There’s a story I often retell when I’m talking about Christmas time, and that’s the story of my first Christmas tree. It was 1996, I was on my own, and decided I was going to have my own damn Christmas tree, thank you very much. It wasn’t my first solo Christmas, but it was the first time I decided I was going to try.
I bought a floor model from Sears (it was discounted and had no assembly instructions), lugged it home on the bus to my apartment (that was an adventure), set it up and then had the stunned realization that I’d forgotten a teensy part of the equation.
No ornaments. I have rarely felt as dumb as I felt that moment.
Understand, I’d used up money I shouldn’t have on that tree, and I had nil to spare. The paycheques for December were good—I picked up a tonne of shifts when others were sick, and I volunteered to work Christmas Eve and Boxing Day because it meant I’d get extra cash—but I knew that come January, it would all be scaled back, and I’d need the money I’d earned to make it through the leaner months.
So, I decorated the tree with nothing but candy canes.
It was a sad, sad freaking tree.
A friend, who embroidered ornaments as gifts, made me one little ornament. It had the date on it, a little message of love, and it was the only non-candy-cane thing on my tree. I didn’t even have lights or tinsel. There were no presents underneath. But darn it, I had me a tree.
A tradition was born of that single ornament gift, though, and although the next year I did buy a box of basic white ornaments to hang on the tree alongside the candy canes, another friend gave me an ornament. It was a mouse with a typewriter, and it was meant to remind us of how a creative writing prof had been a complete ass to both of us, but we should write anyway.
I started picking up an ornament a year. As years passed, friends learned of my tradition, and some years ended up with more than one ornament. There was an ornament denoting working full-time at the bookstore. A yearly ornament for the millennium. A yearly ornament for getting a short story published. And so on.
When I met my husband-to-be and we celebrated our first Christmas together, I learned he was a “themed tree” person, and so we put up two trees. One, a live tree in the living room, was themed (and, frankly, gorgeous). The other, in the entrance hall, was my nostalgia tree, with it’s clunky mis-matched ornaments and filler pieces.
I tucked an ornament in his stocking that year, and he hung it on my little tree.
That was twelve years ago. Since then, we’ve picked up ornaments together on vacations, and we’ve gifted some to each other on anniversaries and on our honeymoon. We got a photograph ornament the year we rescued our dog. We bought a little house ornament the year we paid off the mortgage. And so on, and so on.
This year, since we have the dog’s bed where we used to set up my nostalgia tree in the entrance way, we decided we’d just have one tree. And now that there’s so much shared history in the ornaments—after all, we have more from after we met than before—the joy in hanging them on the tree is vibrant.
“Our trip to New York!” (A golden ornament from Top-of-the-Rock.)
“Scotland!” (A beautiful cotton stitched thistle.)
“After Stonewall!” (A gorgeous hand-spun glass orb from the gallery where I had my first book-launch.)
“Sooty!” (A squirrel, commemorating that year a squirrel came down the chimney.)
“Renovating the library!” (Mr. Handymoose, a moose with a how-to book, tools, and a measuring tape.)
“The tacky purple boot!” (My sister-in-law’s wife, upon hearing of my tradition, make it her quest to find the ugliest, tackiest ornament she could to put in my stocking for the second Christmas we were together with my in-laws. It’s basically a purple velvet leg wearing a bright shiny red heel. It’s hideous and I love it.)
Each ornament is a memory, and a moment from our life, and here I am, twenty years later, looking at a tree that is so full we couldn’t actually fit all the ornaments on it (no need for fillers any more), and I’m so grateful I started this tradition.
It’s been twenty years, and when we realized that this year, it took me a moment to continue. I was overwhelmed, honestly on the edge of tears.
I’ve come so damn far from that kicked-aside young man I was in 1996. With my chosen family—my friends, my in-laws, my husband—my life is overflowing. I am lucky enough to be loved and to love someone, and we enjoy each other’s company every day. My husband and I often joke that we’re not exciting (for us, there’s nothing quite as awesome as a quiet day inside reading or playing games) but we add to each other’s happiness. I have a writing career that I never imagined I could attain and isn’t showing signs of slowing down any time soon. We have a dog—and, okay, if I’m honest, I no longer feel bad about losing the cat-dog war—and he’s pretty much the most amazing dog I’ve ever met. We have an embarrassment of riches in the form of friends, quite literally around the world. And every Christmas I have people to spend the day with who truly care about me.
Putting up the tree?
It’s a reminder of all of that and more.