If you’ve read Handmade Holidays, my wee holiday chosen-family romance novella from NineStar Press, you probably noticed there’s a theme around the ornaments Nick decorates his tree with. Not in the sense of an actual matching theme, but in how they’re added to each year, one or two at a time, building up his story on the tree.
It’s a wee bit biographical. Okay, it’s a lot biographical.
I’ve had a tradition since 1996 that deals with Christmas ornaments in a similar way as Nick. Now, the inciting incident—being on my own during the holidays—goes further back much further than that, but 1996 was the first year there was enough space and I could afford it. Just like Nick, I bought a floor-model tree that was on clearance the night before Christmas and just like Nick I lugged it home on a bus and just like Nick I realized I didn’t have any ornaments only after I put the tree up.
Prior to having an actual space to put up a tree (I had a long succession of living with roommates post-disowning), I often was lucky enough to be included in the holidays of my friends, especially those who stayed in Ottawa during the holidays.
And sometimes? I went out and saw movies on Christmas Day. I always volunteered to work both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, since it meant a nice paycheck and also meant someone else could have a day off.
But that first year with that tree in an apartment, my roommates already gone home for the holidays? Kind of sucked. Funnily enough, a friend who did cross-stitch ended up giving me a cute little ornament in a Christmas card, so on Christmas Day it turned out I actually did have an ornament. A box of candy-canes dealt with the rest of the tree, just like Nick.
The next year, I had picked up a package of inexpensive plain white ornaments, and a couple of strings of lights. And, once again, that year I received another ornament from a different friend when I hosted a small party I called “Christmas for Losers.” And a tradition was born. I hosted parties for anyone with nowhere to go, and I kept an eye out for ornaments, adding them to the tree as the years went by.
So, yes, that went into Handmade Holidays, too.
When I first met my husband-to-be, I was still working retail and was a manager, so I was still working both Christmas Eve and Boxing Day, and so Christmas wasn’t really a favourite holiday by any means. Now, he liked themed trees, and I had my box of mish-mash nostalgia ornaments, and so we did the only responsible thing: we put up two trees. One at my apartment, and one at his house.
As I decorated the tree with him that first time in my awful little apartment, I walked him through the ornaments. “This was the year I got the job at the bookstore!” “This was the year I finished my degree!” “This was the year I started reconstructing my jaw!” (That last one isn’t a favourite, but hey, not all memories can be winners, right?)
That year, in his stocking, our first Christmas together, I got him a little glass frog ornament (he likes frogs). And when we hung it on my tree, I said, “This was the year I met you.”
When I moved in? We had a long talk about it that Christmas and decided to do the only responsible thing: we put up two trees, one in the entrance way, and one in the living room. Every year, we added to our ornament collection: a trip to Scotland we picked up a Thistle. In Houston? We found a beautiful star. And our friends, who have always liked and supported my ornament tradition would also gift them to us. When we renovated a spare bedroom and turned it into a library? A little Mr. Moose Fix-It ornament showed up under the tree. And so on.
1996 was twenty-one years ago. Quite literally half my lifetime. And because all those years have passed, there was a tipping point: there were as many ornaments about us as there were from before us.
Four years ago, when I snuck in permission to get a dog inside my first novel’s acknowledgements, a realization smacked us: the dog’s bed was where we always put one of the trees. There was nowhere to put two trees. And so we sat down, and my husband looked at me and said, “Let’s just do our tree. The nostalgia one.”
That was a big year for me, sniffle-wise.
The holidays can be a special slice of awful for queer kids who were kicked to the curb. There’s a relentlessness to the message of the holidays about family that—much like Nick in Handmade Holidays—I’ll likely always struggle with. But now, when I put up the tree with my husband and the dog (he helps by letting us cover him in tinsel), that tree? It’s full. It’s full of us, and the life we have together. And every ornament we hang on that tree makes us smile, and every year, somehow, we’ve forgotten a few of them and have this wonderful moment of remembrance.
This year it was: “That was the year we paid off the mortgage!” “Our first Christmas with the dog!” and “Moe’s thumbprint ornaments!”
Oh, and this year? This year’s official ornament we picked up in Hawai’i, the same day I finished writing acknowledgements for Triad Soul. It’s made of wood, it’s super-light, and it’s a lovely reminder of a brilliant vacation that recharged and restored us both from a pretty wretched Ottawa winter.
So that’s the real world origins of the ornament tradition that waves its way throughout Handmade Holidays. Nick, Haruto, Phoebe, Fiona and Matt are a group of queers modelled very much on people I know and love, who face off against the holidays every year with each other, in the warmth of a chosen family that grows and evolves, and brings some warmth to the season.
At nineteen, Nick is alone for the holidays and facing reality: this is how it will be from now on. Refusing to give up completely, Nick buys a Christmas tree, and then realizes he has no ornaments. A bare tree and an empty apartment aren’t a great start, but a visit from his friend Haruto is just the ticket to get him through this first, worst, Christmas. A box of candy canes and a hastily folded paper crane might not be the best ornaments, but it’s a place to start.
A year later, Nick has realized he’s not the only one with nowhere to go, and he hosts his first “Christmas for the Misfit Toys.” Haruto brings Nick an ornament for Nick’s tree, and a tradition—and a new family—is born.
As years go by, Nick, Haruto, and their friends face love, betrayal, life, and death. Every ornament on Nick’s tree is another year, another story, and another chance at the one thing Nick has wanted since the start: someone who’d share more than the holidays with him.