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Tree of Life: Ornaments Remind Us of Cherished Moments and People

From baby’s first Christmas to handmade snowmen from a beloved aunt, decorating your tree can bring back sweet memories

spinner image john ficarra and his daughter m e in front of their christmas tree and a shot of the tree itself
The writer gets in the spirit of the holiday with daughter M.E.

My daughter, M.E., and I have many Christmas traditions. One is that every year I wrench my back lugging a 7-foot Douglas fir into the living room. Another is that she spends several frustrating hours untangling and testing the lights, many of which have inexplicably stopped working since last used. But our greatest tradition is decorating the Christmas tree with my collection of ornaments.

And so it occurs to me: I have two family trees.

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One is on, where I can trace my forebears back over several generations. The other is my Christmas tree, where I can trace back memories of important people and events simply by looking at the ornaments I’ve spent a lifetime collecting. This is true of many families, I’m sure. Our ornaments are more than decorations; they are an annual reminder of lives well lived. Let’s take a look.

spinner image flat wooden tree ornament in the shape of a moose with the words nineteen eigthy six x mas moose written on it in marker or paint

The most prized ornaments are those that were handmade by family members or friends. I have a brown wooden silhouette of a moose, made for me by Andrea, a lifelong friend, now gone. A notorious punster, Andrea wrote “1986 Xmoose” on the back in her distinctive lettering. Seeing it never fails to make me smile.

I have two snowman ornaments constructed from white Styrofoam balls and red wool. Not the finest craftsmanship. When my aunt, Alba, made them for me back in the early ’80s, I was a bit embarrassed to display them. That was then. Now I place them prominently on the tree and am immediately flooded with warm memories of my late aunt, who was like a second mother to me.

Next are the milestone ornaments. I can trace the arc of M.E.’s life in just three:

spinner image blue and white painted porcelain windmill ornament

A “Baby’s First Christmas,” commemorating her birth 30 years ago, a Jewish star, constructed by M.E. with silver-painted popsicle sticks in second grade (a bit odd, considering that she attended a Catholic school and that Jews traditionally don't put up a Christmas tree), and a small, blue and white porcelain windmill, which M.E. brought back after spending a college semester abroad in Amsterdam. (That ornament cost me roughly $27,000.)

Then there’s a trove of folk-art ornaments, the fruits of decades of scouring flea markets and craft fairs. These include ones that celebrate Yankee Doodle, Barney and Stanley, three tuxedo cats I’ve owned over the years. More recent additions, all gifts from my girlfriend, Michele, speak to our retirement life together: a carved bear from our fall trip to the Berkshires, a figurine of Snoopy grilling hamburgers (our favorite meal) and an incredibly realistic-looking cosmo, our preferred cocktail to wash down the burgers.

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One day, M.E. will inherit them all. But what I fear is that the stories attached to these ornaments, stories that give them their context and special meaning, will be lost once I’m gone. They’ll just be ornaments. Sadly, there’s no place in a will to bequeath your memories. Which is why every year, though she’s heard them all before, I retell M.E. my ornament stories. My hope is that one day she’ll tell them to her children as they decorate their tree. Maybe they’ll learn a bit about me, the life I lived and the experiences I had.

And maybe it will inspire them to curate their own collections, so their trees will reflect the moments and people in their lives.

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