just not an option.

    In a similar way, I went from writing shorter novels to longer ones–60k to 110k–and had to make changes to address not only the time it took to write those books but also the structure required to keep a plot (or plots) going throughout the story. Letting my characters run wild was not an option.

    So in the realm of Christmas celebrations, we are forging our own traditions that combine his and hers into ours. The yearly Hallmark ornaments for each of my kids have been packed away for use in their homes someday (baby girl is 23, it was time!). In their places are gorgeous glittery ornaments that look fragile but are completely unbreakable (thank you Target!).

    In a tradition accidentally started in 2011, on Thanksgiving we let the grandkids decorate the tree with these ornaments–wonderful chaos it is–and leave them exactly where they are put. Since all the grands are under 7, you can imagine that the bottom half of our tree is quite well populated. The kids love it, their parents love it, and we love it. It’s new, different, and fun.

    To correlate this with publishing, I’d have to mention the books I am editing and putting back into print via e-books. I had to learn a new skill set (much like learning to be a grandmother), but it has been well worth the experience.

    So..Merry Christmas from the Y’Barbo-Turners!

    • Merry Christmas, Kathleen and family! Love how you’ve integrated new family and new traditions in such a jolly way!

    • Jeanne T says:

      I love your visuals, Kathleen. When our boys were small, we’d leave their ornaments right where they hung them too. THere’s real life learning and writing life learning when change happens, eh? Have a wonderful Christmas.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Thank you for reflecting here for us. We’re crazy about a real life love story and that’s what the Lord had up his sleeve for you. You and Robert are perfect together. And with the whole new extended family Christmas must be crazy and wonderful. How fun is that?

  13. I’m another structure geek whether it be writing a book or decorating the tree. I have to use that guideline for a sense of order. The creativity flows out in other ways like twinkling lights.

    I think I inherited this from my mother, by the example she set raising seven daughters while working full-time. Time was precious and lived wisely.

    My clearest memory of decorating the family Christmas tree is from about the age of five. My dad put the lights on first after setting up the tree. (Ask any man, this is not a stress-free endeavor)The women decorated the tree and placed the ornaments carefully on the branches then we’d take a step back to see how it hung on the tree. Sometimes we made adjustments of placement or bend the hook for a different length in the same spot.

    The final step was the old lead tinsel. One strand at a time. It was a painstaking process that often required two to three days, and a ladder. No globs were tossed aimlessly. Strands never covered up the ornaments or lights, but accented them to draw the focus in.

    I learned at a very young age that the beauty and delight of a lit-up and decorated tree came
    with care and patience. And what a magical final picture that remains to this day in my mind.

    This is how I try to write a book. A step back is important and of great value and always worth the extra time and effort.

  14. My Christmas decorations are sparse, much to my daughter’s chagrin, but the pieces I do have are rife with nostalgia.
    Is this how I write? Yes, I tend to be economical with my words, and I’m learning to fill in the gaps better, to flesh out scenes and perfect the art of the segue. Based on your comment above Wendy, it looks like I could learn a thing or two from Amanda Dykes. 🙂
    I hope the words I use are rich with truth, and paint an unforgettable image the reader can relate to and learn from.

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      We all can learn from each other. You have a lot to teach as well. Does anyone do the research you do or serve up a setting as well as you do? and yes, paint an image. . .

  15. I am a strong planner, so I need everything out and organized before I even start to decorate. Next, the lights go on the tree, placed very careful. Then I take a long time putting on the ornaments. I drive myself a little nuts with trying to be sure no two ornaments of the same color are beside each other (I never quite succeed at this. Balance also is important to me, so I keep stepping back to get the Big Picture of the tree. The garland goes on next. Then comesthe tinsel. Now this is where I relax a bit. My mom would allow us only two pieces of tinsel at a time. I grab a handful, but I still place it so that it’s not tangled or lopsided. Finally, the nativity set that belonged to my parents goes under the tree. Finally, I turn on the lights and enjoy the finished product. Throughout the decorating, I listen to Christmas music and I take time to remember the people and events connected with certain special ornaments.

    My writing process is similar. I always have a plan. Periodically, I step back and look at the big picture and revise (which I know I’m not supposed to do while writing the rough draft, but I can’t help myself. One difference between my tree decorating and my writing time is that I never listen to music when I write. I love music so much it distracts me. I can listen to it before I write in order to relax, but I can’t have it on while I’m writing or nothing will get done.

    A final note: thank you, Wendy and all who decorate the outside of your houses with lights. I’ve never had my own house, so the most I’ve done is to put lights around my front window. But I LOVE looking at the Christmas lights and decorations as I drive around this time of year. I find it so sad that many people take their lights down on New Year’s Day–or even on Christmas Day. The Light has just come into the world and then all goes dark. At any rate, thanks to all of you who prepare the neighborhoods for the coming of Light into the world, and especially to those who put out nativity sets and witness to real Christmas. An atheist group has put up a billboard in Times Square that says, “Who needs Christ in Christmas–Nobody.” The outward celebration of Christmas–especially with managers or nativity sets–tells the country that we Christians are still alive and well and claiming our (shrinking) religious freedom.

    A blessed Advent to all!

    • Wendy Lawton says:

      Christine, you’ve served us up an important part of the process– stepping back and seeing the big picture. This is what makes a great book but all too often we work right up to the deadline and never allow ourselves the time to set it aside and look at it afresh before declaring it down.

      As to the lights, I’m with you. we leave everything up until after Epiphany.

  16. . . .the last thing to go up in my house is:

    Season Two of Fireplace from Netflix.

    It’s better than Season One, because along with the snapping and crackling of the real log fire, (his season) instrumental Christmas music abounds.

  17. What a great analogy, Wendy. In the beginning, I was more of a “by the seat of my pants” writer. As I’ve grown in my craft, however, I find it doesn’t always work well for me; even for picture books.

    As for decorating, I could keep you here all day long talking about my numerous trees, nativities, and special ornaments. What I will say is that I usually start out in the same place. The outside gets decorated first, then the smaller trees, and then the family tree. In that way, it is like writing the beginning, middle, and end of a story. It’s rare that I would start writing in the middle (though I’ve tried it). I just don’t think the story comes out as well that way, and I have a hard time decorating out of order, too.

  18. Once I have all the lights, trees, and decorations up I think I’m finished. But over the next few days or even weeks I notice things that aren’t quite balanced or ornaments that would look better if I move them to a different place on the tree. That’s a lot like what happens with my mss!

  19. Lynn Mosher says:

    Yup, gotta have those bones first! I dress my non-fiction writing the same way I dress Tree (that’s his name): from the inside out!

    Small soft dolls and small teddy bears sit perched on the inner branches by the trunk. I add so much to Tree: ornaments, ribbon, garland, candles, ending with baby’s breath and candy canes, all topped off with Harold (the angel on top, as in Hark! The Herald Angels Sing). All this takes lots of time to do it right.

    I add bits and research to my writing and, then, bring it all together, taking plenty of time to do it right.

    Great post, Wendy! Hope you have a very blessed Christmas!