Keeping Burnout at Bay, One Holiday Tree at a Time

Christmas tree decorated with squirrels and fall flowers“Is that a Christmas tree?” the Dean of the College of Arts and Letters asked me during a Zoom call.

“Absolutely not,” I said, turning my camera to showcase the full nine-feet of festive fall glory behind me. “It’s a Squirrel Tree!”

I explained the inspiration for the tree—an homage to our university’s unofficial mascot, and an inside joke in our graduate program committee—and how I’d been crafting holiday trees every month this year.

At the end of Fall 2020, what I thought of naively as the longest semester in history with the election, virtual teaching, continued quarantine, vaccines still a distant hope, I decided I needed more joy. One way to cultivate joy in my warped holiday-loving brain? Keeping the tree up all year long (cough, again), and decorating it for my favorite holidays, mainstream and otherwise. I said I would keep going until the pandemic was over and I was back at work (aka, not needing a cute Zoom background).

Since then, I’ve created trees for holidays including Valentine’s, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter/Spring, Cinco de Mayo, and National Donut Day, and themes like aviation, under-the-sea, squirrels and spooky season, of course.

A collection of holiday treesNot normally a crafty person, I’ve found the challenge of creating elaborate tree decor so satisfying. While I buy a lot (bless you, Michael’s and the Dollar Store), some decorations I make myself. For the hand-sewn Valentine’s hearts, I learned a very painful-for-my-brain box stitch and enjoyed mixing and matching felt, thread and buttons. Sewing requires intense concentration and while I jacked up SO MANY HEARTS (while swearing to the heavens), I loved how forgiving the activity was. Mess up a stitch? Pull it out and start over. It only costs time.

Ditto for painting sea creatures. Although I have next to no artistic ability in the drawing/painting realm, I got on a painting kick this summer with my nephews. Simple tropical fish cut out of cardboard? SO FUN TO MAKE. When I messed up a detail or ten, I just painted over and tried again. Talk about cathartic to quickly erase a mistake.

As I think back over the last year and my recent musings on burnout, rumination, and job stress/heartache, I’m realizing how much these holiday trees have helped me keep burnout at bay. I’m still managing a lot of stress of course, but every month, I take time to create. The process focuses my attention away from work and screens and email drama, and points me towards something silly and satisfying and whimsical.

And what’s more, I get to share the whimsy and fun with others. My friends and family tell me they look forward to seeing what the next tree will be and I love how many people declare a favorite one month only to say “No, THIS one is my favorite” the next. It’s joy compounded.


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