Living the winter holiday season in college creates a strange oxymoronic experience. Most people associate the holidays with long-held traditions while college serves as a transient time of change. Because of this clash, college alters the holiday season and our relationship to it. I remember the holidays fondly, singing and dancing to festive music around the kitchen with my family while cookies baked in the oven and decorating the Christmas tree with memories throughout the year.
In college, though, I learned to accept a different experience of the holiday season.
I’d always seen TV Christmas trees with precisely placed red ball ornaments. The trees looked carbon copied, resembling one another with the same boring style or decorations. I found the uniformity beautiful–don’t get me wrong–but I treasured my family’s tree for its collection of memories.
Each ornament differed from the next. I’d nestle a porcelain ballerina doll next to a Rugrats bulb. The Wizard of Oz hot air balloon ornament, missing Dorothy’s head, hung from the same branch as a small model airplane. Each ornament my family collected over the years meant something. The Christmas tree displayed our family and all the events, memories and experiences we lived together.
Our unique tree sat in the corner of the living room, half decorated as we’d take a break to make various flavors of cookies, build gingerbread houses, or sing along to “Dominic the Donkey.” No matter what changed or how old my sister and I got, the holiday spirit engulfed my house in every way. The smell of cookies, sounds of bells jingling as my cats jostled the tree, and the feeling of a warm mug filled with hot cocoa against the palm of my hands all ignited the festive feeling inside of me.
In college, the traditions fall and students are responsible for making the holidays feel “merry and bright.”
I remember my first holiday season at college. My roommate and I decorated our room with fake snow, a small Christmas tree and paper snowflakes. It did the trick. Even with all the assignments and responsibilities, I could walk into my dorm room and remember the time of year.
The next year, I didn’t have a roommate, so the way I celebrated changed. I used a warm-scented wall plug-in to fill my room with the smells of the season. I watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas and tried to appreciate the snow, even if it made my trek to class miserable and cold.
Each year, the way I celebrated the season changed. It made me feel disconnected from the time of year as well as from my home. With no real traditions anymore and only having a few days at home before Christmas, the season started to lose its magic.
Then, I started to think back to earlier years. I specifically thought about my mom’s emphasis on the concept of the magical holiday season upon telling my sister that Santa didn’t exist. She’d always say that the atmosphere of love and compassion had its own kind of magic.
At about 8 years old, the sad Christmas songs affected me deeply. I cried to my mother about how I wanted to help the less fortunate. A few days later, she took my sister and I to the mall. A small Christmas tree stood in the middle of one of the wings. From it hung paper ornaments.
“Pick one,” My mom said.
I looked for an ornament for about five minutes and finally decided on one. My mom turned it over. It had a little girl’s name written on it, as well as her age and the toy she wanted. It came from a Jesse Tree where less fortunate kids could write what they wanted for Christmas and charitable strangers could purchase it for them. I excitedly picked out the gift that my ornament girl wanted from Target, and we wrapped it and dropped it off at the mall the next day. I remember feeling a deeper sense of the Christmas spirit then. I think I started to understand what the holiday meant.
Thinking back, my mom referred to this–helping others–when talking about the magic of Christmas. Feeling happy to share joy with others proves the true meaning of the holidays, no matter what you celebrate. At this time, you can take a breath from the year you’ve gone through, all that you’ve accomplished, all that you’ve struggled with, and put it to the side. You can let your most positive self shine through while appreciating what you have and using your privilege to help others.
My mom’s idea of Christmas magic transformed my feelings of Christmas in college. As I struggled with my academic responsibilities, I’d turn on a gingerbread or peppermint candle and just reflect on my life. I’d think of friends and all the fun times we had over the semester. I’d make sure my attitude reflected kindness and love to the people around me. I’d fantasize about coming home to loving family and friends during the winter break.
While I missed decorating the tree with my family and getting into the spirit, I realized that Christmas comes with a state of mind that anyone can embrace. Making small traditions like baking cookies in your dorm, attending or throwing a holiday themed party or participating in charity work can help you localize your holiday experience to your current location. It comforts me to know that I can always come home to my favorite people and place after the semester comes to a close. The season becomes what you make of it, and I plan on reveling in the feeling each year.