In what feels like the land of Christmas trees, I must admit, we have a fake tree. Its lights permanently woven within its branches, the branches made from hidden wire under the faux fir needles, our tree must be straightened and fluffed each year after its 11-month stay in a box.
It’s a small tree, maybe 4 feet tall, and although it doesn’t have the refreshing scent of a real tree, our tree does everything we need it to do — it tells the story of us. For me, the actual tree is the least important part of the Christmas tree tradition. Each year we bring our fake tree to life with the ornaments we hang from it.
On a typical Christmas growing up, we dedicated a whole day to picking out and decorating the tree. Once we got it home we would make hot chocolate or pour a glass of my mom’s homemade eggnog. We would turn on Christmas songs, pull out the ornaments and hang them one by one. It was not a task to be rushed because many of our ornaments had a story and we liked to reminisce about those moments together.
Now that I’m an adult, my parents have passed down some of the ornaments I’ve looked at for much of my life. I continue to add new ones as my story evolves, but each year I’m reminded of decades passed as I unwrap them. Like a time capsule, ornament by ornament, our tree is a place for the past and present to collide, history dangling from its branches.
When my parents were married, the symbol of their union was a moon and star. In our family home, there were several places that symbol could be found, including ornaments on our Christmas tree. Each year I hang one such ornament, a half moon with a star dangling from its corner in honor of my parents.
A gold metal ornament in the shape of a little girl with wings and a halo bares the engraving, “Allison 1982.” The ornament was given to me on my first Christmas. As a small child, I hung it from my own mini tree that sat on a bookshelf in my bedroom. As I have grown, it has come with me to all the homes I’ve lived, all the trees I’ve had, and will hopefully continue to do so.
There are a series of ornaments that represent the East Coast, where most of my family still lives. There’s a painted blue crab shell symbolizing the crab feasts my family always has when we come visit. A ball ornament that was hand-painted by my cousin two decades ago has what looks like the Baltimore skyline — the area much of my family grew up.
Other ornaments were made by me and my parents insisted on saving them. There’s the origami star I made in 4-H fiber arts class, dipped in wax to preserve its shape and sprinkled with sparkles to give it some bling. In kindergarten, I made an ornament using the lid of a can. With a string pulled through a hole to hang it, my school picture is glued to the front — two pigtails on the side of my head and wearing a plaid jumper my grandmother made.
Then there’s the bungee-jumping Santa. Santa is in a pose as if skydiving and attached to a slinky-ish wire that allows it to bounce up and down when pulled. Around since my childhood, two years ago we hung it from a lamp in our living room and our young nephew pulled too hard, sending Santa crashing down on the wood floor, breaking into a half dozen pieces. Last year, we were gifted back Santa, whose pieces had been picked up after the accident and glued back together with expert precision. With barely-there “scars” from where he had been broken, he is now whole again with new stories to tell.
But the ornament that often gives me the biggest smile is one closest to my heart. Although its construction was simple, its nostalgia runs deep. On a square piece of paper in which a young me drew two holly leaves, centered in between them is a red footprint. Just below her footprint is a picture of my beloved Elsa, a black and white fur ball with an arrow shape running up her nose. As my first best friend and companion for 17 years, that ornament is always front and center on the tree.
This year, as our tree is lit up once again and embellished with all these memories and more, I stare at the stories that hang from it. I think of all the trees the ornaments have hung from, all the homes they have been in, all the people who have touched them. With this thought, I realize it’s not the tree that makes it feel like Christmas, it’s the ornaments that adorn it.