What she really means when she says she's not decorating.

Vintage Woman Decorating Christmas Tree
Credit: Lambert/Contributor/Getty Images

Last Thanksgiving, Mama made an earth-shattering announcement. "Next year, I am NOT putting up that Christmas tree," she said. "It's too heavy, and it's too hard to put together. I—am—through."

The Christmas tree has always been a source of drama back home because my parents have never agreed on how it should be decorated, and year after year, Daddy manages to convince himself that this time around, he can win The Great Tree Battle. Bless his heart. If Mama doesn't want tinsel on her tree because it makes a mess on the carpet, there will be no tinsel. If Mama wants snow on her tree, there will be snow. (She used to make it by whipping water and Ivory Snow detergent into a meringue-like consistency and tipping the branches with it.)

Back in the day, we always had a live tree, harvested from the hedgerow of my uncle's cotton field. One December, Daddy chopped down two half-dead trees and tied them together with the brown sides facing inward so that only the green halves showed. I think that might be the one that drove Mama to purchase an artificial tree and start collecting show-stopper ornaments.

"Are you really not putting up a Christmas tree?" I asked her after Thanksgiving lunch this year.

"No," she said. "I'm not putting one up. Well . . . not a big one. I gave my big tree to the church yard sale. I want a smaller tree. And I want a live one."

"But that's all you're doing?" I pressed on.

"That's it," she said. "I need a new grate for the fireplace, though. I'm tired of that red candle arrangement I usually have in there, so I want to stack some logs in a grate."

"Are we having an actual fire for Christmas?" I couldn't believe it.

"Of course not," she said. "That would make such a mess. I just want it to look like we're going to have a fire."

"So a tree and some logs, but nothing else?" [I couldn't help myself.]

"That's it—as far as decorations go," she said. "Of course I'll set up my Nativity scene, but I don't consider that a decoration. We need it to remind us that Christmas is not about the mall—or whatever y'all do on that internet. What is cyber Monday, anyway?" [We have a brief discussion about Amazon deals.]

"I guess your angel collection will stay in the closet this year?" I asked.

"Well, we can't very well have the Nativity without the heavenly host," she reasoned. "Besides, angels aren't—"

"I know," I said. "They aren't decorations."

"No, they're not," she said. "It's just not the same listening to ‘Joy to the World' without the angels on top of the piano."

"And your ceramic Santas—will they be making an appearance this year?" I asked.

"Of course," she said. "But not in the same room with the Nativity. I like to keep Bethlehem separate from the North Pole."

If you'll be visiting Mama this holiday season (and you will if you know what's good for you), keep the following Mama Speak translation guide handy:

I'm not putting up a Christmas tree this year means I'm not going any bigger than a 7-footer.

I'm not decorating my house for the holidays means I'm keeping it just a few red bows short of Biltmore.

It's fine with me if you can't get home for Christmas means . . . Seriously? Try that on your mother-in-law. And don't forget to bring the ambrosia.