A memory tree

winter willow

I sat on the floor and pulled the lid from a squat octagonal storage bin, releasing a crisp waft of evergreen. Inside, a trove of trinkets lay in beds of crinkled butcher paper. They varied in size, shape, color—and age. I rummaged through the collection, my fingers becoming sticky from leftover tree sap clinging to the Christmas tree ornaments hanging from their tight tree quarters of Christmases past. I singled out a few, one at a time picking them up by their hooks, then dangled them amid the aura of a holiday spirit.

I studied each ornament, and realized that what I held and what lay in the bin in front me weren’t just decorations, mere baubles in colors and shapes to gussy up a tree, but memories, like small time capsules of our history to be woven through branches of a tree.

When choosing a Christmas tree from a lot of many, I used to chuckle to myself of the practice of bringing a live tree indoors and then decorating it with hanging things. Sure, I was taking a literal view, but I guessed the tradition started centuries ago. It was in the seventh century when a monk, St. Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, came to Germany to preach. He brought with him a fir tree to decorate, claiming its triangular shape represented the Holy Trinity. The Germans then started adorning the Christmas tree with simple white candles. A decorated Christmas tree of today has come a long way, representing a mix from all over the world of tradition and practice with colored baubles, blinking lights, and glitzy garland.

I grabbed from the bin a large dull red ball showing its age with a lost patina. We always hung this one from lower branches, a directive given by my mother to my brother and me when we were little to always hang larger balls toward the bottom of the tree, though jeopardizing its fate of being knocked off and shattering into tiny pieces. I spotted a group of silver, smaller balls embossed with a ribbon of white snow, and even smaller red ones inherited from my mother, as I remember her hanging them consistently on her tree in her apartment for so many years. A tiny, cross-stitched picture of a lit candle, and a crocheted snowflake were just two of the many hand-made ornaments carried down from the family of generations. And then there were the vintage ones, circa 1970s into the 1980s, Styrofoam balls pinned with beads and sparkly red and green adornments and wound in ribbon. When I was old enough, these were ornament-making projects that added another level of holiday cheer infused by my mother as a requirement of the holiday preparation. I perused a grouping that brought back memories of travels. From Paris, a small pink macaron and a coffee cup with pillows of white foam on its surface with “cappuccino” written in red letters. Some ornaments showcased my interests—a little red and white golf bag with plastic gray sticks as clubs popping from the top, and a white ice skate with laces and a silver blade. Perhaps one of my best remembered ornament is one I had made in second grade. Miss McGuire helped me glue together stacked painted wooden spools to make a toy soldier, with wooden stick arms and a gold ribbon in an “X” across his blue uniform. And then there were the ones I thought of family: a small photo of my first nephew glued to a flat face of ceramic ball, and a small painted metal bird that grabs onto a tree branch by his feet that are set into a metal clip. When I was a child, I was always challenged to find the bird’s yellow beak, green-blue body, and white plumage peeking from my grandmother’s Christmas tree that she had hidden so cleverly.

Though not just ornaments, the memory-keepers we hang on our Christmas trees tell stories that take us back to our school years, to places we have traveled, to the family in our lives. They are connections to ourselves and to others. They are home.

Though we have forgone putting up a Christmas tree this year, I embraced the spirit of the holiday with each memory I held before I placed them safely back to their resting places until next year when I will release them again, to hold them up to remember when.

May you find joy and good cheer in your memories this holiday.

And a blessed and happy New Year, too!