Family history fills this Christmas tree

By  Lisa Petsche
  • December 18, 2008
{mosimage}In magazines and on TV, the Christmas trees are tall, symmetrical and tastefully decorated using just the right amount of restraint. Sets of ornaments are evenly distributed and garland perfectly draped. Oftentimes there’s a colour scheme — blue and white or red and gold, for example — with impeccably co-ordinated trimmings.

In contrast, our family Christmas tree (always a real one, and so intrinsically imperfect), contains an eclectic mix of embellishments accumulated over many years. All of them, though, have meaning, and so rather than one more holiday task to be completed, decorating the tree is a welcome walk down memory lane.

There are the ornaments from my childhood: a green, triangle-shaped angel made of felt, with a tangle of yellow, yarn-died hair; a pink, plastic angel sleeping soundly; and a red, felt-covered foam boot. My sisters and I each had our own versions, discretely labelled to avoid dispute. We took great care in finding the perfect spot for them on the tree after the tinsel and spray-on snow had been applied.

When we were teenagers, the tradition of giving ornaments began. My parents bought a set of wooden ones each year from the Sears catalogue. Some were standard Christmas or winter fare, like a candy cane, a snowman and a skier, but others were whimsical, such as a holly-bearing mouse in a deck chair.

Because each ornament was unique, Mom and Dad used a lottery system to fairly distribute them. The drawing took place on Christmas Eve, after Midnight Mass, and was lots of fun. After an ornament was claimed, it was passed around for all to admire. By the time we left home, my siblings and I each had a nice collection of decorations with associated memories.

My own kids each have a “baby’s first Christmas” ornament that includes a photo. They’re among the first trimmings to go on the tree. Every subsequent Christmas, we’ve bought them a decoration reflecting a current interest — from Barney the dinosaur to gymnastics and soccer — or an event from the past year, such as a trip to Florida commemorated with an alligator in a Santa hat lounging under a festively decorated palm tree. The kids can take these with them when they move out on their own.

A special spot on our tree goes to the angel memorializing the baby we lost before birth many years ago. Our kids are intrigued by the reminder that they have a sibling in heaven. The ornament is part of a collector series and features a young angel sitting on a cloud, rubbing its eyes sleepily. We attach it to a hanger with a miniature motor that plugs into the tree lights and makes the ornament slowly twirl. It takes some patience to find a spot where it can rotate freely.

Decorations made by the kids also rank high. They’ve had some pretty creative teachers, and so we have ornaments made from sugar dough, clothespins, paper clips, sewing spools, golf balls, ping pong balls and Christmas light bulbs (the big, old-fashioned kind).

Other handcrafted trimmings include snowflakes crocheted by my mother and various personalized ornaments my crafty sister-in-law has made for the kids over the years. I also have some unique items purchased at church bazaars. One of my favourites is a nun in full habit, with a black lacquered walnut torso. It reminds me of my high school years, my school having been operated by women religious.

Vintage ornaments dating back to my deceased mother-in-law’s childhood are recent additions to our collection. These are made of metal, among them a church and a dove. The latter has a clip for secure perching.

The trimmings wouldn’t be complete without a nativity set — or two. One is made of cardboard, with cut-out scenes and stand-alone figures. An opening in the stable’s roof allows for insertion of a light.

The set is similar to one my parents have owned throughout their married life, only theirs is an impressive 66 cm long and 30 cm tall. Some years ago, Mom and Dad happened upon a smaller version and scooped up several sets. Until recently ours was displayed under the tree, but now it’s set up on our living room window seat. That’s because eventually the kids pleaded for a “real” (three-dimensional) nativity scene, complete with wood stable and resin figures. The generously sized new one includes a removable Jesus.

As much as I enjoy our decked out tree, I have no illusions about its design merit. The branches are overloaded (the kids won’t hear of rotating decorations; we must display every last one), ornaments vary in scale and there’s no unifying theme.

While far from a showpiece, our tree is something even more noteworthy: a piece of family history.

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.