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Decking the Halls with Meaning and Ritual

This essay was first published on The Burning Hearth, by author Constance Malloy. It can be found here


I gingerly open the lid of the red-and-green box. I’m watchful of any fragile ornaments trying to escape or rogue tree hooks waiting to prick me. All I find is a layer of crumpled newspapers, exactly how I left it a year ago. A scent of cinnamon potpourri and dust wafts up, stirring in me a sense of joy and yearning. Rediscovering the goodies nestled in these layers of paper always brings a smile, but the remnants from the past also arouse the sting of nostalgia. I welcome the tension as the sign of a good ritual, a physical act that holds our internal meaning and longings. I particularly love ornament traditions, because the rituals that emerge are unique to each household and self-generated. Every home’s decorated tree stands as a symbol of that family’s culture.

I come from a line of ornament traditions that treat Christmas trees as time capsules. My parents’ tree has always been an eclectic scrapbook of what we view as important. There are handmade ornaments from across generations, globes gifted from our church, trinkets that memorialize the family members who have passed away. The random ornaments that come tied to gifts or are part of exchanges likely never make it on our tree; they have to pass a meaning threshold. My family’s trees have never been known to be aesthetically appealing, but they are full of stories. Even now that my siblings and I are adults, my parents still wait for us all to be home to put the ornaments on the tree together and re-tell the stories. Every year, the last ornament to come out is the tree-topper: a paper angel I made in preschool, with a crayon “smile” that looks more like a beak. A testament of my family’s nature to tease and embrace you, “turkey-angel” sits atop our tree each year.

My husband’s family also has a tree filled with stories, but much more systematically than we ever have. Every year of his childhood, my husband’s mother would pick out an ornament for each of her children that represented part of their personality or experience that year. There were baseball mitts for Pee Wee home runs and car keys for 16-year-olds. As I’ve gotten to know my in-laws, I see that their tree stands testament to their family culture too: naming and celebrating each other’s accomplishments.

Now my husband and I have our own tree in the corner of our apartment, a tinsel time capsule of where we’ve come from and who we’re becoming. My husband’s ninja turtle from 1992 shares a branch with a souvenir ornament from one of my dad’s business trips. Now that my mother-in-law has become “Grandma,” the annual ornaments she gifted her son hang next to the ones she gifts her grand daughters. Like my parents’ tree, we have a globe gifted from our own church and memorial ornaments for our grandparents. Our own tradition is found at the top of the tree, in each year’s specifically selected tree-topper.

Our tradition began as many do: a spontaneous moment occurred that we’ve memorialized by repeating it. Our very first Christmas tree together had only a string of lights on it. This was in part because we didn’t own any ornaments yet and in part because we were too busy to correct that situation. Our wedding was the week before Christmas and we were more concerned with last-minute seating chart changes than decking the halls. In one last attempt at festivity, we looked around our apartment for at least a tree-topper. My eyes landed on a red cow bell—a souvenir from when my brother had run the Chicago Marathon that fall—and I placed it on top of the tree. Over a few days, the bare tree fondly became known as Anna“bell.”

When the next Christmas arrived, we had more ornaments and more of an impulse to make the holidays feel special. That year I was wearing maternity sweaters and my husband was doing all the heavy lifting. Somehow my growing belly had changed holiday traditions from feeling like a societal obligation to an opportunity for creating joy and bonding for our family. So as we pulled out Annabelle’s red bell, we decided we would name our tree every year—alphabetically, like hurricanes—and find a tree-topper that cleverly went with the name. The past year’s topper would become next year’s ornament.

This year on our tree hangs the bell from Annabelle, the big red bow from Beauregard, a sheet-music-angel from Carol, a reindeer from Dasher, and yule-tide logs from Ember. On the highest branch sits a Christmas tree of construction paper made by our 3-year-old for this year’s tree: Fraser.

Our quirky tradition represents our family spirit—creative and witty with a bit of competition mixed in. But I also see it as a symbol of hope. Like many traditions, it is an anchor cast into the deep waters of not-yet. Every year as we place our ornaments on the tree and create a new topper, we are really saying let’s be together next year too. Let’s remember the joy we are rooted in, despite all the growing, changing, and pain that will inevitably take place over 26 years in a family. Let’s come together to create something new.

When I stand back and look at our tree, I see its base speckled with the values passed on from our families of origin. As I move up the tree, I see our new family’s identity emerging. I stare at this year’s tree topper and feel the potential of what could be well up inside me. It’s twenty years away and our children will be adults by then, but I can’t wait to see what we come up with for the year of “Z.”

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