We live in a ranch-style house built in 1960. Except for being a lot bigger, it closely resembles the floor plan of the home where I grew up. In the 1960’s, if you could afford it, your house had a separate “formal” living room – separate from the den or the “rec room”, where you did your everyday living. The living room was for entertaining and displaying. In the living room, the furniture was the nicest. There might be family pictures and fragile “knick-knacks” on display on the fireplace mantle. The room might even have a big picture or bay window, looking out on the front street. The living room was where the adults entertained. It was off-limits for children, for fear we might break something or stain or scratch the furniture.
My grandmother and great-aunt had even more formal living rooms than ours. When I went to see my grandma, I got to sit in the living room with her and chat, while her miniature schnauzer Smokey sat by her side. I was particularly fascinated by my great-aunt’s living room. She was a Classics scholar and teacher, and she and my great-uncle had no children. Her living room – more like a sitting room – was filled with books, art, and interesting pieces from her travels to Egypt, Italy and Greece.
There was absolutely no TV in any of those living rooms. The living room was for entertaining and talking. No one was allowed to mess up – or actually do any “living” in – the living room. But holidays had special living room rules. In the morning, the room would be a joyous mess – filled with torn paper, discarded boxes and ribbons, the detritus of our Christmas celebration. In the afternoon, plates of Christmas cookies sat next to high balls on the coffee table (on a coaster, of course), while aunts and uncles and cousins sat and talked.
My current ranch style 1960’s house has a formal living room. The couch and chairs are re-upholstered now, but were handed down to me from grandmother’s living room. My dining room table (in the adjacent formal dining room, another anachronism these days) came from my great-aunt’s wonderful house. My piano sits in the center. There is no TV, so the room doesn’t get much use. I go in there to read sometimes, late at night, to escape my husband’s snoring. In the late afternoons, our dog Rowdy likes to lie on the couch and look out the windows, keeping watch over the neighborhood. But most of the time the room sits empty, just wasted square footage.
Last night the room saw lots of action as Andrew and I put up our Christmas tree. Boxes were lugged down from the attic, lights and balls and bows came out and were strewed everywhere. Six hours of hard work later, the room was transformed. Jake came home from work just as we were putting the final touches on the tree. Chris Botti was playing on the stereo, and the lights were low as the tree twinkled and shined. We walked slowly around the tree, looking at the ornaments and remembering their origin. First Christmas Together 1982, purchased the year Andrew and I were married. Two Hallmark ornaments, Baby’s first Christmas 1990 and Baby’s first Christmas 1993, given to me by a good friend at the birth of each of my boys. A Cooperstown Baseball Hall of Fame bat and ball ornament, representing the culmination of Ben’s memorable summers playing baseball with the Sardis Dixie League. A miniature Charlotte Hornets basketball, from our early years in Charlotte. Ben’s glass shark ornament, always the first to go on the tree when Ben was young. A butterfly, made of glitter, tissue and a clothes pin, made by Jake when he was 5 or 6. A wooden Thomas the Tank Engine from the years when the boys were fascinated by trains. A miniature Cocky from Jake’s beloved South Carolina Gamecocks. A John Handley High School Judges glass ball given to me by my Mom.
After a trip around the tree, we sat down and had the most wonderful and varied conversation, ranging from roosters (Mom, Cocky is a DUDE, not a girl) to Chris Botti’s jazz career (Who are you listening to, It’s f***ing fantastic…), to New York City for New Year’s Eve (3 famous celebrations everyone should experience once), to the origins of the Christmas Tree (Celtic and old German, Jake looked it up). Occasionally we just sat in silence, watching the tree lights while the rich sounds of Botti’s trumpet washed over us.
When my son Jake was six years old, he dubbed this room “The Christmas Room”. To him, the only thing that happened in there was Christmas. All the real living in our house happened in the den or the kitchen. The living room of the 1960’s has been replaced these days in favor of the great room or all-purpose room. There’s a lot more space and no walls. And most likely at least one- or two – 52 inch big screen TVs, constantly on and probably tuned to ESPN or Homeland.
Sometimes I envy folks whose houses have living spaces made up of those big great rooms, all vaulted ceilings and open flow between kitchen, dining and den. My 1960’s house and its old-school floor plan often seem so limiting and even wasteful – a few “formal” rooms that we heat and clean but that don’t get much use. But maybe those 1960’s people were on to something. My “Christmas Room” allowed us to enjoy a rich and special conversation together, where the focus was on us, our shared traditions, our individual memories and musings. No TV interrupted attention; no one was hurrying in and out or back and forth. Breath and time slowed. Peace and warmth and family radiated.
I know we don’t necessarily need a formal living room to generate this experience. If we tried, we could probably create it almost anywhere (we’d have to blow up all the TV’s for starters…). But my Christmas room served its purpose and paid for its upkeep last night.
This holiday season, I’ll be looking for more opportunities to create that “Christmas Room” feeling. No formal room or fancy furniture required. Just the people I love, precious time to relax and connect, and the special gift of their full attention. That’s all I really want for Christmas.