A family’s life in Christmas ornaments
Everywhere the Gorman family goes, we take our Christmas trees with us. The first is an eight-foot-tall, bendable plastic spruce, bought on sale one hot Washington summer right before we moved to our first overseas post ten years ago. The second, purchased a few years later, is smaller, sized to fit in a tight corner somewhere.
They might sound tacky, these plastic trees of ours, but they are really quite beautiful. They go everywhere we go because we haven’t always lived in countries where it’s possible to buy Christmas trees. And we are a family that needs a tree.
Back when my husband and I got married, we were graduate students without a lot of money. At some point during our honeymoon, we wandered into a little Christmas shop, where we got the idea to buy an ornament commemorating the trip. We didn’t have much money, so we chose carefully. Only red ornaments, with the name of the town we were visiting written somewhere on them, would qualify. During our first Christmas together as husband and wife, we loved looking at those few ornaments.
I forget, sometimes, just how long we’ve been married. Time rushes by in a blur of diaper changes and soccer games and school lunches. The holiday season passes quickest of all, leaping from Halloween to New Year, faster each year.
But for one day a year, just a week before Christmas, we slow down. We pull our trees out of dusty boxes and painstakingly straighten them, branch by branch, before covering them with ornaments. Only then do I realize how long the two of us have been collecting ornaments together. From those first carefully chosen baubles, we’ve expanded the collection so it now covers both trees, one with red ornaments, the other with blue. My husband’s even begun lobbying for a third, but so far I’ve refused – it’s already too much work to put it all away.
And the ornaments: There was the weekend trip to Prague, and another to Vienna. The anniversary boat ride to Catalina Island, when I first discovered I get seasick. Even the awful medical evacuation to Finland; It was a terrible, terrible time, but I still remember standing in a shop, fingering the ornaments before deciding that even our ordeal deserved to be remembered.
Our Christmas decorations have moved beyond the trees, spreading throughout the house. There’s a whole mafia of hand-painted Santas, bought in Russia and now lined up on our mantel. Knit stockings from Armenia adorn the banister. A wooden nativity set, carved right here in Beijing, perches on a shelf. Even what’s missing tells a story. We used to own another nativity set, a porcelain one passed down from grandparents. But then one year our infant son became critically ill, and our family left Kazakhstan in a hurry, never to return. The set disappeared during our hasty packing and can’t be replaced. Each year we mourn its loss, but we also remember the ones who gave it to us. And though the set may be gone, the baby is now a healthy boy.
The world spins crazily on its axis. By collecting our ornaments and hanging them up each year, we attempt to capture life as it once was. That’s why we hang “Baby’s First Christmas” ornaments. The painted black dog is there as a reminder of our first puppy, long since deceased. Clay handprints dangle, the images of small fingers frozen in time. The children try in vain to stuff their hands into those tiny prints.
Our trees are snapshots of our lives together, reminders of all we have and all we’ve become since that wedding day long ago. Sometimes, late at night, I stand before the trees under the spell of hundreds of tiny white tree lights. My life sparkles and dances across the boughs for all to see, every year fuller, more precious. We add babies and friends, change houses and countries, smile and mourn in turn. Come to think of it, maybe it’s time to get a third tree. I wonder what we’ll find to hang there.