When I was fifteen years old, my mother’s friend, Shiela DiChercio, had the foresight to start me on collecting Christmas tree ornaments. I thought it a bit premature, as I had just gotten my first boyfriend and was very far from having a home and a tree of my own. But in hindsight, it was rather brilliant. From her, I received a bride and groom mouse, a soft furry tiny mouse made from a piece of rabbit pelt, and a baby in a walnut shell bed. Nearly fifty years later, when I decorate our Christmas tree and come to her gifts, I still think of Shiela and her wonderful friendship with my mom, as well as with me, for I would visit with her and talk about my relationship with my mom when I needed some insight.
Every year growing up, my Mother put up an amazing Christmas tree, covered with ornaments she had collected her whole married life. I always enjoyed decorating it, which we did while listening to holiday music. The year we learned that my 57-year-old Dad had lung cancer, the fully decorated tree fell over, for the first time ever, busting glass ornaments and balls. My mom cried- hard. The next year, Dad was no longer with us. When my 57-year old Mom died three years later, we divided up the items in the house amongst my four siblings, including the Christmas tree ornaments. There was no bickering, for there were plenty to go around.
A little history… Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.
Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.
Christmas tree ornaments were always special to me so that when Todd and I got married, and had little money, we did what we love best, we hand-crafted our own presents, including ornaments. We gave one to each of my cousins, my special Aunt Dot, and our close friends.
When we had children, we put an ornament away for each of them, in anticipation for the time when they would leave home and have a place and a tree of their own.
Todd and I decide on a design for our annual ornament by drawing from what had happened special that particular year, perhaps where we had traveled to. Todd makes the ornaments out of wood, and I paint them. We made a painted wooden Swiss army knife the year we went to Switzerland- a salmon when we went to Alaska, a turtle – Hawaii, a burned wooden turkey feather the year we raised turkeys for meat AND I took Bryce to visit Turkey, a ping pong paddle the year we went to China, a pizza slice the year we went to Sicily, a puffin the year we went to Iceland, a canoe the year we paddled the Everglades and Isle Royale NP, a tiny copy of Scraping Heaven compete with a dust jacket replica the year my 6th book came out and a white sparkly wedding cake the year Sierra got married.
By the time Sierra and Bryce would have a tree of their own, they would have a nice size bucket of 25+ ornaments representing something meaningful and significant from their childhood. Like Shiela did for me over fifty years ago, Todd and I would start our kids off right, be ahead of the game, at least when it came to decorating their Christmas tree!
On our Christmas tree, I have a tiny wool knitted sock that my mother received in the hospital when she was in having me- a December 19th baby. The sock is 62 years old. There are ornaments on my tree made by the kids when they were little- photos with cotton balls framing their glowing faces. Ornaments came from all over America and the world that we’ve been collecting for years, ie. a skin umiak/kayak bought in Alaska. There are balls with hand-painted creepy elf faces that Bryce painted as a child, as well as molded clay elf heads; carved wooden ornaments that Todd made me when we were first married, hand-sewn cloth ornaments made by sister, JoAnn; blown-out eggs that were hand painted from my art school friends, girls I’ve long lost touch with but I think about and wonder about them every December. Many of these people, who have long disappeared from my life, resurface once a year at tree decorating time. I remember the important role they once played in my life, honor that time period from long ago, relive the memories once a year.
My Aunt Dot calls every year when she decorates her tree, as she handles each ornament, she is grateful for us, for these gifts from our lives. We go through this little ritual on the phone: she asks if there is going to be an ornament this year and Todd says no, he is stopping them. She says, “bullshit,” and she tries to guess what it is, which remains a secret until the day we deliver them. But last year, the year we went to Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar for the holiday season, Todd returned from Asia and skipped making one, the first time in 26 years. He said it was long enough. I let it go for then, but now this year, I am making him do two, to punish him for skipping! He’s not quitting something so meaningful. We have lost enough joys in our lives with the children growing up and leaving home, for there is no more Trick or Treating, Easter Egg coloring parties, and the like.
Bryce came home to visit this weekend and helped us decorate our tree, reliving memories for himself. He returning to his apartment in Philly after buying his first car. In it, he stuffed a small, scrappy Christmas tree that his dad grew in the orchard, as well as his bucket of Christmas tree ornaments that we’ve been collecting for him for the past twenty-five years. He and his girlfriend, Calan, have a new, multi-room apartment that leaves plenty of room for a tree of their own. This is the first year he will take out his saved ornaments from his whole life thus far and decorate his tree. And so the cycle continues. He will put up a Christmas tree for the rest of his life, later with his children and relive the memories of his youth growing up. Sierra and Eben are living in India this year but next year in Virginia, they too will finally get to use their ornaments to decorate their first Christmas tree.
I think my mom is with me as I hold each ornament, adjust the hook and find a good spot on the tree to display it. I’ve heard your loved ones join you in spirit anytime you invite them there. When I am gone from this earth, I will make sure I am present in spirit when my children pull out each delicate, homemade ornament, and unwrap them as they remember each trip, each adventure, each cycle of their lives.
A Christmas tree ornament is a powerfully important object. It has the ability to transport you back in time, reconnect you with people, even if it’s only in your heart, and revisit a time that could have been lost to you. This small thing is a mighty thing and it should not be underestimated. They are gifts that continue giving for many decades and generations.
Posted in: Life's Moments and Lessons