Christmas trees are as individual as fingerprints. Some people favor white trees with multicolored twinkling lights. Others go for a more monochrome look with the lights, the ornaments, and the tree skirt all matching in shades of red, silver or gold. Tinsel, angel hair, garland, lights, stars, angels — there’s a look, a decorative element for everyone.
Growing up, my family’s tree was what you might call eclectic. A mish-mash of glass balls, tinsel, twinkling lights, train-shaped light covers, aluminum reflectors, foam gingerbread houses, and what some might dub kitsch. Even the nativity scene was unique. My dad, who was somewhat of a handyman-in-businessman’s-clothing, had drilled a hole in the back of the wooden creche, poking a single Christmas bulb through so the holy family could be bathed with yellowish light. I loved that nativity scene. I loved that tree. In fact, some of my favorite Christmas memories involve sitting in the darkened livingroom around 3 a.m. staring at the tree, freezing feet tucked up and under my Hello Kitty nightgown.
I think it has a lot to do with my dad. He loved Christmas, and every ornament, it seems, has a story that relates to him like the nativity scene he fashioned or those foam gingerbread men and houses. They, for instance, came from Sears when I was just a baby. He had misplaced our box of ornaments so, on Christmas Eve, he went out and bought what he could find. Or the beautiful hand-blown ornaments from Germany that he and my mom bought their first year of marriage. Seeing those ornaments as well as the ones my mother collected over the years brings me back to my childhood livingroom, to a time when I was someone’s little girl. The light of someone’s life, being hoisted onto shoulders to place the pretty hanging glass onto the tree.
I guess that feeling is why I started collecting my own kitsch when I was 12 or 13 and why today, I have a closet full of ornaments. I have so many that I can’t even put all of them on my tree. I end up making decisions every year: what comes out, and what stays behind. Every single one has a story and a memory. The ones from my Jewish friends — the Swarovski crystal snowflake from S. The ornate enameled bear from L. The lightbulb-turned-snowman from J. There are the ones we picked up along the way — the buffalo from Buffalo that I got when I was pregnant with Big Girl. The pink sand-filled orb from our honeymoon in the Bahamas. The homemade ornaments from preschool. The bright parrot I bought in the Slone-Kettering gift shop the day my brother went home from his bone transplant surgery. The strange cowbell that my husband brought home from his month-long trip to Germany. The more recent acquisitions like the Hershey kiss from our trip with the game night friends. Some, however, are duplicates of the ones I grew up with that, over the course of the past decade, I tracked and won on eBay. Yes, those especially are the ones that always make me smile, remembering my dad. They are my own treasured reminders of the man who first inspired my always-growing collection.
It wasn’t easy locating and buying years worth of Christmas ornaments. After all, the gingerbread ornaments purchased at Sears in the 1970s didn’t have any markings. (I think I searched “vintage foam gingerbread houses.”) The giant glass balls from the 60s — when my parents were first married — certainly didn’t have a manufacturer inscribed on the bottom. (Again, I went with a really descriptive “vintage extra large blown glass balls.”) Neither did the plastic train-shaped lightcovers from the late 60s or early 70s. I think it took me about two or three months of slogging through thousands of listings before I found the right ones. The one exception was the silver and felt choir singers from the 60s. Those, at least, were marked “Made in Japan,” but they were still hard to find. It wasn’t until I added “spun cotton” to my search term that I found them.
Today, I have one of almost every single vintage item that adorns my mother’s tree. The strangest part is that I don’t hang many of them. Instead, I take them out, stare at them for a bit, and put them back into the boxes until next year. Oh, maybe I’ll put a single gingerbread house up and one of the large blown glass balls, but for the most part my current family memories — and after all, that’s really what my ornaments are — overwhelm my childhood family’s memories. Still, it’s nice having those memories in tangible form. It’s nice, as I did tonight, to be able to take out a memory, show it to my kids, and tell them all about the grandpa they never met.
My husband and I were looking at my busting-at-the-boughs tree the other night, talking about whether or not my girls will decorate like their mommy or go for a more cultured Christmas tree look. I hope they follow in my footsteps and go the cluttered route. There’s something to be said for having so many memories within arm’s reach.