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Life Unscripted: Laura Benanti

For Tony winner and TV star Laura Benanti, being obsessed with the holidays is in her genes. But as the Younger star has learned since having her own child, the magic takes some work! And in the end it’s all about being together.

laura benanti sitting in living room illustration

My family and I had always spent Christmas at my parents’. They’ve lived in small-town New Jersey since I was a kid. When they bought their house, it was an eyesore. It had been squatted in; there were holes in the wall—it was a mess. But over the course of 37 years, they lovingly turned that broken-down 1960s wreck into the beautiful home it is today.

Everything in the house means something. My mother’s decor is country chic, but tasteful, and everything you see has a story, like the rocking chair her grandfather made. And the rocking horse that belonged to her father, then Mom and her brothers, then my sister and me, and now my daughter and my nephew. The toy Ferris wheel that she received as a child for Christmas. A jar of buttons saved by her grandmother.

Every spare moment was spent tending to and caring for that home, inside and out. I still remember my father, every weekend, digging in the back of our yard and moving these huge boulders up a hill to construct stone walls all over our property. And it was worth it: The place feels special, almost like a getaway. When friends from the city would come to visit, they’d say it was like being at a spa. It’s a picture-perfect setting, especially during the holidays, when it’s covered in snow and the old stone fireplace is crackling.

This is also when my mom is truly in her element. We affectionately refer to her as a Christmas elf. We’ve had the same holiday rituals every year for as long as I can remember, and she is the mastermind behind all of them.

My mom has over 50 small decorative Santa Clauses that she places all over the house (it sounds insane, but it’s wonderful) and two Christmas trees. One is a “nature” tree: Whenever she gets flowers throughout the year, she saves them and dries them, then hangs them on the tree and offers little wishes of hope for the people who gave them to her. That one has white lights and an angel on top; it’s so beautiful.

The other tree is done up with all the decorations from our childhood. Every hideous ornament that my sister and I ever made, all the lanyards, all of the stuff that we grew up with, is on full display every year. That tree gets the colorful lights. It’s more familial, and maybe less elegant, but we love it so much.

Meanwhile my dad, now 73, still decorates the outside of the house. My parents have a million wreaths and white lights, and once they’re all up, it looks like the elves themselves visited.

My mother’s attention to Christmas is so her. She decorates for every holiday beautifully, but Christmas is next level. There’s not one inch of the house that isn’t covered. I’m making it sound kind of cheesy, but I swear it’s not. It is, however, definitely “extra.” And full of traditions, some classic, some our own.

As is the day, when it arrives. On Christmas morning, my mom wakes up, puts on Christmas music, and sets out bagels, cream cheese, lox, capers, tomatoes, and onions, and mimosas. My sister and I, and now our families, wait at the end of the hall, count to three, and then run down the hallway into the fireplace room, where our stockings are hung. We don’t just wake up and walk out—there’s a ritual to it.

laura benanti wreaths illustration

As a child, I vividly remember feeling like, “Oh, Christmas is magical!” But it wasn’t until I got older, and I had my own daughter (Ella, who’s now 4) and had to pull things together for Christmas myself, that I realized that it’s my mother who’s magical. She’s the one who made the holidays special and also made everything feel like it just happened—even though it was really the result of the time, commitment, and love she poured into it. She was so happy to see the joy and wonder in our eyes. It’s why I’ve missed only a handful of holidays with my family in my 42 years.

My mom’s hard work to make the season great made me the holiday geek that I am. It’s well known to all the people in my life how much I love Christmas. I’m one of those people who listens to holiday music in the summer. One of my best friends, Chad Hodge, a television writer, sent me a train that goes around a Christmas tree for my birthday. My birthday is in July. So it’s no surprise that as a mom, I want my daughter to feel the same pure joy that I did as a kid.

Life can be tough, and the weight of the world encroaches as kids get older. Feeling the warmth and weightlessness of the holidays is something every kid deserves. And, as I watch Ella experience that, I feel it again, too.

I certainly decorate the way my mom does. But while my mom never let us see her sweat, I admit I have a little sense of “Do you see what I’ve done?!” We deck our halls: We have a few Santas, but it’s mostly greenery, lights, holly, and small ornaments I’ve collected over the year. We make decorations as we start to create our own homemade memories; Ella and I made pine-tree ornaments last year. It was the first year that she was able to stand on the ladder and help us hang ornaments on the tree. She was so proud! Right where she could reach, there were so many decorations! Up top, it was much leaner, but it felt perfect.

“As a child, I vividly remember feeling like, ‘Oh, Christmas is magical!’ but it wasn’t until I got older, and I had to pull things together for Christmas myself, that I realized that it’s my mother who’s magical.”

With the pandemic, this past Christmas was…different. I’d lived in New York City for 23 years. I loved it, and I never thought I would leave. But like a lot of families, we moved out of the city to the suburbs so our daughter could be outside and have a yard.

My husband, who’s a minimalist, asked me, “Oh boy, we’re going to get more decorations, aren’t we?” (We did.) It’s very important to me that I’m able to decorate for my family—it feels familiar. Even when I was in my 20s, I felt like I made Christmas last longer because I decorated my apartment like a maniac. But there’s something about having our own wreath on our own front door that feels like a milestone.

Now that I have my own family, we alternate Christmases between my in-laws’ place and my parents’ house. Last year, we celebrated at my parents’. We all quarantined so we could be together, and I felt so incredibly grateful to be with my family for the holidays, given everything that was going on in the world. My sister, whom I hadn’t seen in months and who was pregnant at the time, was there.

If anything, the hard year made Christmas 2020 even more meaningful. I think it’s true that sometimes you have to lose something to appreciate what you have. It gave me a renewed sense of appreciation for the magic that my mother created.

I know that we’ll probably have Christmas at our own house one day, but that feels so bittersweet. There’s something about my childhood home that still feels entirely magical. I’m not sure I’m ready to give it up.

As I write this, in summer(!), I’m already looking forward to Christmas and the traditions that we’ll continue. We’ll gather on the bed, and my dad will read The Night Before Christmas to all of us. And I mean all—my husband, my daughter, my sister, her husband, and our kids. We’ll squeeze onto one big bed and laugh so hard because we know it’s a little bit ridiculous. Then, come morning, we’ll count one-two-three and run down the hall to our stockings and unwrap our presents. We’ll stuff ourselves silly, and for a few days, we’ll throw off the weight of the world. And the true gift is that we’ll get to do it all together.

By Laura Benanti | Illustrations by Katherine Streeter

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