Take Me Back to the Little House


Illustration by Anna Carroll

In this illustration inspired by “Little House on the Prairie” Christmases, a family enjoys Christmas by spending time with one another by the fireplace.

When I was very young, I remember my mother reading me the “Little House on the Prairie” books as a bedtime story, a series detailing the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder, a young pioneer girl who lived in the 1800s. 

Every night as she tucked me and my sister into bed, she would sit by the door in our room and read us her stories, bringing Laura’s world to life with passionate inflection and vivid description. The tales of wading across a river in a covered wagon, sliding down bales of hay in open fields, and trekking to a one-room schoolhouse to learn each day fascinated me. But it was the stories of the Ingalls’ Christmases that truly enthralled me. I always looked forward to hearing about all the relatives that would crowd into their tiny home, singing along to the carols Laura’s Pa played on his fiddle, the sugary hard candies they would make out of snow and molasses, their trips to Christmas Eve services and the adventures that happened along the way.

 It seemed to me that, though the Ingalls moved around a lot and rarely spent Christmas in the same place, never received extravagant gifts, and the idea of festive christmas decorations decking their halls was almost unheard of, their holidays somehow always seemed more magical, more vibrant, and more full of… well, I wasn’t sure what, but it just seemed better than mine. But it was just a story, right? 

Fast forward eight years, and I’m now in my sophomore year of high school. And if my Christmases seemed lacking in holiday cheer years ago, by now they are completely devoid of all the fun the season should bring. As soon as November hits, I’m bombarded with the wish lists of my younger siblings and the overwhelming pressure to find the just-right gift for all of my family and friends. 

I spend so much time talking with some of my close friends as they lament that they don’t have a significant other to spend the holidays with, or they obsess about how romantic their holiday will be with their boyfriend or girlfriend and all of the cute things they will do together. I can’t even  drive down to Target for a routine shopping trip without being instantly bombarded by the apparent must-have Christmas trinkets and stocking stuffers, only to be escorted to the snacks aisle by a forest of brightly colored strings of lights adorning the smooth green plastic of artificial trees.

A trip to the store shows mothers piling ornaments, garlands, red and green craft supplies, and glittery bows into carts, doing their best to replicate the creative DIY holiday decor plastered on Pinterest, in magazines, and in advertisements. 

But it’s when we return home again that the real chaos starts: wrapping paper coating the floor as I struggle to fold and tape down edges, Christmas music blaring as I try to drown out the stress of yet another Christmas project, and all of the stress that comes from relationships, worrying if I picked the right gifts. And the end of the day, my patience is wearing thin, and my heart is about as full as my wallet— which, after all the gift shopping — only contains $3.25. 

This routine is so easy to slip into – buy gifts, wrap, decorate, sing carols, drop spare change in a bucket, obsess about sipping hot cocoa by the fireplace but never actually get the chance — because of how busy you keep yourself. When I was younger, I used to hear adults say, “I hate the holidays, they’re so stressful.” And while this never made sense to my charmed little brain at the time, aging has made it perfectly clear – we get so caught up in the world’s view of what the perfect Christmas should be like, that we forget what it is like to actually have the perfect Christmas. And I begin to wonder if I wasn’t so right in thinking that Laura’s Christmases were different from mine, that it might not have been just a story, after all.

Our society has conditioned us to think of Christmas a certain way. Much like the pressures we find to fit in by wearing the right clothes, acting the right way or posting the perfect picture on your Instagram, today’s marketing and media has created a monsterous predicament and a huge obstacle that we face each winter. With advertisements more visible through social media and the rate of technology more readily available to young children, Christmas is becoming more and more about the gifts. Nowadays, you ask a child what their favorite thing about Christmas is, and they immediately begin detailing the wishlist they’ve crafted for Santa, while many parents’ go into hundreds or even thousands of dollars worth of debt to provide their children with what they believe to be the perfect Christmas. 

The holiday movies and films we enjoy have moved on from heartfelt and genuine movies such as “It’s a Wonderful Life” to cheesy Hallmark films that portray romance as essential to the season – be living unhappily single, go off on some holiday vacation, fall in love with the man or woman of your dreams, and live happily ever after in a log cabin encased  in snow while decorating gingerbread cookies and magically baking all of life’s cares away. And of course the never ending pressure to celebrate just right; we have to have the most atrocious ugly sweater, decorate our homes just right both inside and out, post the perfect Christmas party photos on our Instagram. And while none of this is inherently bad, all of these festivities should reflect the love and joy of the season, not be the purpose of the season. The holidays have become so commercialized that our society is marketing the uniformity in how we enjoy Christmas as the ideal way to celebrate the holiday, when, in reality, this season should hold a special and unique meaning in the hearts of us all. 

And now, after all these years, I realize what truly made Laura Ingalls’ Christmases so different from mine. Her family and friends knew not only how to cherish the holiday season – they knew how to cherish the time they spent together. And I now realize that a lack of gifts, romance, or decorations may be just what we need to have a truly beautiful and memorable holiday experience. And yes, the Ingall’s sisters’ did wait in anticipation of the gifts they would receive, but it was never the highlight of their Christmas. The time they spent together was.

If for one Christmas we could leave behind the expensive gift giving, the romantic stress, and the pressure to be presentable for the holidays behind… our Christmases would be truly merry.”

They never had much money; store bought gifts and Christmas feasts weren’t usually in the budget. But no matter where they were – from the years they spent enjoying white Christmases in Wisconsin to the year they spent Dec. 25 in a tiny sod house built into a hill, they never let their surroundings, financial status, or romantic relationships dictate whether or not their Christmas was a success — their time spent with each other did. I have no doubt in my mind that if for one Christmas we could leave the expensive gift giving, the romantic stress and the pressure to be presentable for the holidays behind – if we could leave behind the damage of marketing, media, and commercialization behind for just the last month of the year, our Christmases would be truly merry.

So, if you’re a procrastinator and still haven’t bought your Christmas gifts, I have a challenge for you – don’t buy them. Instead of giving someone a useless object or nicknack, invest in them personally. 

Make the effort to spend one on one time with the people in your life; show them that they are loved and that you appreciate them by seeking out the chance to spend the holidays with them in a more real and present way, rather than handing them a wrapped package and calling it good. Let’s end the decade by remembering something it seems we forgot centuries ago – making the holidays not about how much we receive or spend, the romance, or how festive our homes and instagram feed is. Let’s make this Christmas about the people we spend it with.