You’d never know, when you walk into their modest apartment in Kent, Ohio, that Cliff Snyder is on disability, that his wife, Lisa Hart, lost her job last year and that Christmas spending for their children has been scaled back to almost nothing.
As soon as Cliff opens the door, you experience the fullness of Christmas, the great room lit only with low lamps, Christmas lights and candles, the scent of burning frankincense and myrrh floating up from a bowl on the table. Soft Christmas music wafts from the boom box on the floor while on one table sits their daughters’ collection of Santa figurines, and on the other, half a dozen colorful nutcrackers. Beyond the living room, wall-to-wall windows frame a snowy woodland scene that is alive with a variety of birds feeding vigorously on the seeds Cliff, Lisa and their two daughters leave out for them.
“Nature has always been important to us this time of year,” says Cliff.
The couple has never had much in the way of extra money. Cliff, who injured his back on the job and developed degenerative disc disease, hasn’t worked in almost 20 years. Lisa, partially disabled from fibromyalgia, has worked off and on, her last job as a customer-service manager at a beauty-supply company.
Money was always especially tight at Christmas. The couple made it work for their daughters, now 14 and 20, skipping a few December bills many years so they could present “that visual punch of abundance” under the tree on Christmas morning, says Cliff. But it was difficult.
“There was always so much stress,” says Cliff. “I wanted to set money aside for Lisa to buy her something nice. She had to have it for the kids.”
Then, in October 2012, Lisa was laid off. For a year, she collected unemployment checks while polishing her resume and looking for work. Nothing. Then, two months ago, the unemployment checks stopped. Lisa, who grew up in a family where even the toilet-seat covers had a Christmas theme, experienced a sleepless night as December rolled into view.
And she realized: “We can rail against this and be horribly depressed. Or we can go with it.” She and Cliff sat the girls down and said, “This is the situation. Let’s decide how we’re going to make it special.”
The girls, who had heard their parents talk about cutting back on Christmas before, didn’t believe their mother at first. But like the residents of Whoville, they realized the experience of Christmas goes far beyond presents. From working on decorations together – there eventually will be so many lights in the living room the family won’t need lamps to read by, Cliff says – to making birdseed-peanut-butter balls and placing them in trees throughout the woods outside their window. From having musician friends and the girls’ friends over for music nights and potlucks, to having a special dinner on Christmas Eve. From celebrating the winter solstice to baking several different kinds of cookies and other festive foods. From waiting for December’s first storm so the family can tromp through snow for the Christmas tree, to reading stories about the international Santas Lisa’s father has given the girls over the years.
For the Hart-Snyders, Christmas is a collection of meaningful events, a sensorial experience of music, scents and visuals shared in community, that begins the weekend after Thanksgiving when the Christmas CDs come out, and continues until Epiphany on Jan. 6 when the tree comes down.
“I’m at a point in my life where I don’t need more material things,” says older daughter Morgana. “To me that’s not what Christmas is about anyway. This year we are able to make family, friends and togetherness the real star of Christmas.”