Decorating the Christmas tree has always been a big deal to me. From the time I was a small child, getting the tree set up (a real cedar when I was a child, an artificial most of my adult life) was something to be done on Thanksgiving weekend; it was like we just couldn't wait any longer to see the twinkle of lights and the glimmer of tinsel. Then we got down to the nitty-gritty. Opening the box of ornaments was like looking at a well-thumbed and beloved family album. Each ornament seemed to have a story to tell, a story repeated every year and every time someone noticed it. Each one was precisely placed so that it didn't overshadow (or was overshadowed by) another ornament. The tree became more than a symbol of the Christmas season, it became where our family history became focalized.
When I married and moved away, it became time to start growing new family memories. I didn't bring any ornaments from home, probably because our family situation had changed so much and partly because I moved away in August, hardly a time to think about Christmas. so our tree started from scratch. We bought ornaments at the BX -- mostly colored glass balls but one group of frosted glass with gold trim and a citrine rhinestone on each and their complementary gold balls with white trim and a pearl. They were beautiful and I loved them.
The year my son was born we added more memories to the box that came out every Christmas. Since we lived in a place where snow never came, I made snowflakes out of paper doilies and hung them from the ceiling around the tree, something I did for several years. This time the BX had a set of four little plastic cutaway balls in different colors, each with a little soldier-musician inside. They were placed low on the tree, partly so the baby could see them and partly because the cat (our Dammit) would bat at those and leave the more breakable stuff higher up.
Time went by, each Christmas usually adding one keepsake ornament to represent something significant. But just as seasons change, relationships do too and when my son was 4 his father and I separated and divorced. I got most of the ornaments but had to find new ways to make the season like the Christmases I had known. I wanted that for my son. He presented me with an ornament he had made at day care -- two pieces of green felt stuffed and glued together with some sequins glued on. The next year he had graduated to a clothespin reindeer with googly plastic eyes and a green and red blanket across his back. Yet another year was a handprint in clay that went on the tree although in toward the trunk so it wouldn't fall off and get broken.
We added a string of three graduated glass bells at the bottom of the tree, our "cat alarm" we called it. If the tree moved even slightly, the "alarm" would go off and we could rescue it from the cat. Mostly though, Dammit curled up under it, demurely tucking her paws under her white shirt that had partially given her her name ("damit" was Filipino for shirt or dress -- the extra "m" came from repeated injunctions for her to get off the table, to stop climbing the curtains or when surveying the wreckage of another ornament, or tipped-over flower pot).
More time, more changes. The little sailor with the semaphore flags joined the others in the box that reappeared every year, sometimes in very distant locations from where they were packed away the Christmas before. The next year we added a funny little 'possum hanging by his tail from a branch and reading a book -- an ornament we got for my dad and which always made him laugh. Dad liked critters like 'possums and alligators and the like.
I remarried and we formed a new family with a new tree. The old favorites came out and new ones added. One year we had mostly wooden representations of toys including trains that were a passion with my husband and airplanes for a little boy who wanted to be a pilot when he grew up. I even found a wooden cat on a stepladder holding a star. There was something for everybody. There was the year we made ornaments of stacks of cinnamon sticks wrapped with red and gold ribbon. Each year there were a few new ornaments to tell a story like the tiny English cottages and church that represented my fascination and passion for David Winter cottages or the little train station that had a light inside.
The little boy with the big blue eyes and blonde curls grew up and eventually moved away. He still came home at Christmas and the same ornaments were there to greet him. Every year we added another cat ornament for me, a train ornament for my husband and sometimes an ornament sent by a friend who knew just what would look good on our tree and remind us of them like the three kittens in a mitten from a friend who adopted a cat the year I adopted her Geordie's two girl cousins, Jane and Maggie, from the same breeder. The ornament cats weren't colored like the three we had but it didn't matter. It was the memory it evoked that counted.
Then not many years ago we went to put up the tree and ----- the ornament box was full of tinsel and strings of lights but no ornaments. We checked another box and yet another. A few stragglers appeared, like the three kittens in the mitten and Dad's 'possum but we couldn't find the rest of them anywhere. The tree looked pretty bare that year and my heart sank a little more each time we ran across a box we hadn't searched and which might just possibly…. but it never was. I made some salt-dough ornaments to hang on the tree but somehow they just weren't the same; they couldn't be. Yet this is what we had so it was grit your teeth, pick up your chin and get on with life.
The Christmas after my husband died I had moved into a small place and given away the tree, the lights and most of whatever was left of the life and Christmases we had shared. I hadn't felt like celebrating Christmas for several years -- depression mostly-- but I felt like I needed to at least put up something small to mark the season. I bought a little tabletop tree with the lights already strung on it. That was fine; it was always husband's job to string the lights and that year he wasn't there to do it. That's as far as Christmas went, except to hang a wreath on the door. I had bought outside lights but just couldn't find the time or the energy (or much desire) to put them up. I'd lost a lot in a short period of time -- a husband, a house, hours at work, three pet cats along with at least 3 ferals outdoors, and those missing ornaments were just one more thing to grieve.
I still grieve those losses. It seems so petty to miss things like missing cats or tiny cottages or clothespin reindeer at the same time I am getting used to living alone but it's like missing an arm or a leg. Sure, I can get by without them but their very missing state seems to embody all the losses I've had over the years -- the family, friends, happy places, happy memories, the illusion of security and belonging that I once took for granted and even the once almost overwhelming joy of Christmas.
This year the little tree is up once again, loosely anchored to the wall to add stability from the occasional cat incursion. This year I looked at the almost bare branches, empty except for the little colored lights, and decided it needed something. I had bought some clear plastic crystal-shaped things to do something with (or maybe just because I liked them) the year before and it occurred to me that I could hang just a few on the tree and gussy it up a bit. I found some in different shapes in the store and also some others on strings that I could take apart and add to hangers. The tree is now fairly decorated with dangles and bell-shapes and rectangles and faceted spheres. Even with the lights off, the crystals catch the light and shine. I feel better. They will never replace the ones that were lost but it's my job now to make new memories and find new ways of coping. Putting crystal shapes together helps me feel creative again and the work with my hands gives me satisfaction. The boys seem to like them too -- or perhaps they are fascinated because now and then one "drops" off (often with a little help) and they make a noise as they roll across the floor.
Merry new Christmas to me. Hang on, there's a bare branch over there that needs something. And so it goes.