Mine was a childhood of family traditions, and at no other time more than during the holidays. From my father’s train set that ran from kitchen to living room to front hall to kitchen again to an enormous tree we’d tag the weekend after Thanksgiving and then cut down weeks later. Then finally on Christmas Eve, we would bring the tree inside and my mother would wrap it in lights. Under my father's direction, the kids would get all the decorating done, down to the last individually laid strand of tinsel. All the while, we’d listen to the Vienna Boy’s Choir singing in German (until one of my siblings or I could sneak over to the record player to switch in Bing Crosby’s Silent Night or Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas.)
As the second youngest of five, I was always charged with decorating the lowest two feet of the tree, even when I grew old enough to take over hanging the lights for my mother. And those ornaments were the most ragtag in our collection. Mostly all handmade they were cookie cutter clay ornaments, Styrofoam meat trays covered in glitter, pipe cleaners strung with red and white tri-beads to look like candy canes, clothespins adorned with pipe cleaner antlers painted to look like reindeer.
Fast forward twenty-five years, and my newly minted fiance and I moved in together and bought our very own first Christmas tree on a street corner in Philadelphia. We brought it home to our tiny living room, set it in its brand new base and stared at its resplendent nudity.
What do you do your first Christmas? How do you invent new traditions?
After a childhood of such tradition, I couldn’t bring myself to pick out boxes of ornaments that didn’t have any meaning. Instead, I decided to get some homemade ornaments myself. And so that first Christmas we had a small dinner party mid-December and asked friends to bring homemade ornaments.
Every year since then I’ve hosted a mid-December get-together called Balls and Feathers (although Prosecco and Glitter or Glue Guns and Mayhem would be equally fitting names.) There was the year I was struggling to get pregnant and forgot to send the invite until the very last minute. No one had arrived fifteen minutes after the start time and so, juked up on hormones, I called a friend weeping who’d stopped at the Acme for an appetizer and told her I needed her to get out of line and come right now. And she did.
There is the year that a new friend who couldn’t make the official party came to a make-up Balls and Feathers the next day, and so the two of us sat for hours sprinkling glitter and gluing styrofoam holly berries and telling each other our whole life stories.
There is the first year I moved to a new state with three children under the age of three and a fourth on the way. I’d hardly made any new friends and so the lovely women from my husband’s work all came to glue and glitter with me. Just a few years later, so many friends came that I had to set up two more folding tables to fit all our crafty joy.
Each year there are old friends and new, the woman from the farmstand and my dentist, the soccer moms and pilates warriors, the artists and life coaches, sisters and mother-in-law, teachers and sage wise-women. And every one of them leaves her mark on our now enormous tree. Unable to resist the call of the glue gun, my kids wait until after the last friend leaves so that they may begin The Official After Party, their opportunity to add their own glam to our gorgeous tree.
Now, each December, I pull out the boxes from the basement, the old suitcase filled with ornaments, and I unpack the beautiful people who have graced our lives. I laugh out loud at their atrocious attempts at craftiness, the dark humor in a doll head attached to a yarn God’s eye, the Prosecco cork turned into angel, the kind words of love and joy written in silver across a dark red ball. My mother, now widowed, travels to our home for the holidays, always with a new special ornament in hand that she signs and dates before gingerly adding it to the tree. And each year I carefully set the faded orange and red origami paper cranes from that very first Christmas onto the drooping boughs of our ever more gaudy, glorious tree.
All of us are crafting our own traditions, writing our own memories, stories to be told and re-told and passed down from year to year. (Cue the Elvis Presley’s Blue Christmas.)
Tis’ the season for family and friends, for new traditions to begin, and old ones to be shared. May yours be merry and bright.
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