Our family’s Christmas tree ornaments spend most of the year wrapped in tissue paper, placed in plastic sandwich bags and stored in the specially partitioned rows of one of those red-and-green plastic storage tubs created just for this purpose. Tucked into each bag is a handwritten note to help me remember the circumstances of each ornament’s origin. As the Christmas season approaches, I carefully unwrap each ornament, pausing to remember before I place it on the tree.
I don’t decorate our Christmas tree; I read it. The notes, in Twittter-appropriate brevity, tell the story of a family.
There is a baby bootie hand-crocheted by one of my best friends and presented to me at a baby shower she hosted in her home before the birth of my first son. And a ceramic cable car ornament my husband and I bought in San Francisco one spring when I was pregnant with our second.
There are plastic photo-frame ornaments with pictures of adorable, towheaded toddlers and hand-painted cookie-cutter ornaments from the year I tried to get crafty.
Chalky, plaster of Paris stars the boys made at school, and which thoughtful teachers imprinted with my sons’ tiny thumbprints. Charlie Brown, Snoopy and Sesame Street ornaments from one doting grandmother; small plush crabs from another. (That was the year Disney’s “The Little Mermaid” first came out.)
When our sons were studying music I bought tiny violin/viola ornaments to represent their (earnest but ultimately unsustainable) interest in orchestra. When our family visited Washington, D.C. one summer, I bought a Supreme Court ornament to remember a behind-the-scenes tour we took (to my embarrassment and dismay) in gym shorts and T-shirts because our better outfits were not yet dry from a sudden summer rainstorm that thoroughly drenched us all as we ran to our hotel the night before.
Though not as plentiful, there are ornaments representing the empty nest years of a marriage, too. The golden-threaded kiwi bird ornament from an amazing trip to New Zealand. The bright red wooden crab from a trip to Baltimore. A regal purple sphere, displaying the words “Scottish Parliament” in a dignified, gilded typeface, a gift from college-age son upon his successful return from a semester abroad. A delicate, metallic disc imprinted with an image of the White House and surrounded by lacy metal snowflakes. This “official” ornament from The White House Christmas 2009, a gift from that same son, reminds me that my home is in Arizona but my heart spends part of each day in our nation’s Capitol, with two grown sons who live and work (very hard) there.
Someday it will not be me reading the Christmas tree biography. One or both of my sons will slowly, reluctantly open the green plastic tub with its bright red lid, dreading the task of sorting through its contents. My boys will have their own Christmas tree ornaments by then; their own family histories. They may not want to clutter their lives with the remnants of mine. And yet I hold out hope — as I scribble my notes, dates and recollections — that some small part of this collection will give added meaning to their own holiday celebrations. That they might share some of these stories with their own children. And that they will remember a time when the four of us were exquisitely bonded in mutual mischief after a mad dash through rain falling on us as hard as a waterfall, pounding, stinging, making us giddy with reckless abandon as we reached our goal and slid across the polished marble floors of a Washington, D.C. hotel lobby, leaving a slippery, impermanent trail of water behind us.