The next guest at my Holiday Open House is Katrina Kittle, author of The Kindness of Strangers, Two Truths and a Lieand Traveling Light, and next summer, a brand-new novel (more about that later). Now I thought I was an ornament, junkie, but I think that Katrina's mother trumps me, by far. Read on to hear about the meaning on every branch of her Christmas tree and how Katrina has incorporated that tradition into her own tree.
My mother is the Queen of Christmas Tree Decorations. Seriously, her tree strikes people dumb. When guests see it for the first time, I can count on approximately ten minutes of awe and examination before any other conversation continues. The seven foot, artificial tree itself is no big deal—what's extraordinary is the 1,027 ornaments adorning it.
And, yes, that's an exact figure, not an estimate. That number was accurate when the ornaments were boxed up and stuck back in the closet on January 6th, 2009.
The quantity alone is enough to make your eyes widen—the ornaments literally cover every available inch of the tree, going four and five deep all the way to the trunk. Getting all 1,027 of those ornaments on the tree is a three day process that leaves my parents' living room looking like a cardboard box and tissue-paper bomb exploded (and which my dad, a bit of a Scrooge, endures with much grumbling). But it's the quality that really grabs you. There are no generic round bulbs here, no color scheme, no trendy theme. No, every ornament is individual, some unusual (how many people have spiders and garlic cloves hanging on their trees?)—many of them handmade—and all tell a story. Her tree is a veritable scrapbook of memories.
See, my mom started a great tradition when my sister and I were babies. Every Christmas, she bought us a new tree ornament. She always tried for the ornament to commemorate something important or memorable from that year in our life. From as early as I can remember, she told us that when we moved away and had our own homes, we could take our ornaments with us, so our Christmas trees would be personal and meaningful. When Monica and I were old enough to have a clue, we started buying our mother an ornament each year as well so that we wouldn't wipe out her tree when we moved away.
The memory is far more important that the appearance when selecting an ornament. It matters not one iota to my mother if the ornament doesn't look “traditionally” Christmas-y, as long as there is a good story. Among the decorations on her tree are a blue hot-air balloon (commemorating the year we sent her up in one for her 50th birthday), a pink elephant (for the year my niece and father created an elaborate story about Zamboni, an invisible elephant who lived in our basement), and a gingerbread house (for the year she and I attempted to make one ourselves...only to have it turn into a gingerbread “ghetto” whose roof kept collapsing).
My own tree displays such oddities as a hoof-pick painted red for the year I bought my first horse, a pair of eyeglasses for the year I had Lasik surgery, a small set of paddles for the year I almost drowned in a rafting accident on the Gauley River, and a little log cabin for the year I won a residency at the Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers. There are ornaments to represent every pet I've ever had, as well as ornaments representing some of the fictional animal characters in my books. These all hang along with the ugly pink plastic angel with white Barbie doll hair that I begged her to buy for me when I was five.
When my creative mother can't find the item she's looking for, she'll make it herself—my favorite being one she gave me the year of my divorce. To commemorate my new home and its every wall that I painted in bright colors, she crafted a miniature paint bucket and brush with the label: “New Beginnings Paint.”
A longtime Girl Scout leader and preschool teacher, my mother has been given hundreds of ornaments from former students and Scouts. She keeps a notebook in which she draws a small picture of the ornament and a description of who gave it to her, what year it was given, and any special significance it has. Her tree is a testament to how many lives she has touched.
I'm so grateful for the tradition she's begun. It's funny how the actual gifts will blur together and be forgotten, but I can always remember the ornament I received the previous Christmas. I look forward to unpacking my ornaments each year and the memories that come with them.