Before I married Kim I had an outsider’s view of Christmas. I suppose in some ways I still do. I thought the celebration was too much about opening presents and not enough about the deeper spiritual meaning of Christmas. I suppose I still do but it’s more complicated than that.
The most meaningful presents are opened year after year days before Christmas and carefully rewrapped for the following year. I remember our first Christmas on East 128th street when Kim asked me to bring the ornaments down from the attic. She had boxes and boxes of ornaments that took up an entire section of our attic.
I watched as she carefully unwrapped boxes inside of boxes. She lit up as she opened each one.
“This is from my grandmother,” she’d say. She’d tell me a story about each ornament, about the person who gave it to her, or of some memory triggered by the ornament. Weird name for them. Christmas tree ornaments. Christmas tree decorations. They are central to the holiday and not mere ornaments or decorations.
One by one she lifted an ornament out of the protective padding, found a place for it on the tree, and returned the tissue paper to the little box for later. The tree with all of the familiar decorations and the ties to other times and places is an anchor. It places this year in the context of Christmases gone by.
The next year she bought me some cooking ornaments at Williams-Sonoma. Each year I now had a place on the Christmas tree. I got into the spirit and bought some Pooh ornaments to add to the collection. We bought ornaments for the girls – many of them celebrated their Chinese zodiac signs. Rats for Maggie and rabbits for Elena.
Each year Kim couldn’t wait to decorate the tree. For Kim, much of the joy of Christmas was centered around the opening of boxes. Not the gifts “found” under the tree but these ornaments carried down from the attic each year. After Christmas she’d carefully repack each ornament in its little box, give it one more look, and then close the lid.
Not this year.
Maggie told Kim’s mother that she was worried that Kim wouldn’t be able to bring herself to buy and decorate a tree this year. Kim’s mom bought Maggie a silver table-top artificial tree that Maggie and Kim put in the window months ago. Maggie decorated it with lights and extra large round ornaments with no sentimental value what-so-ever.
That might have been it for the year but back in October Maggie wrote a reminder in Kim’s appointment calendar: “Buy tree. Decorate tree.”
The Sunday before Christmas we had a Chanukah party at our house with latkes for friends and family. We went out and bought the Christmas tree on Saturday so that it would be up before people came over. “Buy tree.” Check.
The tree sat largely undecorated for a week. Maggie placed one or two of the extra large round ornaments on the tree and wrapped a large red chain of beads around the tree about half way to the top. For days Kim looked at the tree and said, “we have to decorate it.”
“We don’t have to do anything,” I said. “If it’s going to upset you too much, don’t decorate it this year.”
“I have to,” she said.
“You don’t,” I insisted.
She shook her head. We were in the kitchen and she motioned me towards the phone and said, “look.” I didn’t see what she meant. She flipped open her appointment book and there were the reminders from Maggie. Wow. What ten year old thinks to do that.
Kim brought down a couple of boxes and asked me to bring down one other. She and Maggie put the ornaments up on tree. There were more boxes upstairs – but this is enough for this year. A tree filled with memories. Not just the ornaments bought for Maggie and for Elena but the ornaments Kim had already decided she would pass on to each girl when they were old enough to have their own tree in their own homes.
I looked over the fireplace and started. I don’t know which would have been harder to see – a lone stocking for Maggie or two stockings. No right answers. No way to know what you should do.
Kim had hung two stockings, one of which would be filled with candy and toys and the other filled with just memories.
Ghosts of Christmas past.