Arts & Culture

A Life Measured in Christmas Ornaments 

How trimming a tree can be a trip down memory lane

photo: Kate Parrish

Childhood ornaments on the tree.

It’s tradition in my family to get a new ornament each year—a bauble or curio that might reflect an interest acquired, a trip taken, or a milestone achieved. When my older sister and I were kids, it would often be a glitter-and-glue-covered showpiece we made at school and presented to our parents with pride. In this way, each ornament is a snapshot of who we once were, and like a photo album, the collection represents an annual effort to capture the present and a heartfelt yet hollow attempt to make time pause. 

Until this year, though, these sentimental knickknacks still sat in my mother’s attic in her house just a couple of miles from the West Nashville neighborhood where I was raised. For the better part of fifteen years, I’ve outmaneuvered every attempt my mom has made to get me to move my childhood belongings from her house to mine. (I don’t have the space! My old stuff is happier with you!) But this year, with the prospect of a naked Christmas tree looming before me following a post-divorce decoration purge, I needed those ornaments.

At my mom’s house, I released the attic ladder from the ceiling, empathizing with the ornery groans coming from its sticky joints, and climbed into the dusty hobbit hole that contained my childhood. Gratefully, the Christmas decorations were within arms’ reach. There were the wooden JOY and NOEL signs my grandfather carved by hand. There was the small manger scene with the thatched roof into which I crammed all of Jesus’s birthday party guests, including the donkeys and sheep, because I didn’t want anyone to be cold. And then there were the boxes of ornaments. I grabbed a NOEL, promised the Holy Family I would one day return for them, and descended from the dim-lit past back into the present with two shoeboxes of Christmas ornaments and one Philadelphia Light Cream Cheese tub (expiration date: 1989) filled with rusty ornament hooks. 

Downstairs, I set my treasures on the dining room table in front of my mom and sister. Mom was excited to time travel with me, her experience of my one-woman show-and-tell enhanced by a glass or two of white wine. My sister, who’d relieved our mom of her childhood memorabilia years earlier, did not seem interested in this trip down my personal memory lane, chiming in once to comment that my three-year-old nephew would love the ornament I was holding. It was a small crocheted face with googly eyes and a hidden pocket in its mouth just big enough to hold exactly one Hershey’s Kiss. While it didn’t technically belong to my sister or me, it was a highly coveted Christmas morning find our parents would always conceal in the tree. I cupped my hands around it and held it to my chest. “I’m not ready for him to have it.” I handed her one of her own ornaments, a plain green wooden dinosaur that had gotten mixed in with my things. “Here,” I said. “He’ll like this better.” 

photo: Kate Parrish
The googly-eyed ornament.

In my first year of marriage, when my husband and I were starting our own holiday traditions, I wanted our Christmas tree to be perfect. I didn’t want it cluttered with thirty-year-old macaroni wreaths and paper plate angels covered in kindergarten handwriting. Instead, I watched YouTube videos on how to wrap your tree in ribbon; adorned it with understated but sophisticated gold, red, and green orbs; and hid orange peels in the tree skirt to keep our pair of then-kittens away. Each time I would pass, I would fuss with the ribbon, pull baby cats from the branches, and rearrange the presents below to create an aesthetic display that highlighted my gift-wrapping skills. But that tree, like our marriage, was artificial, absent of life. 

Two years and one divorce later, I reopened the newly acquired boxes from my mom’s attic in the quiet of my own home. As I poked through the trove for a second time that night, I found my first Christmas ornament, a baby in a bassinet with my name and birthdate stenciled in black. I picked up 1987’s Garfield, the Monday-hating, lasagna-loving orange cat. In ’89, I’d picked out a pair of newlywed bears, likely intended for a couple who married that year but adored by a four-year-old girl all the same. A blonde cheerleader shows up in 1990. Each one was from a seasonal store off Music Row that’s been gone for decades. (My mom thinks it’s a hot chicken restaurant now.)

By ’92, I’m in my full-blown troll phase. Then there were the winged years of the mid-to-late-nineties: A fairy! An angel! A bear with butterfly wings? This was the age of Lilith Fair, and just like Sarah McLachlan, I, too, was building a mystery. In the early aughts came a car, a tube of lipstick, a high-heeled shoe. They were ornaments, but they were also me—just stand-ins for little girls and young women trying on personalities, exploring identities, and escaping to fantastical worlds that seemed to slip away a little more each year. I felt protective of them, but now we were all home together, the Ghosts of Christmas Past reunited with the Ghost of Christmas Present. 

This year, I posted the understated orbs on Facebook Marketplace, free to the first person who responded. I let the cats have the ribbon. When it came time to decorate, I hung a paper peppermint candy cane I made in 1990 front and center. Garfield, a moose, and a hound dog are nearby for support. The ornament I played with most as a kid, a beautiful clay woman whom I encouraged to frequently and passionately make out with her matching clay man, is down to one leg and in a place of honor on my tree. Her man…well, we haven’t seen him in some time. She was too good for him anyway. Up a few branches is the crocheted googly-eyed ornament stuffed with a Hershey’s kiss. My nephew would love it, but he’ll have to wait for the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Now that I have my ornaments back, I’m not letting them go.