Each year we pull out the big plastic box in our basement that serves as our Museum of Family History. Within its many cardboard galleries are Christmas tree ornaments that serve as four-inch tour guides, speaking warmly, knowledgeably and nostalgically about our past. Each is an essay about moments in our history, years that were good and not so good, people who’ve come and gone.
I’ve never understood why people wanted a tree with matching ornaments. I remember being at relatives’ homes each Christmas and seeing their tinseled trees filled with ornaments that all looked the same. I looked in wonder because they were dazzling and showy – especially the all-aluminum trees with lights that kept changing color – but as cold as an icycle. I remember being at my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house, where our cousins would join us in stealing tinsel from the tree to lay across the tracks on the model train set, making delicious sparks whenever the train ran over them.
Whatever happened to tinsel, anyhow? Is it even sold anymore?
When we were little my parents wouldn’t decorate the tree until we all were in bed. It was something they did with Santa. The ancient, brittle blown-glass ornaments came out of boxes, dusty from their year in the basement, with the brand name “Coby” on it. As years went by we added our own homemade ornaments to my parents’ collection. At 16, I made a swan from white felt; I think it’s still around here somewhere, more than 40 years later.
Don’t know what ever happened to those early ornaments, but my Mom gave up having a tree many years ago. Now she pulls a fully decorated tabletop tree out of a box and sets it on her dining room table. I can’t see myself ever doing that, but you never know.
My first tree as an adult was at age 26. I was newly engaged and we bought it at a hardware store near Spruce Street in Philadelphia. The apartment-sized fake tree had no ornaments, so I made some, clothespins decorated as members of my first husband’s family. When we divorced I kept some of them because I still loved his family. I got to keep my mother-in-law and sister-in-law; he took his Dad and himself.
When I was a single mom and then a remarried woman with a blended family, decorating our own tree was something that the family did together, sometimes accompanied by our kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends. But over the past few years our grown children have had busy lives in far-flung cities. So this weekend Bob and John and I will place the ornaments on our tree, and we will enjoy a journey through Christmases past.
It’s funny how each of these mute baubles can bring forth enough memories to fill a long essay. For that reason I seldom throw an ornament away, even after it’s broken. Instead, it goes in the back of the tree, away from public view and the need to explain, tucked away like a hidden, private chapel. The bottom of one of my Christmas storage boxes still has shards of spray-painted ziti, broken off from a cardboard tree that one of my children made decades ago.
Here is a timeline of just a few special ornaments. I hope that when you decorate your own tree – or if you’ve already done so – you will take a moment to meditate on these markers from your past, and to remember the people who’ve shared your life. Please upload photos and share memories of your own!