It’s Christmas tree decorating season and I’m happy to welcome our ornaments back to our living room. They are a motley, rag-tag community of misfits (although ironically, neither Rudolph or that dentist wannabe elf is represented). They’re all so darn precious to me, I can’t throw any of them away, even the Irish step dancer whose legs fell off. We have had to downsize over the years, so I’ve been forced to pick and choose carefully, leaving some ornaments back in the bin for a future year (or at least that’s what I told them). It’s important to me that all general categories and subdivisions are represented.
The Class of 1983
These are ornaments that we had on our very first tree, days after we got married. December weddings are great for starting your holiday collections. It makes up for the aunts who are still mad at your for making them drive on Route 80 through Pennsylvania in a snowstorm to get to your wedding. (“Who gets married in Ohio in December?” “I DON’T KNOW!”) I got Christmas dishes, hand towels with embroidered holly, a bunch of Lenox stuff, and a whole box of tree ornaments from my friends Barb and Bob. Days after our wedding, I decorated our first tree with them. I augmented with shower favors, popcorn and other things from my pantry, and leftover rice bags from the wedding. An unfortunate mouse infestation in 1999 killed off most of the rice bags, but I still have three or four, which grace the small, highest branches, away from our dog, who will eat any carb she sees.
Made by Fat Little Boogery Fingers With Macaroni, Glitter and Popsicle Sticks
Three kids, three school pictures framed by elbow macaroni. Three egg carton reindeer. Three whatever-was-in-crafty-vogue-that-year-that-the-room-moms-dreamed-up. Our tree is full of cute little ornaments hand-crafted by our kids in Sunday School, scouts, and school, pre- and regular. These ornaments are full of perishable ingredients and toxins. None of them would pass an inspection of any kind, even in a corrupt Third World country.
The purpose of these ornaments was not to have a lasting memory of childlike Christmas wonder. It was to fill a 42-minute Holiday Activity Period devoid of sharp objects. One of my favorites is an 8-by-10-inch piece of cardboard cut into the shape of a Christmas tree, loaded with two layers of shaped pasta (uncooked, thankfully), and 3/4 pound gold spray paint. Peering out from the center of that hot mess is my son’s kindergarten school picture. He looks frightened to be in such a predicament.
Many of these ornaments I got as gifts from high-falutin’ parties or gift exchanges, where we drank champagne or mid-priced wine out of real glass glasses. These ornaments are few and far between. They rarely come in traditional Christmas colors or represent normal holiday symbols. They are way too classy for that. One is a purple and gold butterfly with what appear to be 1-carat diamonds along the edges of the wings. Another is a humpless-albino camel with a mohair mane. He’s wearing sexy slippers. Then there’s the burgundy ball that that has a gold painting of some angel gala fundraiser in heaven that is painted on the inside of the ball. That one came in a burgundy velvet box that is nicer than my bed. I’m grateful for all of these ornaments that I did not myself buy. They add class to our tree and to my life in general during the month of December.
The Let’s-Make-Memories-Goddamn-It Years
When I was a young mom, I was all about doing things for the first time in a long string of years. I envisioned myself a gray-haired (but hot) granny with glasses down on my nose (somehow smaller in my old age) in a tiny floral print cotton dress (size 6) saying, “Oh, you kids were always a’makin’ somethin’ at Christmastime. Every year, we’d make an ornament. And then there’d be merry-making and revelry.” In this fantasy, you kids were 40-ish and smiling ear to ear because their mother had the foresight to figure out something heartwarming to do and stick with it for more than 6 months.
The truth is, the kids truly enjoyed making ornaments for only the first few years. By the time the first one entered puberty, they carried on as if I were making them handcraft their own coffins. I held fast to the tradition, though, and the Ornament Making Activity joined the Gingerbread House Making Activity, the Reading a Washington Post Story About Santa’s Origin on Christmas Eve Activity , and the Drive Around Looking at Other People’s Lights, You Know, The Ones Whose Dads Are Willing To String Outdoor Lights Activity.
One year we spray-painted pinecones white and sprinkled them with glitter. Another year we strung jingle-bells into wreaths. In 1996 we made shape cookies out of a cement-like substance and painted them. They are so hard they could kill a burglar in a pinch. One year we poured paint inside clear glass bulbs and rolled it around making designs. And then the excess paint pooled in the bottom and by 2001 started to smell.
The Pinecone and Other Mid-Century Artifacts
I have seven or eight ornaments from my childhood Christmas tree. My favorite, The Pinecone, was the ornament I always got to hang on our tree. I still hang it myself and in the off-season it gets wrapped in soft Kleenex and put into a box almost as nice as the maroon velvet one. I treat The Pinecone better than most store clerks during the holidays. Others in this category include a disco ball, a lifelike bird’s nest, and a yarn-cardboard angel I made with my friend Janet when we were 8. Her O mouth is not so much singing as perpetually shocked at how much has changed since 1966.
Fetus’ First Christmas
These include five Baby’s First Christmas ornaments that my friend Joanne gave me the Christmas that I was pregnant with my first baby. I wasn’t due until July, but that didn’t stop Joanne from bringing a Baby’s First Christmas ornament into work almost daily.
“But it’s really not his first Christmas,” I ventured. “Technically . . .”
“It’s his first Christmas,” she said firmly, handing me another one, a sock with writing on it. Ironically, on his actual first Christmas he didn’t get anything to hang on the tree.
Leftover Theme Tree
We’ve had two ancillary trees over the years, second trees that we decorated in a theme. The first was the Old Fashioned tree, draped with plaid ribbon and adorned with train cabooses, tin soldiers, people in bonnets, and apples – lots of apples. That got old after a while, so Old Fashioned tree became Music tree. I cut up the kids’ old piano sheet music (it’s not like they were practicing at all anyway) and made a garland and bought a bunch of music related ornaments on sale.
Then we downsized, went back to one tree and there we were, with not only a bunch of Old Fashioned ornaments, but a ton of Music ornaments. The ones that made the cut got incorporated into the main tree. The others are in a box, waiting for the next theme tree, the Old Fashioned Music of the 19th Century tree.
Juicy Stories and Shady Pasts
My friend Rick was holding a paper plate with scrunched up tissue paper and a ribbon cut from construction paper. It was a wreath quote unquote and it had Tyler scrawled on the back. We did not have a child named Tyler, that I knew of, nor were there any Tylers in our extended families. I had a vague recollection of a couple of not-close acquaintances that our kids tolerated through the years, but none special enough to have his mark on our Christmas tree. Rick helped us make up a story about Tyler, my secret love child, which was beginning to take hold when we remembered that Tyler was my son’s book buddy in fourth grade. I don’t remember him, but he could scrunch up a piece of tissue paper like nobody’s business.
Then there are the two glass ornaments that are either icicles with torsos or angels with pointy bodies. My son named them Iciclina and Spike, and because they share this unique physical disability, they always get hung side by side. He made up a love affair between them, so they are now our lesbian couple on the tree.
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Read more of Diane’s Just Humor Me columns here. Sign up for our weekly e-newsletter to get new blog post notifications. And if you like her blog, you’ll love her book, Home Sweet Homes: How Bundt Cakes, Bubble Wrap, and My Accent Helped Me Survive Nine Moves.