I come from a family of hoarders. If we like something, we keep it forever. If we love it, it goes on the Christmas tree. It’s my fault, really. My first memory is of a Christmas tree. I was three years old. We lived with my grandparents and my little brother and I slept in cribs in the front room, just outside my parents’ bedroom door.
I woke with a feeling that someone was in the room, but I wasn’t afraid. Above the high-pitched humming of the gas heater, I heard the tinkling of bells. When I opened my eyes, the room was filled with light. I stood in my bed and looked around. Shiny silver ribbons hung from everything and on a table, there was a tree, covered in twinkly lights, silver balls and bells. While I stood staring, my mother (who had probably just left the room) lifted me from bed. The huge smile on her face and that light-filled room shaped my Christmases forever.
My mother’s passion for Christmas transcended anything I’ve ever known.
Every December, she searched for the perfect Scotch pine as the backdrop for her Christmas tree story, which changed each year. One year it was ‘Christmas on the farm’, complete with animals, farm tools and tractors. Another year the tree was covered with snowmen and another it was soldiers. My favorite was ‘Christmas at the North Pole’ when the entire tree was covered in Eskimos and igloos. Snow and ice made from foam and cubes of clear plastic hung with fishermen and hunters. Their costumes of silver and gold lame reflected the colored tree lights. Soft, white fur trimmed the cuffs of their jackets and hats. It was 80 degrees outside, but that tree made the entire room feel like winter. My mother’s love of creating Christmas was a gift and the older I got, the clearer it became:
Ordinary things done with so much love and ceremony bring more joy than the most sought after present.
When I became a mom, I invoked my mother’s passion and my childhood memories to create Christmas magic for my own children. But they had other ideas. The first two Decembers we had a live tree in the house, we also had multiple doctor visits and Christmas photos with red-nosed kids. The next year we bought an artificial one. We traded scent for size and bought the biggest tree we could afford. We loaded it with ornaments and anything deemed pretty enough to put on its ample limbs.
Years later, I noticed how much they enjoyed unpacking all those ornaments. For them, it was like visiting old friends. Each one they unwrapped came with a laugh, a shudder or a story. The 12 soldiers given to my son on his first Christmas (and the story of how he always hung them together on the same tiny branch) shared the same spotlight as my daughter’s vast collection of angels and every Christmas card or ornament either of them made in school.
One December when we lived in Louisiana, a Popeye’s menu in the shape of a fried chicken leg showed up in our mail box. The kids thought it was so funny, they immediately hung it on the tree. I still cringe when I think about how many years that chicken leg lived on our tree (and how many times I tried hiding it or throwing it away).
For years we put our lives and loves on that big tree.
It brought us joy every day in December but, as long as our parents lived, at the end of our last work day we drove home for Christmas. We packed every present, every Santa wish and stocking and traveled as many as 400 miles to the Gulf Coast to spend Christmas Eve with my husband’s family and Christmas Day with mine. The longest part of the journey was the 40 something miles between our two hometowns on Christmas Eve.
On dark farm-to-market roads late at night, through miles of fog so thick you couldn’t see the front of your own vehicle, I talked endlessly to Mike to keep us both awake. The glow from the towering chemical plants was sometimes the only light we saw. But no matter how late or how tired we were, walking through my parents’ front door was always a mood changer.
There were twinkling lamps, a giant Christmas tree and presents. The air was filled with the scent of candles and whatever my mother had baked while she waited up for us. Regardless of the hour, she greeted us with enthusiasm and warmth and helped us carry bags and sleeping kids to our rooms. When I finally had a chance to properly hug her, usually just before I went to bed, I held her so long and hard that I could actually feel Christmas.
When customary and ordinary routines trigger our heart, those repetitive movements become ritual.
Now that our kids are grown, our Christmas rituals have changed. Last week, when the new. smaller tree came down from the attic, Mike spent an entire day pulling apart its boughs; checking lights and wires and carefully primping every branch. Every now and then, he stepped back to check its proportion and balance, reminding me that nothing beautiful in our house ever happens by chance. Thanks to him.
The next day, I went through the two giant boxes of ornaments we have pared down to, making sure all have hooks and have weathered the year in the attic. Each one I unwrap evokes a feeling. A memory. A story.
Three soldiers remain from my son’s first Christmas, along with an ornament from my husband’s kindergarten Christmas party.
But after so many years, the boxes are loaded with ornaments whose unwrapping brings simultaneous pain and joy. Those whose stories live on, but the loved ones do not. Among them, the last Eskimo from ‘Christmas at the North Pole’ , with his silver spear and gold bucket of fish; the miniature Steiff teddy bear my mother bought my dad (to replace the one from his childhood that had all but disintegrated in their attic) and a sequined butterfly that belonged to my grandmother.
I stayed up late, mending the Eskimo’s mustache, re-attaching a candelabra to an ornament I made years ago for my youngest brother and remembering everyone I will miss this Christmas. When I finished, I kissed each ornament and thanked them silently for their part in my Christmas story. Then I placed them on the tree among the collection of tiny birdhouses, a locket from our 25th anniversary and dozens of snow men and fishing ornaments.
Seeing them that night, amid the light of the tree and a lifetime of memories. I realized this ritual had come full circle.
The light I had been searching for every Christmas had been with me all along. What made that first Christmas memory so special wasn’t the brightness of the tree or the warm glow of that night. It was special because it was a gift. A gift of ordinary things, done with an extraordinary amount of love.