For some people the Christmas tree never comes down.
Their reasons vary.
And others just think it is weird.
“Right around this time of year you start hearing the uncomfortable comments,” Mitzi Unger, 64, said from her Louisiana home. She has kept her tree up and decorated in various themes since 2011.
“When my husband was sick and then later died in December of 2011 we had the tree up for him,” she explains. “He loved it, it made him happy. He requested Christmas trees at his funeral and people made it happen. It was a wonderful and different kind of thing. It made for a happier goodbye. I keep it up for him because it’s a happy thing for me, too.”
But as time has passed and new people enter into Mitzi’s circle they don’t know the story.
They just see a Christmas tree in March and they think it is odd.
The same thing is true with those who chose to keep up Christmas lights or yard decorations with a seasonal theme. In fact, in the news this week a neighborhood in Alabama is fighting a Grinch who wrote a letter to a neighbor complaining about Frosty and Rudolph still on the front lawn.
It is not uncommon to read letters to the editor decrying the presence of Christmas long after Christmas is over.
For Darryl Hawkins of Eden, Minnesota Christmas has a year round presence in his home, too. He regularly works on what he calls his “Christmas room”. There the lights are kept low with a Christmas tree in one corner and a massive village scene permanently set up in another. A Christmas train runs the length of room, circling the tree.
“Christmas is year round for me,” he says. “I listen to the music year round, maybe watch a Christmas movie or two now and then. I participate on Christmas forums online and in Facebook groups. Some people have boats, others garden or whatever. I just do Christmas. I always try to add to it a little here and there. It’s fun for me. I don’t care if people think I’m strange.”
Caroline Hardy runs a Christmas shop year round in Tennessee.
She says there are generally two types of people she sees roaming the aisles of her small shop: those who love Christmas any time and those who grumble at being there.
“It’s a very real thing,” Hardy says. “Some people just can’t handle Christmas when it’s not Christmas. Our little store gets visits from tourists and they come here because it fits here in the setting. We’re in the woods of the hill country. Something about it makes it a natural place for a Christmas store. But even here where Christmas is up all the time we hear the comments from those who think Christmas belongs in December alone.”
In Florida, a place far from association with evergreens, Naomi Holden keeps a Christmas tree up and visible in a large front room window.
Holden is an interior design consultant by trade, a fact that somehow always comes up in conversation with neighbors who have grown used to her year round tree.
“To me it is a mix of nostalgia and art,” Holden says. “I grew up in the northwest, and we had Christmas trees everywhere. For me, this is what makes my home now feel like the home I had when I was a girl. A tree is a natural space for creating a look or celebrating a theme. I love un-decorating the tree and remaking it into something new.”
Last July Holden’s tree was festooned with small American flags and hot rod style model cars. She called it a patriotic whim, a design that took her nearly two weeks to complete.
“It’s an outlet for me,” Naomi admitted. “I love coming home to it.”
All of these are great examples of Christmas celebration year round. But for others it is more than mere entertainment and creative outlets. Some look at it as a political statement.
“I’ve got a neighbor who just seethes at Christmas time,” said Ronald Zimmerman of Turlock, California. “But when January comes and he still sees Christmas decorations and lights he starts sending letters. He contacts City Hall about the decorations downtown. He writes the school about “Merry Christmas” on their sign. And by February he goes door to door asking us all to take stuff down. And that’s why I keep my lights up and on. Just for him.”
Zimmerman sees America as a land divided. Christmas is just a small part of the divide.
“Isn’t it great?” Zimmerman says, “We live in a land where I can put out my flag and turn on my lights and keep my Christmas tree up if I want. And my neighbor can hate it, he can speak out against it, he can even go door to door to ask us to remove it and do anything he wants to broadcast or share his beliefs and we co-exist. He doesn’t like me and I don’t care for him but we’re not killing each other. We both stand up for what we believe and that’s different stuff. He’s got a right to it and I’ve got a right to it.”
Some advocates of religious freedom do not see the ongoing and sometimes over-the-top display of Christmas as the best strategy.
In Plantation, Florida the Hyatt Extreme Christmas display has for years divided a community.
Mark Hyatt and his family have traditionally showcased Christmas with an impressive display of lights and decorations that draw thousands of visitors each year. But enthusiastic crowds created issues in the urban neighborhood that made controlling traffic and protecting property a challenge for city officials.
Slowly complaints grew and frustrations boiled over until the Hyatts ended up in court, eventually winning their case against city that had hoped to shut them down.
“What good did that situation really do for religious freedom or freedom of speech or even the celebration of Christmas?” asks Wendell Henderson, a fellow Christmas light enthusiast from Missouri.
“Christmas is the celebration of the Prince of Peace. You don’t do that by angering people. You work with them. I think the city there got heavy-handed and then the Hyatts had to do what they did. But in the process of defending themselves they sent the wrong message about Christmas and community. They should have found a way to work things out. They say the city made it impossible but we all saw what happened. They give the rest of us a tougher time in our celebration of Christmas.”
Christmas watchers are anxious to see how Christmas is exploited in the age of Donald Trump.
Trump’s presidential campaign famously featured Christmas as a theme in promises to “make America great again”.
“Believe me,” Trump has said, “we’re going to say Merry Christmas again”.
Joel Reinhart, a self-avowed Christmas nut from New Jersey, bristles at what he sees coming.
“You watch,” Reinhart said. “Trump is going to make a big thing about Christmas being said in stores and his political opponents are going to rage about it. There will be protests, probably even picket lines in front of malls. The political divide will spill into Christmas and we’re going to lose the peace and the love and the magic of it all entirely.”
Down South the feelings about all that run strong.
In Louisiana, little Confederate flags will be on Mitzi Unger’s Christmas tree this spring. “I better close the window for this theme,” she says. “My Daddy would love this but I doubt anyone else today understands that.”
She stops for a second to gather her emotions.
“This is a private thing for me. Most of the time it is light hearted and fun. But sometimes it is more. And people don’t understand that. I shouldn’t have to explain it to them. A country that holds parades for people who sleep with their own gender you’d think they would be okay with that, you know? I’m not committing a crime here, I’m celebrating what is important to me.”
Unger laughs as she recalls one time a lady from church appearing on her doorstep with a large plastic tote in hand one Saturday morning in February.
“I’m here to help you pack up that tree!” the woman exclaimed.
“I told her I was never taking down my tree. I told her she could help me decorate it if she wanted, but it was never coming down. She just didn’t know what to say.” Mitzi said, laughing hard. “People are pretty stupid about some things, I guess.”