Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The memory tree

Here's a creative and potentially meaningful idea for those of you, especially you younger people just starting out in your lives, who would like to develop a Christmas tree tradition that's a little deeper than the typical practice of simply buying a chopped-down tree and tossing a bunch of generic plastic and glass ornaments on it. 
It looks pretty and it's very traditional, but does a thing like this have any personal significance whatsoever??  Christmas is supposed to be a time of reflection, humble gratitude, and goodwill.  What do these brand new $2.99 fabric bows have to do with that? 

Screengrabbed from Wikimedia Commons
When I was a young woman beginning my post-graduate-school adult life in the early 1990's, I decided that my Christmas tree would be a memory tree, and that I would build it incrementally, year by year, just as I was building my life. 

There would be no cheap garlands and made-in-China shiny tinsel.  There would only be symbols of important rites of passage.  I myself would acquire only one new ornament each year, plus I would add gifts from other people that held personal significance. 

Once I settled on this idea, the obvious thought hit me:  Maybe I would live long enough to see my tree achieve decorative completion, or maybe I would not.  There was only one way to find out. 

A carved cat ornament, hand-made folk art from the deep American rural south, which I received as a gift.  This was my very first Christmas ornament. 

The other decision I made was that I would not kill a tree each year.  I bought a small Norfolk Island Pine, so that it could grow with me and the family I created.  By this time, we have cycled through a few of them, as they outgrew our house!!  One of those is now planted just outside our front window. 
That first Christmas, only that cat hung on my tree.  He was all alone there with his wide-eyed stare.  How could there be anything else on the tree??  I had not built my life yet.  To have a fleshed-out Christmas tree at that point would have felt false to me. 

But then came the relentless passage of time, with all of its extraordinary events.  Here's a small sample from the years that followed. 
From a year when Enron passed out hundred-dollar Swarovski ornaments as if they were candy canes.  And I went to one of those legendary Enron Christmas parties and I wandered around feeling completely helpless, wondering how on earth I would ever be capable of comprehending the essential mechanics of business, because money seemed to be raining down from the sky, and I couldn't for the life of me identify the source of it. 

And the rest, as they say, is history - not just mine, but every Houstonian's.  I stare at this ornament today and I am transported back to those moments of helplessness in the face of hollow grandeur.  And even now, I become as breathless as the now-lifeless corporation whence this expensive bit of glitter derived.     
A sterling silver ornament that was attached with a bow to the outside of one of the many baby shower gifts I received.  It is now tarnished, but to remove the tarnish would be to strip away some of the authenticity, because it's been a long time since I gave birth to that baby. 
A gift from a family member in 1999, because elephants never forget, and I am known for having a very good memory. 
More gifted folk art:  Santa on the half shell.  My extended family likes to support local microbusinesses just as I do. 
As my baby grew, so did the collection of ornamental art projects that she produced. 
A S'mores ornament which we selected to commemorate 2005, because we did a heck of a lot of camping that year!
From more than a decade ago, a twin ornament commemorating the last Christmas visit we had with a close friend's family before she died of cancer.  There's an inscription in the center (redacted here) and the other family has an identical ornament with the same inscription. 
Our chosen ornament for 2010, the year we brought our dog home!!  We had a heck of a time finding this one, and then we had to take a fine-point Sharpie marker to it in order to simulate her brindle coat.  But it's a pretty good resemblance, wouldn't you say? 
The answer for me was yes, I did, in fact, live long enough to see my tree completed - and completed with a richness that exceeded my wildest early-90's dreams. 

May your holiday be deeply meaningful to you according to whatever your personal traditions comprise.

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