It looked like a tacky aluminum foil angel, sitting atop the family Christmas tree year after year.
Her right wing bent years before, and her face — a couple of painted colored dots on a round bulb — added to her cartoonish demeanor in my eyes. We knew it was a hand-me-down angel, decades old and looking every bit of it. That angel atop our childhood tree was symbolic of everything wrong below it.
The ornaments on our childhood tree were just as much of a hand-me-down hodgepodge. There were older, more ornate bulbs. Then there were plenty of handcrafted decorations, mostly things the seven children brought home from art classes in elementary school.
As a teenager, I remember being embarrassed by our old, artificial Christmas tree and our mismatched accoutrements. It made us look poor. It made us look like we had no sense of style. It made us look like we didn’t understand modernity.
The children set out to change it. We pooled our money together, and we purchased our parents a new artificial Christmas tree, complete with modern, matching ornaments and dazzling, matching lights. It was the best the early 1990s had to offer. While our parents were away, we set it up in the living room, just waiting to surprise my mother.
She was surprised, all right. And furious.
As it turned out, she liked our old Christmas tree and that battered angel on top. Every piece of metal, glass or paper dangling from a branch held a memory for her from that time in her family’s history.
I thought about this the other day as I looked at the Christmas tree adorning my own living room. It looks much like the one I disdained as a child. Hanging all over it are crafts my own children made or silly ornaments they fell in love with while walking through a store.
Our tree has no particular theme to an outside eye. There’s modern, there’s traditional, there’s outright garbage and outright beauty within those branches. To me, though, it’s the tale of my own family over the past 10 years. The tree sings of our best years and our most trying times. It shows who we are, not who we wished we were as that truly artificial replacement tree from 25 years ago did.
That’s when I realized I owed my mother an apology for that thoughtless gift 25 years before, for whatever role I played in wanting those old ornaments retired. Now I understand the joy of looking at a particular decoration and reminiscing about the people and places involved in it.
A Christmas tree isn’t meant to be looked at from afar alone. No, the people who really care about its family should look at the individual ornaments and hear the stories behind them.
Luckily, we never threw out all those old ornaments during our “Extreme Makeover: Christmas Edition” efforts all those years ago. That includes that aged angel, which will reside atop a sister’s tree this year.
That angel wasn’t just old; she’s antique and steeped in family tradition. She wasn’t just an anachronism on my parents’ tree. No, she’d also lived atop my paternal grandparents’ tree for years too. Before that, it was the angel on my grandmother’s childhood tree.
Our Christmas tree has no angel on top, but it does have a star. Every year, I lift a different child up to place the star on the top branch, but not before we all talk about the traditions behind this ornament and its symbolism of leading people toward a savior. My kids delight in hearing and respecting our traditions, and I’m glad they’ll benefit from my mistake of not respecting memories of Christmas quite enough.