When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things—not the great occasions—give off the greatest glow of happiness.
It’s no secret I enjoy this time of year, not only because of Who we celebrate (and why), but also because of the power of Christmas to both stimulate old memories and to create new ones. This year we got a late start putting up the Christmas tree, but when we finally dragged the twenty-year-old pre-lit Tannenbaum out of the attic, the Ghost of Christmas Present forgave our tardiness and joined in the celebration. After Hannah and I fluffed the branches and made sure all the white mini-lights were functional, we began one of my most cherished traditions: hanging the decorations. Why do I relish this tradition? Because of the memories and stories contained in each and every one of those ornaments.
The Hughes family Christmas tree is decorated with nothing but ornaments important to our family history. We long ago scrapped the mishmash of generic red and gold glass balls and Hallmark collectibles to focus exclusively on ornaments gathered over the years that tell a story, most joy-filled, but some tragic. And after eleven Christmases, our tree twinkles with meaning. This year Mary sat on our red chaise lounge parked in front of the tree and carefully removed each decoration from its box, releasing it from its nest of tissue paper. Carefully, almost reverently, she offered each one to either Hannah or me to suspend from the green plastic branches.
“I like this one,” Hannah declared, handing me a clear plastic ball filled with fake snow and featuring the silhouette of a gymnast doing a split handstand on the beam.
“Why do you like this one so much?” I asked, hanging it from one of the upper limbs, beneath the glowing LED star.
“Because it’s really pretty and it has a gymnast in it,” she explained, “and because I think some of Mama’s friends made it.”
We hung a baby rattle emblazoned with “Baby’s First Christmas,” a snow baby dressed in pink and declaring “Hannah 2007,” and a block featuring a key-operated music box that plays Brahms’ Lullaby in cut time. One clear ball is filled halfway with downy chicken feathers, a testament to the day Mary came home to discover our two dogs, Dot and Levi, had somehow pushed their way into the chicken yard. For a brief moment they’d escaped domestication and had relived their predatory ancestry with gruesome enthusiasm. Before we buried the three pet birds, my wife asked me to pluck a few feathers from their limp carcasses to remember them by. The Christmas decoration features their names—Norma Jean, Inde and Coco—encircling the top of the globe.
When I was a kid my two brothers, my sister and I looked forward to the annual arrival of the Christmas package from Aunt Dorothy and Uncle Will—it was the one gift Mom and Dad allowed us to open on Christmas Eve, a tradition that carried on well into my teenage years.
One year Mom opened the box and plucked out a clutch of small wooden birds with loops of gold thread emerging from their backs—Christmas ornaments, one for each of the kids. Mine was painted Blue Angel blue, and “DAVID” was printed on the underside of one wing in gold paint. I prized that ornament for years, and each time I hung that bird on the tree, memories of that Christmas Eve so long ago would flock into the moment and perch on the branches with it. Makes me want to chirp with joy!
As Hannah and I continued to hang ornaments, Mary passed to her a photo frame made from red foam polka-dotted in white, with “2010” written in black Sharpie on the green bow. “I don’t like this one,” Hannah professed. She skirted the tree and hung the photo on the side facing the wall so no one could see it.
“Why don’t you like that picture?” I asked.
“Because it looks like I’m grumpy,” she replied. Indeed the photo within the frame features Hannah wearing what appears to be a very Grinch-like snarl. Upon closer inspection, however, she was chewing a piece of gum when the photo was snapped, giving her the appearance of grumpiness.
“It’s a cute picture,” I said. I moved the ornament from behind the tree to the front and dangled it out of her reach. It’s still there last I checked.
As we continued decorating, the memory of draping plastic icicles on our childhood tree popped into my mind. “We used to hang icicles on our tree every year,” I told Mary and Hannah, recalling the clumps of metalized plastic tinsel we’d practically throw onto the branches by the handful, covering all of the ornaments we’d just finished hanging. The tree ended up looking like a conical Cousin It in bling. “It was a pain in the butt.”
“My dad would hang them one at a time,” Mary remembered. “It took forever!”
But for all the mess the tinsel made, my fondest memory is of laying icicles across the tracks of our O-gauge Aurora train set chugging around the base of the tree. The popping sparks and smoke entertained my brothers and me for hours. And the cool part: my parents let us do it! It had become a Christmas tradition we looked forward to year after year. My brother still has that train. I wonder if he’s reliving the Christmas dream with his kids. I haven’t heard anything about his house burning down recently. …
Copyright ©2014 by David C. Hughes