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Oh, Christmas Tree

Ornaments conjure ghosts of Christmases Past

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I’m looking at our Christmas tree, which stands in a corner of our living room, white lights and glittering decorations adorning its boughs, a twinkling star perched at the top.

I bought it with my daughter one night. She is 18 and went off to college in the fall but came home because of the pandemic. She left full of hope that despite the restrictions needed to keep students safe it would be a fun and exciting experience, but it turned out to be so grim and lacking in social opportunities that she flew home. Now it’s video classes and socially distanced visiting with some of her high school friends. I have to admit, I was a little heartbroken to see my baby girl go away, and, selfishly, I was glad to get her back for a while.

I might have expected my daughter to be unsentimental about Christmas decorations at this point in her life, but to my surprise, she really wanted to get a tree, and she asked several days in a row if we could go get one. She was worried the tree lot might get closed down by local health officials. Having a tree was an important family tradition, she said. That made me feel good. Life has gone by so fast, her growing into a young woman, that it hardly seemed there was time to establish traditions, and yet the things we did together apparently mattered and left their impressions. I’m glad to know it.

We always buy our tree from Delancey Street, the San Francisco nonprofit that helps substance abusers, ex-convicts, homeless and others who have hit bottom reboot their lives. Sometimes I hear about tree deals at a discount store chain, but I know my wife wouldn’t want to go anywhere else, and neither would I. They set up under Highway 24 in North Oakland with bright lights and candy cane poles on the fence line. Someone is camping under the freeway directly across the street.

You pay someone who sits in a trailer powered by a thrumming generator. Mistletoe is there like an impulse buy item in the grocery store. A guy with a chainsaw then gives your tree a fresh cut and a hefty person hoists it onto the roof of your vehicle like a bag of rags. Guys, some with tattoos and big muscles, eagerly help the customers, their obvious happiness at having work to do and their camaraderie in the holiday spirit heartwarming. They seem to have a collective desire to impress the public, to say, we are worthy of the holidays, too, and we’re glad to be part of yours. This year, though, it felt a bit more desolate than other years. I assume that was because of the pandemic. There were fewer buyers and fewer people working.

Back at home, I felt like a manly man because I got the tree off the car and into the house without incident. We all gathered in the living room and decorated together before a cozy fire, with classic Christmas songs streaming from my mobile phone. Some of us strung popcorn and cranberries together with needles and thread and laid them on the branches. My wife pulled ornaments out of storage boxes and handed them to us to hang. Periodically she would stop and tell a story about a decoration in her hand. “Do you remember this one from our first year together?” she asked, holding up a thin tin Santa Claus. “It’s the first ornament I bought with my own money. It cost $1.” She’s told the story before, but I love to hear it anyway. My wife was working as a waitress at the time while going to school, and she’d grabbed a slew of ornaments at a bargain store. A pig, a moon, a cow, some clear bulbs, a snowman. When my wife was pregnant, a British friend gave us a Gooseberry ornament because of the saying “babies are born under a Gooseberry bush." I didn’t know until recently that “Gooseberry bush” was 19th-century slang for pubic hair. It’s hanging there now.

There are ornaments the kids picked out or that others bought for them that mark different periods of their lives. We have numerous owls, for example, because for a long time my now 12-year-old son loved owls. Mommy owls with baby owls. For a time it was penguins.

There’s a pickle ornament that my sister-in-law bought for my son because for a while he was joking a lot about pickles. Get it? Pickle?

There’s a gorgeous purple and gold concoction that my daughter excitedly took off the tree when we went to see the lobby of the fancy Willard Hotel in Washington, D.C. She was very small and I told her sadly that we couldn’t just take it but the hotel kindly insisted she must have it because she was so completely adorable and had such a sparkle in her eyes from the gay lights all around.

There are ornaments commemorating moments we spent together as a family. The nutcracker from our fancy tea at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco.

A glittering plaid ornament from our trip to Scotland, where my father’s side of the family came from long ago.

A corgi from Westminster Abbey, where we happened to witness the dedication ceremony for a memorial honoring Nelson Mandela.

An Eiffel tower from Paris.

A lobster from when we went to the beach.

There’s an ornament of the globe that my wife bought because we wanted to travel the world. I’m old enough now to realize how many places I will never go.

There’s a beehive my wife bought because I’m her honey. A blowfish because that’s something I used to call her after she got angry.

A peach because that’s what I call her sometimes. She’s unquestionably my peach, and I’m lucky she’s mine. She’s the reason I have these ornaments, these memories.

My wife has already wrapped most of the presents and put them under the tree. Each one has a red bow. I am not as prompt as she is in the wrapping department and have a few I need to do (all of them), as do the children. I’ll have to get on it. My wife likes to sit and look at the whole tableau, sometimes with a cup of tea. I will find her alone in the living room happily contemplating. I want her to enjoy that time as much as she can.

As I look at our Tannenbaum, I am filled with gratitude for simple things: that we are healthy, sheltered, safe, fed, and together. This year has underscored again how precious such privileges are. It’s good to celebrate them.

But first, I must water the tree.