Christmas Tree Stories

My grandmother Mary Raine gave me this Christmas tree when she was 93 years old. She no longer felt like putting it up every year, especially after the deaths of my father Ron and his younger brother Bob, so she passed the tradition to me in 2004, the year my uncle died. At the end of a Christmas haunted by Uncle Bob’s absence, I carefully wrapped the treasured tree in my suitcase for the potential rigors of its air journey from Missouri to Ontario.

I hadn’t decorated a Christmas tree since I was a teenager, but Grandma Raine’s gift inspired me to start again. My mother also gave me some decorations that had been in the family since the 1960’s, including cookie dough ornaments I remember from my childhood. 

Artifacts like the dignified Wise Man connect me to home, family, and Christmas traditions, for when I rest him against the tree in 2020, memory returns me to a much earlier era. Once upon a time, my father, mother, and brother used to decorate a full-sized tree together while Birthday the cat lay in wait to attack the glass balls on the lower branches. Christmas carols bathed the tree-trimming task in familiar melodies such as the “pa rum pum pum pum” of Dad’s favorite, The Little Drummer Boy.

I’m especially fond of the cracks in these circular faces that once inhabited the tree of my childhood home. The cracks testify to the survival of countless Christmas seasons, each with its own cat paw hazards, breakages, and transfers to new storage locales.

The small red wagon has a story, too. Mom bought it for me one December in the 1970’s when we visited Kansas City’s Wornall House Museum to see it decked out in nineteenth-century Christmas décor.

To blend new memories with the old, I supplemented the original ornaments from Kansas City with ones I bought from Ten Thousand Villages, a shop that specializes in handcrafted items ethically traded from India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and many other countries.

Angels, elephants, lions, and moons mingle on the branches with a reindeer, a yak, and a yeti. Together, they honor Toronto’s multiculturalism and integrate the Christian traditions of my childhood with the religious and cultural pluralism that energize today.

In addition to a tree rooted in the present and the past, festive details like colorful textiles that Grandma Raine crafted — place mats and Christmas tree skirts — brighten the living room.

The other skirt can be seen in this post’s opening photograph.

Also, two books that I received as presents in the 1970’s surface with the arrival of Christmastide. The first one is Christmas Stories Round the World, kindly given by my cousin Denise.

The second book, The Night Before Christmas, evokes happy memories of my parents reading the poem on Christmas Eve, just as their parents read it to them as children. The rhymes and folksy illustrations contained in Grandma Raine’s 1974 gift are enjoyed to this day.

Finally, giant postcards that my mother purchased in the 1960’s serve as Christmassy accessories for staircase spindles. I love how they jazz up the stairs and suffuse the atmosphere with mildly psychedelic cheer.

All in all, sharing stories of Grandma Raine’s tree and other yuletide trappings has heightened my gratitude for gifts that gather layers of meaning as time passes. Thank you, dear reader, for indulging this narrative sleigh-ride through topographies of memory and family history. May your celebrations be merry, healthy, and bright!

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12 Comments

  1. This is my favorite blog entry so far!! I love how you’ve woven the past with the current in your own patchwork. And I especially love how each item reminds you of a person or place. Each piece tells a story and as a whole they tell a book. Thanks for sharing!!

  2. I really like your multicultural tree. The shapes and colours are spectacular. There is a nice blending of family history and your current interests.

  3. Bart, thank you so much for your comment and for inspiring the post in the first place! You’re a star!

  4. I have ceramic ornaments Jen helped me with plus a cookie one. Did not add them this year. Douldn’t do it but have them for safe keeping. Have her glittery stars up.

  5. Did Jenny make the glittery stars? I’m glad you have the ceramic and cookie ornaments for safe-keeping. Must have been fun for creative mom and daughter to do crafts together.

  6. I agree with Bart about the narrative/decorative patchwork of past and present, many cultures, and heart-felt stories of family and friends. Thanks for taking us on this “sleighride” to Grandma’s house and beyond. I’m glad my new ornament from 10,000 Villages has joined the others. And it brought back memories of my own — growing up, we had both a Chanukah menorah and a Christmas tree.
    Ellen

  7. Thank you, Ellen! The ornament you gave me seems right at home! Was your Chanukah menorah similar to the one you described in Feast of Lights? I’d love to hear more about your memories of the menorah and Christmas tree some time.
    Catherine

  8. Looking at this again in 2020, I am touched by the blending of ornaments, stories, and cultures. I used to read that same illustrated edition of “The Night Before Christmas” to my son. And I still use the menorah we had as a child in my home today — and yes, it is the one on the cover of my young-adult novel “Feast of Lights.” We haven’t had a Christmas tree for many years, but I always put cards on my front door, as decoration and a way of sharing the holiday spirit — it’s nice to see the combination of greetings, with art from many places and including both Christmas and Chanukah.

  9. Thank you so much for re-reading the updated post, Ellen, and for sharing memories of holiday traditions. Your post has inspired me to transfer my copy of “Feast of Lights” to the holiday book collection. I love the story of the menorah.

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