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Washington Voices

Tree helps elicit stories, memories

Although the Christmas season has deep spiritual meaning to me, I also enjoy the secular things that coexist with it – the lights, food, gifts, trees, special baking, music and festivities that represent what I call Winterfest.

This year, because I’m going through chemotherapy and my husband and I are both pretty tired, we’re not doing much for Christmas. But one thing was nonnegotiable – putting up our Christmas tree. Christmas trees are wonderfully magical and cheerful during the year’s darkest days. Given their pagan origins, I think everyone should feel free to have one, regardless of beliefs.

Nowadays, it’s trendy to have themed trees. This is far removed from the free-for-all trees of my childhood, a hodgepodge of heirloom and kid-made ornaments mixed in with shiny balls and big lights, and smothered with tinsel. “Hang the tinsel carefully, one strand at a time,” Mom would instruct. She might as well have been speaking in Swahili to three little kids. We’d be digging tinsel out of the carpet for months.

It was really exciting the year we bought a glamorous flocked tree; it felt like we’d had a snowfall in our Southern California living room. I wonder if kids still thrill to flocked trees; what do they think of the contemporary pink and lavender ones?

Richard and I missed out on getting our childhood ornaments. But we’ve built up our own collection and each year we open the ornament boxes with delight, uncovering treasures hidden the rest of the year. In them is one part of our marital history.

Newlyweds in Southern California in 1981, we could only afford a tiny Charlie Brown tree our first Christmas, decorated with some inexpensive little balls, two Scandinavian ceramic ornaments bought on our honeymoon, and a furry koala bear clamp as a tree topper. Given that fresh trees were very expensive in La La Land, for our next few Christmases we either had a tiny tree or used an ugly tabletop ceramic tree my mom gave us.

When we moved to Spokane in 1985 we could buy a large, fresh tree for the price of the Charlie Brown tree. We were on our way to having “real” Christmas trees every year.

Our first cat, Musette, loved the fresh trees and tried to take down as many ornaments as she could reach; at night we’d hear batting, tinkling and smashing. So for several years we put only cheap plastic balls on the lower third and the nice ornaments above, giving the tree an oddly bifurcated appearance.

When we moved to our second house, unable to afford both a silk ficus tree for the living room and a Christmas tree, we bought the ficus and decorated it with lights and ornaments. Who says a Christmas tree has to be pine or spruce?

We loved having fresh trees but Musette would drink the tree water and it made her sick. We switched to an artificial tree and Musette was terribly disappointed, so we put a water bowl back there for her.

When we moved to our present house 10 years ago on Dec. 16, we expected that packing boxes would be our only décor. But the next day our real estate agent sent us a beautiful Christmas tabletop arrangement with spruce branches, flowers and a candle, and that was our tree that year.

Over time we’ve added a few individual ornaments each year, either bought by us or given to us. Without planning it we’ve developed some themes: winged things (angels – including cat angels – birds, and feather butterflies), stars, cats, rabbits, and a lot of iridescent glass and crystal. Some beautiful and some funny, they’ve come from many places and we treasure them all.

Every year we bid on beautiful themed trees and packages at the Spokane Symphony’s Christmas Tree Elegance. But I wouldn’t swap one of those trees for ours. Our tree is a remembrance of where we’ve been and where we are, with some room for where we will be; it’s a gift itself full of joy and rediscovery, and it’s us.

I’m betting you and your family feel the same about your own tree, with its happy memories and unique beauty. May it bring you continuous joy throughout the holiday season.

You can reach Deborah Chan at Previous columns are available at

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