Ah, Christmas. The lights! The presents! The snow! The cookies! The list of ways to celebrate is endless. When my daughter was first born I was so busy planning and executing that I would forget to pick up my camera until Christmas morning. In more recent years I’ve gotten a bit wiser, and I’ve started taking pictures much earlier. In fact, I pick up my camera in mid-November and don’t put it down until January.
Getting started (early!)
Let’s start at the very beginning. Holidays are rarely a one-day event. Part of what makes this time of year so memorable (and stressful) is the build up — all the little things you and your family do in anticipation of the big day. As you start gearing up for the holiday, consider what feelings and moments you want to remember.
Do you have a religious connection to the holiday, or do you take a secular approach? Do you spend the days, weeks, and months prior shopping for the perfect gifts? Don’t forget the food! The baking, the cooking, the dirty dishes. Do you travel, or does everyone come to you? Are there people you only see during the holidays? Don’t wait until the day of to start snapping photos. If you want to capture all the joy, chaos, helpful hands, magic, and meltdowns, you need to start NOW.
About a month before Christmas, my daughter starts making her list. This year it includes such items as American Girl Doll accessories, a giant crystal, a robot unicorn that can shoot play cupcakes out of its mouth, and a pack of gum. I found this list laying among a pile of Legos, baby dolls, and books. I could have moved it to a cleaner spot, but leaving it on this pile of disorganized toys sets a much better scene. By including these details, I can tell multiple stories at once.
Who is celebrating with you
My kids don’t need anything for Christmas but they definitely want many, many things. This leads me to the next task — introducing the characters. Do you have a baby who can do little more than goo goo and ga ga next to the Christmas tree? A toddler who wants to be helpful with the most fragile ornaments? Teenagers who are too cool for anything other than texting adjacent to the tree? What role does your partner play? Or is the whole of the holiday left in your hands? Does extended family join you?
A few years ago, my son insisted on helping with the tree. He was 16 months old! But he found one of his chairs and placed it next to the tree. He climbed right up and did his best to adorn the tree. Let’s just say we’re lucky the tree stayed standing that year.
An important note: Please don’t forget about the adults. It’s easy to only photograph the children — I’m guilty of this myself. This year, it is my Christmas resolution (is that a thing?) to focus on the grown-ups.
The morning of
When it comes to the main event, there can be so much pressure to document every single moment. But I encourage you to rethink this idea. Last year I took ten photos of Christmas morning. TEN! That’s it! The photo below is my favorite. I snuck downstairs and waited for my kids to join me. In the foreground you can see my daughter running for the tree. In the background is my son, who was very nervous because he was worried Santa would still be downstairs! Then you see my husband reaching out a hand to help him. All those pieces are what I want to remember about last Christmas.
A note about light
Let me state the obvious — it’s dark in the winter. Sometimes your photos will be dark. It’s OK! Embrace it. The intensity and quality of the light changes throughout the year. Use that to set the tone and add mood to your story. In the image above, we know it’s dark outside because no sunlight is coming into the room. The lights on the tree and the light at the top of the stairs are the only lights illuminating my family. In the image below, only Christmas lights shine on my daughter and the car. You don’t need anything more to tell the story.
I know what you’re thinking. When do we get to the presents! Well, I’m going to say something wacky and suggest you put the camera down during the unwrapping of the presents. This is for two reasons: First, you will want to watch with your bare eyes as your family unwraps their presents. And second, these moments don’t usually photograph well. If you want to snap one or two of the kids tearing into an especially exciting gift, then do it! But I guarantee you that you don’t need 150 pictures of your kids unwrapping gifts. What you do need is a picture of the aftermath: The living room floor covered in ribbons and wrappings, and your kids playing with their new toys or, let’s be honest, the box.