My family has a Christmas tree tradition. Early in December, my grown children put their heads together and choose a Sunday afternoon when they will bring their children to my house to decorate the tree. I make a big salad and put a kettle of soup on the stove to heat. We order pizza, drink hot spiced tea, and make tons of popcorn. When our stomachs are full, we tackle the tree.
Because I live in a fire hazard area, I have an artificial tree. It doesn’t smell like pine, but it’s big enough to accomodate the ornaments I have collected all my life. “Where did this one come from?” Brandon asks, holding up a green satin horse with silver bangles.
“From a town called Guilin, in a country called China,” I tell him. I think back to the streets of the town and remember the sack of cookies I bought in a roadside store and the young girl who wanted to practice her English. I hand Steven a bamboo panda painted black and white. “This fellow is from Shanghai.” Daniel picks up a fat brown gingerbread man with tiny black eyes and red buttons down his front. “London, England,” I tell him .
Michael, now forty seven, finds his kindergarten picture encased in clear plastic. He looks at it a moment, then hangs it high on the tree. I hand out the ornaments my mother made: golden satin balls studded with faux pearls and sparkles. “Be extra careful,” I hear John say. “These are fragile.”
Deep down in the ornament box, I uncover the sixteen-point starbursts that date from World War II. I was eleven years old when we sat around the kitchen table and folded the colored paper into stars, dipped them in starch, and sprinkled them with glitter. We couldn’t buy ornaments from the stores in those years, so we made our own.
Tom picks up a straw cornucopia. “I remember when we bought this in Mexico,” he says. I remember, too. We found it in Baja California at a little shop near the sea. It cost five cents in 1970. I hand Margaret a miniature wooden doll from Norway, and she hangs it next to a white lace angel from a plantation in Mississippi.
I pass out colorful glass birds with clamps attached to their feet and watch my young grandsons attach them carefully to the branches. “How about this bird!” Wes exclaims. He holds up a garish, multicolored pheasant sitting in a pink silk nest hung with tassels of red and yellow. I laugh, remembering the day I bought it in a street market in Singapore. I stand back to look at the tree and think of Venice, Cairo, Lisbon, Bangkok. Madrid, Athens, and Ulan Bator. For each ornament there is a memory.
Then, in their places of honor high on the tree, I put a fragile golden pine cone and an ancient Santa dressed in faded red. Everyone in quiet, for my family knows that these are special. They date to the 1930s when I was a small child. “Do you remember those days?” Chris wants to know. I nod. I remember them very well. They were the days when the tree filled the house with the smell of pine; when we beat Lux Flakes with an egg beater until they thickened into fake snow that we spread on the limbs with spatulas; when we licked the candy pans, savoring the sweetness of divinity and fudge; when we left milk and cookies near the fireplace for Santa, knowing that they would be gone in the morning.
At last Allison helps me put the English crackers on the tree, stuffing the long packages almost out of sight, for we won’t want them until after the gifts are opened, when we’ll pull them apart with loud SNAPS and compare the prizes hidden inside: tiny animals and figures, sometimes riddles in folded paper, occasionally a piece of candy.
We all stand back and look at the tree. The lights twinkle like colored stars. The branches are loaded with memories. “Good job, everybody,” Michael says. I look around at my family. Yes, I think, we did a good job. Then I reach up and add one more ornament — a tiny nutcracker — for each year we always add one new thing to remember in the future. We stand together for a few more seconds, some of us holding hands, others with arms entwined.
I think if I ever write a book about a family Christmas, I will have to start with a Memory Tree.
Contributed by Marilyn Donahue