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Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Taking Down the Christmas Tree

Each year our family puts up a Christmas tree. My principal role in this annual ritual is to serve as unskilled labor. I drive my wife to the local United Methodist church, which sells the trees as a fundraiser. I hold the candidate trees with my leather work gloves while she methodically compares and chooses; lash her selection into the trunk, and wrestle it into the tree stand in our living room. After that, I’m not allowed to do anything else associated with the process.
That’s when my wife, serving as skilled labor, takes over. With delicate care she unwraps hundreds of ornaments she’s collected over our nearly 37 years of marriage. She then selects the precise branch on which to display each. Slowly she creates a mosaic of bright-colored wood carvings, ceramics, hand-sewn fabric figures, multifaceted crystals, and tiny white lights from top to bottom. This glittering mélange gets joined together by a two-inch wide, finely textured gold silk ribbon that winds around the tree from its base to the gold-silk, tree-top bow. And while I admire the annual tree in the aggregate, I never understood it until one time (in January) when my wife asked me to help take down the decorations.
For once, I wasn’t in a rush to just get it done. I actually looked at the decorations.

“Hey, didn’t your mother make this one?”
“No, that’s the one Mrs. Maupin made. She’s in a nursing home now.”
“What about this one?” I ask, holding up a delicate tin star with fine-hammered designed impressions covering its surface.
“From Santa Fe,” she said, referring to a family trip to New Mexico in 2001.
Then my wife held up an ornament that said, “Federal Bureau of Investigation,” one from my days as an FBI agent.
“Here’s one from Julie when she first started painting,” she said, holding up a glass ball hand painted by a woman whose first art gallery showing we’d attended a year ago.
Then more ornaments came down: the walnuts my wife had painted red and topped with green felt leaves to look like strawberries—hand-crafted to save money when we were young and broke; the carved miniature figures like the old, bearded Alpine skier, which we picked up traveling and camping in Europe when my wife was pregnant with our first child, now 34; the silver claddagh, an Irish symbol of love, friendship and loyalty, given to us, like a number of other ornaments, from close friends we’d made over the years as we moved around the country; the raft of gaily colored felt ornaments of whimsical characters that my mother-in-law and her friends—many now gone or infirmed—had sewn by hand in their church basement; the University of Virginia ornament, representing the place where I also used to work; and the rudimentary ornaments our now-adult children made when they were very small.
Two ornaments in particular caught my attention. One was a tiny colored-glass encrusted frame with a picture of my wife and her father, “Pop,” who died several years ago. The photo was taken at his 90th birthday party—one of the last large clan gatherings he was able to attend. His health declined over the next year and, after hospitals, hospice and heartaches, he died—leaving a gaping hole in our holidays, not to mention our family.
The other special ornament I noticed was a grey cat in a basket. Originally, this particular decoration had represented “Mellie,” my wife’s cat from many years ago. After Pop’s death when my widowed mother-in-law was feeling lonely, she decided, with some urging from my wife, to get a cat. We all went to the animal shelter and found “Smokey,” a beautiful grey cat who has become a loving member of the family. My wife picked up these two special ornaments and inspected them before wrapping them with deliberate care and putting them away with the others in the large box marked “Christmas Ornaments” to be stored away for next year’s tree.
Participating in the careful undoing of our tree has given me a new appreciation for this old custom. Christmas trees are much more than holiday accessories that provide a wide base for mounds of gifts—they are bright tapestries of memories and living histories of our lives. Every decoration on our tree symbolizes a story about someone who’s crossed our family’s path, and every year the tree gives us a way of honoring those people and our relationship with them. It’s a way of retelling our family history so we don’t forget. And when our children have their own families, their own trees, their own rituals, I hope they’ll have an ornament or two to remember us by. *
*This story originally appeared in the Washington Post in 2008 -- the title the editor's used was The Undoing of Christmas Becomes a Joyous Surprise.

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