O Christmas Tree
We moved into this house just after the new year, and so did not celebrate the holidays here. Nor did we put up a tree in our temporary place last year, as we didn’t have the room. But now we do, and so a tree was procured and went up a couple of weeks ago. I dragged the 12 huge boxes of decorations out of storage, and for the first time Cubby got to experience the depths of my ornament obsession.
I’d warned him about it. And he’d seen the boxes when we moved them. Still, I don’t think he was entirely prepared to find that each ornament was swaddled in tissue paper inside its own acid-free cardboard box. Or that each box was labelled with the ornament’s name and identifying number. Or that there was a binder containing a list of everything in the boxes.
It got worse as the boxes were opened. “Welcome back, Girl Under Tree,” I said, unwrapping an ornament of a girl appearing to balance the bottom part of a Christmas tree atop her head. “Where’s your sister?”
“Sister?” Cubby said. “She has a sister?”
I searched for and found a box labelled “Curly Golden-Haired Angel,” and took out its slumbering inhabitant. “See?” I said, holding it up. “It’s the same mold, only they painted the tree part gold to be the angel’s hair. They did that with a lot of molds back in the day.”
“This is going to take a while, isn’t it?” Cubby said, eyeing the remaining boxes.
It did. Each ornament in the collection has a story, especially the ones that I’ve had handmade by various artists. The Krampus riding a goat and carrying two frightened children in his sack was made for me while I was living with a friend in Texas, which required telling the story of how that year we had to drag the entire decorated tree across the carpet after the roof sprung a leak. The soft sculpture Bette Davis (complete with fur coat and cigarette holder) and Eleanor Roosevelt came from a little old lady in Maine whose ornaments of historic American figures hung on the White House tree when the Obamas were the occupants. The snowman with the red ribbon on his chest is “Frosty Cares,” one of the early AIDS charity ornaments by famed designer Christopher Radko.
There are hundreds of ornaments in the collection. Most I’ve picked up on eBay over the past 20 years, often from shops that were going out of business or, more usually, from people whose mothers or grandmothers had passed and left behind boxes of ornaments that nobody wanted. Often, the sellers had no idea what they were selling, and certainly had no idea of the history behind them.
I buy them not only because they’re beautiful little pieces of glass art, but also because of their stories. “Why would someone make an ornament of a boy holding a penny in his butt cheeks?” Cubby asked.
“That one is called ‘Set for Life,’” I explained. “He’s a Geldscheisser. It means gold pooper. He’s a good luck symbol. It’s a German thing. Now, let me tell you about this pickle.”
I love these weird little things. I love that our tree is covered with ornaments that people look at and ask questions about. And I love the newer ones that we added this season, each one chosen because it represents some part of our past year: a figure of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, six carved wooden birds that depict the ones we most frequently see in our back yard, a needle-felted raccoon to represent the mascot and history of our village, a Santa wearing a face mask.
Also going on the tree this year is a not-terribly-attractive snowflake made out of strips cut from tin cans. I got it in 1975, when my parents took me to an event held by the publishers of Ranger Rick nature magazine. Ranger Rick, a raccoon, was there himself, and somewhere there’s a photo of me standing with him. I thought the ornament was lost when my mother left my father 30 years ago and took it with her. But my sister found it recently in a box of my mother’s things, and now I have it again. Hanging it on the tree is both a way to remember a day I enjoyed and to perhaps make some peace with my mother, with whom I had a difficult relationship.
I’ve moved the boxes of ornaments many times. They’ve travelled across the country twice, been carried in and out of basements and storage units and attics. Miraculously, not one has been broken. Now, finally, they’re home. Looking at the decorated tree, I see more than bits of glass, cloth, and wood. I see branches filled with memories.