How I Found the Christmas Spirit

Finding the Christmas Spirit!

After having such a big year, a marriage, a baby, a new job, a new house, a new town, I decided this year was the year I find my lost Christmas spirit. I think this year is the year, where it comes back.  I’m not a million miles away from my family for the first time in 8 years.  There is Sara and the idea of starting our own new Christmas traditions. And there is Katie with her laughter and smiles and erratic sleep patterns.  I think it also has to do with having a house (even if it is a rental).  Not being in Duluth helps a little too.  Although I love Duluth for other reasons (beer, science, good places to eat, friends, Big Lake) Christmas in Duluth is the start of the long hard slog of a winter that doesn’t let up for 4-5 more months.


O’ for joy this year I’ve found the Christmas spirit where my love light gleams

Mom Camera 228

Tom and Gloria Banks, my Grandpa and Grandma!








I lost my Christmas spirti about the same time my Grandma Banks passed away.  My Grandma was such a big presence, especially around Christmas.  From activities to decorations to singing the 12 Days of Christmas around the dinner table, most of my favorite things about Christmas had an element of Gloria.  I would suggest that processing that loss is one of the things that muted the joy of Christmas for me.  I would still participate and enjoy time with my family and giving presents, but much of it felt like muscle memory rather than active participation.  There of course were obvious exceptions: Griswolding my parent’s house, drinking alarming amounts of alcohol with the siblings.

Bah Humbug

Bah Humbug

Even the Christmas tree hunt, the traditional kick off of the season, had lost its personal luster.  As time progressed, the hurt regressed but Christmas has never returned to what it once was.  But now I’m a Dad.  I have a daughter whom I want love Christmas and the celebration of love and family.  So I thought this year I’d try to find it again, my lingering holiday spirit, and see if I couldn’t perk it up.

First Stop: the Christmas Tree Hunt

christmas tree hunt 1977

The Christmas Tree Hunt 1977. Mom (Barb) and Grandma (Gloria) with me in my winter clothes and Mark all bundled up.

Tree Hunt Eau Claire Good

Tree Hunt 2013 with Sara and her family.


Hay ride to the trees.


We picked a tree, now for the pictures.


Julie and Betsy (and Adrian) watch as Brian cuts down their tree.


Why yes, I am a Lumbersexual.


Brian cutting down their tree


Sara with what looks perhaps like an Ewok strapped to her chest. Yub-Yub. Thanks to Pat Lee for knitting the sweater and the cowl.

festival of lights 2013

The Berninger’s and our significant others at the 2013 Cincinnati Zoo festival of lights!




In my family, it was a tradition going back at least 45 years (since before my parents were married in 1970).  It started, as far as I can tell, with my Grandparents, Tom and Gloria Banks, who would gather with a group of neighbors and head out to a Christmas Tree farm on the weekend after Thanksgiving.  It was always a jolly time, full of good cheer.  A fluctuating cast of characters, cousins, classmates, family and friends spread across multiple generations, all full of the immutable delight (and occasionally booze) associated with kicking off the Christmas season.  Over the year the size of the group has grown and shrunk, but at the core it has always been about family.  It is among my favorite traditions, right up there with Aunt Pam’s Christmas Eve lasagna, and putting up ridiculous holiday decorations.  It is the fun and festive spirit that carries me into the Christmas season.  When I realized that Sara’s family also had a Christmas Tree hunt, it was further confirmation that she was the right one for me.  Last year there were two tree hunts, one with my family after Thanksgiving, and one with Sara’s family the next weekend.  Somewhere during those two tree hunts, I realized that the next year it would become a tradition for our new family (Sara, Katie, and me).  Since everyone came to our house in Columbia for Thanksgiving, we weren’t going to be going to our regular tree farms (near Eau Claire or Cincinnati) so we found some in Missouri.  This was the year to start our own tradition.  So last weekend Katie, Sara and I set out to Hermann, Missouri, where we met up with Brian, Julie and baby Betsy, and a couple of their friends at Christmas Tree farm.

Every year the weather is different.  Some years it is warm, others bitter cold, some snowy, some muddy, some dry.  This year was a bit wet and muddy, but we bundled up Katie and strapped her into the baby carrier and headed out.  About the only thing we forgot was gloves for Kate, but a handy pair of Green Bay Packers socks were a convenient fill in.  The search was a bit disappointing, as the stock of trees was small and picked-over, but we were able to find a nice 8 ½ foot tall white pine that we thought would fit nicely in our vaulted ceiling living room.  Brian and Julie picked out a smaller tree.  After the tree hunt was dinner and wine and a little Christmas bazaar.

Second Step: Bringing Christmas to Our House


Seems like it fits to me!


Maybe a little too tall.


O’Christmas Tree, o’Christmas tree, how lovely are thy branches.

Well, we brought our giant tree into the house and in true Griswold holiday style, the top foot of the tree was bent over.  Putting it up only required a trip to Lowes, a trip to Sam’s and 9PM Sunday trip to Walmart for a new saw-all blade (since they don’t sell bow saws).  It was big and full (and full of sap) and filled the room.  I think putting up my own tree, that I cut down, in my own house was just the kick in the pants that the Christmas spirit needed.  We put on the lights, we listened to Christmas music, we added some ornaments, and sat back basking in the glow.


Katie visits with Santa.


Rio and Katie are too busy to think about all the presents under the tree.

Over the next days I started to get into the spirit.  I started buying gifts and thinking about what traditions we could start and how Santa Claus would appear for Katie.  We went to my work holiday party where there was a Santa Claus (and Katie didn’t even cry, at least not till after the pictures were taken).  We started watching all the great holiday specials on ABC family, including Christmas vacation.  I might even sit through Emmitt Otter’s Jug Band Christmas once before Christmas comes.


My first attempt at Griswolding my own home.


Seems to be working, but some sort of knot.

This year with the new house, I was able to put up lights.  I wasn’t ready to go full Grizwold, but I did put up 6 strands of lights, mostly LEDs.  It isn’t perfect, but it is the right amount of fun.  Mostly I have white lights outside (colored lights inside on our Christmas tree).  I did have one strand of purple lights (from a random Halloween, and one extra strand of colored lights, both of which went to decorate the bush outside of our front door.  It feels jolly to come home to a house lit up.  Since I wasn’t able to be home this year to help Dad Griswold out the Kardon Palace, I sent him a couple of secret weapons for the unspoken neighborhood lights competition.  This year in addition to Grinch and other blowups he had, I sent him a Christmas Frog (AKA the mistletoad) and a life-size blue hippopotamus!  While I don’t think he’s going to win the battle (who can complete against singing and dancing Christmas trees) I think it was a valiant effort, fully worthy of the Berninger Family Tradition of Griswolding out the frog christmas hippo

At some point we realized that our tree wasn’t taking up any water.  This meant it would have to be trimmed again.  This made me both sad and angry because it would mean because of the arrangements of branches I would have to cut a foot off the bottom of the tree.  Well I got my best Clark Griswold face on, and went to work with the saws-all, while Sara held the tree.  I didn’t even take off the ornaments or ribbon, just straight to the saw.  We lucky for us things went well and the newly reinvigorated tree started to take up water and be less dry, while still looking full and being almost to the ceiling.  We rearranged the lights and re-hung the ornaments that fell off and we were back in the Christmas business.


Rio waits for St. Nick to bring her a treat. Perhaps a dirty sock or some people food!

Last weekend we were listening to Christmas carols and decided it would be great if we could create our own Christmas play list with all our favorite songs.  I started out with Dr. Demento’s Christmas classics (I want a Hippopotamus, Santa Claus and his old lady from Cheech and Chong), which was soon joined by the Muppets and John Denver, some Bing, some Elvis, the Drifters – White Christmas. Eventually the list grew to 150 different songs.  It may still need some curating, but now every night as we get ready for dinner Katie bounces in her bouncer to some jaunty Christmas tunes while Sara and I laugh and have a drink and fix dinner.

Step Three: Celebrate Christmas and Family and Fun.

jason12-20 549

Our tree, a bit shorter, but still quite lovely.

This last weekend before Christmas has been fun.  We’ve listened to carols and made Christmas art projects and done some shopping.  Sara and I exchanged gifts, after Katie went to sleep.  It wasn’t quite O Henry, but the gifts were heartfelt and lovely from both sides.   We have a few things for Katie from Santa, which I’m excited about.  I actually was thinking about getting her some Star Wars Legos or a Hotwheel race track so that I can have fun putting them together, but that will have to wait for a couple of years.  I’m looking forward to Christmas this year.  Not like I did when I was a kid, but still with a growing feeling of joy, of wonderment for my new family and our new traditions. I feel like the Grinch must have felt, as every day my Christmas spirit grow a little bigger, till I think it is full to bursting, only to find the next day it has found some more room to grow.  I still can’t listen to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, and our family Christmas Spirit will always be my Grandma, but I think Christmas has found a renewed home in my heart.

So here I leave you with some Christmas Haikus (left over from Friday) and some great pictures from years gone by.  I have some many wonderful memories of the holidays and my family, and I’m ready to make them anew with Katie and Sara.

O’ for joy this year
I’ve found the Christmas spirit
where my love light gleams

Cheer and Love and Joy
Family celebrations
Hang a shining star

Christmas traditions
may we return to our roots
as we plant our own

With Love and Joy and Cheer and Family and all the trimmings I wish you a Merry Christmas.


PS. Enjoy the pictures I could find of Christmases long long ago…

christmas 1982

Dad, me, Mark, and Brian in 1982.

christmas 1986 three kings

Christmas 1987 or maybe 1988. We are performing the Christmas Pageant. I have no idea why I’m wearing sunglasses other than it was cool.


Yep, matching sweater.


Matching sweaters for the whole family!


Christmas mice!


Christmas 2012.

Dad plays guitar at christmas1998

Christmas 1998 with Dad singing Christmas carols.


Shag basement from Aunt Pam and Uncle Phil’s house. It is like a time warp into 1978. It is so out of style it is cool.



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