Ornaments on a Christmas tree tell a story and carry a history. My favorites are the ones that connect with the people of a home in ways that are personal and ways that they show pride and love.
Joan Tucker is a fine person and a loving educator. Here is a small anecdote about her Christmas tree. She was with her first grandchild. She showed him the tree and said, “There’s an angel on top that looks over me.”
The boy who was just 4 years old, said, “I can’t see the angel.”
Joan lifted him and showed him that at the top of the tree was his picture. Then she said, kind of casually, which is her way, “you are my angel.”
That was at least fifteen years ago, but somehow that little boy lives at the top of a Christmas tree forever his grandmother’s angel. I know that even if she has no tree or something different at the top of her present tree that somewhere in her heart will always be that experience.
We favor a children’s kind of tree in our home. Each ornament holds history. There is the golden guitar, the glass balls that were carried from Italy, the whittled face of a Santa done by a man who was once a priest. There is the name and dates of my daughter as she grew. There are ceramic ornaments that were created by people who have now gone but leave these expressions of faith in Christmas for us to appreciate.
Back when tinsel was obligatory, my Aunt Dottie coated her tree in spun glass that was called angel’s hair. It was fluffy white and looked like clouds but you weren’t allowed to touch it and she wore heavy gloves when she put it on the tree. It created the feeling of a snow storm that muted her lights which were always white.
We always had a big tree, a ceiling scraper. It usually needed to be pared back to fit into that base room apartment where we lived. I can’t recall the ornaments but I remember the nativity so clearly. There was a cardboard manger that had room at the top for the insertion of a white light that was supposed to be the star of Bethlehem. There were ceramic camels and cattle and sheep and Wiseman and shepherds. They reminded me of toy soldiers but I wasn’t allowed to play with them.
I have celebrated with people who light candles on their trees, but that takes vigilance and a respect for flame. I’ve spent the holiday with Jewish families who danced around an unadorned tree. I’ve marveled at the beauty of the tree that my mom created later in her life that was all mauve and gold and glass. Reflection with elegant pieces that seemed to have some kind of monochromatic signature.
Hardly anyone hangs popcorn or cranberry garland on trees now, but that was the American tradition. The corn was popped and allowed to go stale and then it and the cranberries were strung onto fishing line. The Germans started bringing trees into the house in the 17th century. They used paper roses and lighted candles. The English liked to use lace. Sometimes cookies were hidden in the branches of Christmas trees but it was not until the 19th century that German glass blowers got into the act. They created elaborate scenes inside of light, blown glass. Tinsel was once made of actual, thin silver strands. People in seaside communities decorate their trees with shells with holes drilled into them and scenes painted on both sides of the shells often by children.
Sometimes you appreciate a tree even more when you are poor. I remember one Christmas when I was first living with my girlfriend, and we had spent all of our money on presents only to remember that we had no tree. We trudged up the street with a fat $10 between us and came back holding hands with this small tree slung over my shoulder. We decorated it by cutting up pictures from Christmas cards that had been sent to us.
I’ve changed my opinion of artificial trees. The real ones are dying as we celebrate. I like the artificial ones and on my deck, I light a live one that I will plant in the spring. This time, I will mix ashes into the root ball in the fervent hope that I help life to continue and that memory is a kind of life.