Saturday, December 20, 2008

O Tannenbaum

Thursday I mentioned that I had a chance to put up the Christmas "tree" I created last year.

When I was growing up, one of our holiday traditions was a growing collection of ornaments for each of us kids. Every Christmas we would get an ornament or two from our parents and grandparents. Usually our name and the year got written or taped somewhere hidden on each ornament. Our ornaments were stored with all of the other Christmas decorations in a grand old wooden chest, painted green, which had been in the family for two or three generations. The chest was stored away in my parents' bedroom through the rest of the year, only brought out when it was time to decorate the Christmas tree.

This ornament always makes me think of my sister. Oddly, the smaller girl's smile reminds me of my mom's.

I can still recall the exact piney scent that wafted out when the chest was opened each December, the slightly musty smell of old tinsel and holiday candles and garlands. My mom and dad would untangle the knotted strands of Christmas lights and wind them carefully around the tree. Mom always made sure the last light on the strand got tucked into the hand of the angel that topped the tree, so that light had to be yellow or white for extra realism.

This is one of my oldest ornaments, a figurine from the Nutcracker from long before I ever saw the Nutcracker ballet.

Finally, when the lights were arranged evenly, the ornamentation could begin. Mom would open tiny boxes and unwind tissue paper to reveal the little treasures we only saw this one month per year. We oohed as each familiar ornament was presented, as delighted as if they were brand new.

The three of us had to take turns hanging our ornaments, although as the eldest I had the advantage of a slightly larger collection. A lot of thought had to go into tree placement: the sturdiest twigs should be saved for the heaviest ornaments, but who could remember whether there were more heavy ornaments to come? My sister and I had several nearly identical ornaments, and those had to be spaced far apart on the tree for visual variety. And although nobody could really see the back of the tree, some things still had to be hung there so the tree didn't look lopsided.

A middle-school favorite, this elaborate tiny clock was a gift from my Gran.

When I graduated from high school, my ornaments remained at my parents' house, and the same ritual was repeated every year when I went home for Christmas. When I finished college, though, it was deemed time that I take my ornaments for my own house. My sister took hers shortly thereafter when she got married, and my brother followed suit a few years later.

This is another of the oldest ornaments in my collection. I love these older wooden ones.

Now each winter when I take them out and hang my ornaments, alone, I am a little overwhelmed with the sense of glad nostalgia that wafts out of the box with them. These are some of the few things that I have known my entire life. Bringing them out of their tissue-paper wrappings and boxes is like greeting old friends. I can't decorate my own "tree" without hearing echoes of small squabbles with my sister and brother, seeing little ghosts reverently placing their pretties on a tree, and smelling that musty, piney old chest. It's honestly the only time that I ever miss being a kid, lost in the annual excitement of decorating for Christmas.

Christmas lights on the windowsill with an unusual Seattle snowfall in the background outside.