It’s four days before Christmas, and my father finally retrieves from beneath the cellar stairs the huge Sears box that houses our Christmas tree. The tree is heavy, its metal trunk solid and plumed with thick branches trimmed with rough-cut green cellophane that simulates pine needles.
It’s the only Christmas tree I’ve ever known, and when my father wrestles it upright and folds its heavy wire branches down, one by one, it’s as magical to me as a butterfly unfurling new wings. He gets pinched once or twice by the boughs as he tugs them into place. “Goddamit,” he says under his breath, to no one in particular.
Then comes the endless detangling of lights (“Goddamit!!”), and my favorite part: the box of ornaments. Most of our Christmas tree ornaments are flimsy or plastic—cheap molded candy canes painted with red, uneven stripes; cardboard stars dipped in white glue and glitter; small plastic elves trimmed sloppily with felt, their faces painted by someone who slap-dashed their eyes on, completely askew from the divot meant to replicate a tiny plastic eye socket. But I love them all.
What I love best, though, are the few fragile glass balls that predate me and are carefully hung in a place of honor on the tree, high up in front. They aren’t particularly fancy, but they are beautiful in the eyes of a 6-year-old. My favorite is a fat little ball with a pointed tip, painted with a picture of a small white snowman holding what looks like a palm tree, but which I later realize is supposed to be a broom.
I don’t really fully know the story of the handful of painted glass ornaments on our tree—and I still don’t. They might have been purchased by my parents as newlyweds, or possibly they once hung on a tree at my grandparents’ house. But those years, they add import and sophistication to our metal tree, erected in the basement rec room. We aren’t a family prone to cultural or ethnic traditions: Like many of their generation, my parents have fully embraced the conveniences of the suburban New World and cast off the Old. But, still, our Christmas has the ornaments, and I associate them in a murky, unfocused way with all that is rich and good about family history, and ritual, and tradition.
I am invited to my friend Heidi’s house for a Christmas party. Heidi’s mother is German. She swings open the door just as we hit the top step, at the threshold, and as we pass through… her meaty arms swing heavily, like hams in a butcher shop, over our heads. “Velcome! Velcome, children!” she says.
Heidi’s mother serves a kind of sweet bread I now know was stollen. It’s doughy and lemony and studded with fat raisins, and I can’t get enough of it. The bread was home-made, Heidi tells me, a point which I think confusing, because to me “home-made” is a package of brown-and-serve dinner rolls served heated in the oven, and I had never seen anything close to this braided bread in the pre-baked bakery aisle at the supermarket.
Heidi’s Christmas tree isn’t a tight cone like our perfect metal tree, I notice. Instead, it’s a real tree, messy and shapeless, with drooping boughs that shed needles on the carpet. Real candles are clipped to it, here and there, and though I’m old enough to wonder whether that’s safe… I still like the way they look. Heidi’s house—the stollen, the tree, her mother—seems full, and ample, and generous, a lot like Christmas itself should be, I think.
When I get home, I tell my mother about the party: the candles on the tree, the stollen, the tradition Heidi has of leaving her shoes by the fireplace on a certain night so Saint Nicholas will fill them with candy if she’s been good.
I ask my mother whether we might be a little German. She hugs me and laughs and says we are not. But that night she lets me put my shoes outside the door to my bedroom, because we don’t have a fireplace, and in the morning my sneakers are full of candy canes.
She was adamant about the tree, though, when I pushed my luck for a real one: “Why?” she said, in a tone I know is useless to argue against. “A real tree makes a mess and is a pain in the neck.”
My father spends this Christmas hospitalized with a lung cancer that will—by next fall—kill him, and my older brother opts to buy a live tree rather than set up the one that’s under the stairs. My mother, weary and distracted, doesn’t argue.
My brother drives a Plymouth Valiant, a boxy little car he inherited from our grandfather, so the best he can manage to tote home is a plump, stocky pine that, when he sets it in its stand, is shorter than I am.
With our parents at the hospital, my brother and I decorate it without them, one eye on the TV. My brother eventually stretches out on the couch with a beer, and though he occasionally glances over at me, he doesn’t get up again. I finish the job myself, placing the old glass balls near the very top of the tree, which is this year more or less even with my sternum. I’m happy about a real tree, at last, but it doesn’t deliver anything close to the wallop of tradition I had imagined it might.
After both my parents had died, there was a surprising volume of things, collected over a lifetime, to sift through in a house that had once housed the whole six of us. On a hot day in August, my two sisters, brother, and I parceled out their stuff in as civil and equitable a way as we could manage. The heat in my parent’s small ranch was oppressive; the job was depressing. Both things made us cranky, which made communication strained, which made us skip some corners in the house just to be done with the whole business. Some things—the Christmas stuff, the family photos—were left with me with a vague understanding to divide it eventually.
That Christmas, I tried to separate the box of ornaments into four piles, one for me and one for each of my siblings. I sat on the floor with the ornaments scattered around me—the plastic Santa boot; the paper mache gingerbread house; the ridiculously heavy flour and salt dough ornaments my sister Karen and I had years earlier copied from an issue of Woman’s Day; tarnished silver bells; the chipped plaster pear; and a few old glass balls that had managed to survive over the years.
The more I sifted through them, the more unbearable became the idea of breaking up what I had come to see as a unit. Separately, they seemed imperfect and ordinary, and in truth they were, seeing as they were purchased from discount stores or crafted by clumsy hands. But, together, the collection of ornaments created a context, and took on a meaning that individually they couldn’t possibly have. Together, they had, I realized then, the kind of gravitas I had longed to find years ago, and which, for a while, I thought was reserved only for old glass ornaments. Or families who baked their own stollen and put candles on trees.
Ours was a different kind of family, maybe. But, together, the oddball collection nonetheless told a story of lives lived out over decades, of successive generations, of the ritual of a family celebrating around a tree, fake or real.
This year, as we have for the past decade, we cut down our Christmas tree at the same small tree farm and lug it home on top of the car. That night, when we hang the ornaments on the tree, I mention to my kids which among the trinkets came from my parents’ house. That’s all I say about them. Neither of children has ever known my parents, and there’s not much else to add.
They get a bigger kick out of their collected history: the oddball stuff we are inspired to string alongside the traditional ornaments—a set of keys from my first house, a cork from a particularly memorable evening, my toddler son’s favorite teether.
If you were to walk into my living room, you’d see a Christmas tree festooned with a collection that, with a few exceptions, appears as any on any other tree in any other living room in the world this time of year. But it’s not. It’s a festive mingling of the dead and the living, the past and the present, and the traditions we are still writing.
So what’s on your tree?