Trimming the Christmas tree is like a mnemonic. It triggers more memories than a photo album. This starts with the tree, even in a fake family like ours.
As an avid hiking and camping family, most people assume we’d be in the real tree camp. But I prefer our tree’s dusty fragrance to the chest-constricting scent of pine that turned my childhood Decembers into a monthlong allergy assault. In those days, every classroom at Broadway Elementary had a live tree, which triggered such a deep, hacking cough teachers would stop their lessons to ask if I wanted to go out in the hall for a drink. Please.
Now, thanks to modern medicine and a forest of fake trees, I no longer suffer through this season, but I wouldn’t trade in our tree any more than I’d trade in the memory-laced ornaments that deck its branches. So, while other families tromp through the woods in search of the perfect pine, our family drags a battered box from under the basement stairs and assembles our tree branch by branch.
This year, with carols playing in the background, I watched the kids set up the tree and remembered the year Curtis and I bought it. It was the first Christmas in our first house, and our last Christmas before children, though we didn’t know that then. The tree cost an extravagant amount, almost $100, leaving nothing extra for ornaments. The handful of decorations we’d used on our tiny apartment tree looked lonely scattered on the branches of our new 6-foot fake fir. So, I made little boxes out of old Christmas cards that we used for almost a decade, until our youngest child stopped rearranging the decorations.
While we don’t have any of those little boxes left, I still have our first Christmas ornament, a wooden Minnie Mouse kissing a besotted Mickey. We received it as a shower gift before our Dec. 28 wedding. As I hung the kissing couple on the tree, I remembered my pre-nuptial excitement and the heady blush of new love that has richened and deepened over the last 20 years.
With a Christmas anniversary, Curtis and I swore that we’d never have a Christmas baby. That wouldn’t be fair on the kid, we thought. Four years later, on Christmas Eve Curtis placed 7-pound, one-day-old Emily under the tree. He grinned and said, “She’s the best Christmas present ever. I’m glad we got to open her early.”
Then she cried and I snatched her up, wondering how I could possibly properly parent this tiny person whose birth had made my heart grow several sizes.
Born a couple weeks ahead of schedule, Emily received a baby’s first Christmas ornament that lacks holiday flair but epitomizes the gracious young woman she’s become, an elegant swan. As my Christmas child placed her swan on the tree, her little brother Ian observed that we may only have a couple Christmases left with her still at home. She turns 16 this year.
So many ornaments, acquired one-by-one, mark that bittersweet passing of time. The boys also hung their baby ornaments and then the kids positioned the many pieces they’d crafted over the years – a cotton covered sheep, an angel made from a clothespin, a wreath framing a small face.
The branches also boast an array of ornaments we’ve received as gifts over the years. Many are pretty baubles but some of them represent our lives and the things we hold dear – an apple for the teacher, a puppy, a grand piano, a baby in a manger. The tree isn’t just trimmed with memories, it’s filled with love.