The Ornament

I can’t even explain it, but Christmas tree day is always melancholy.

It’s a very deliberate process, the excavating, assembling, and decorating of the feeble old pencil tree.  No lie, every year when I pull the tree box out of the attic crawl space I am certain a living creature is going to leap out of the box and start gnawing on my face. It’s the 20th year I have opened the tree box without incident.  That’s the beginning…opening the box.  Pulling out the stand…fluffing those God-awful scratchy branches…and ever so carefully, oh so gently, unwrapping all of the ornaments.

It’s a very deliberate process. Every ornament has a story.  Some are from my childhood, picked out by my momma.  There’s the red and gold drummer, commemorating my time in high school drumline.  The wooden building block has my initials on it.  There are photo ornaments of me and the not-husband, and one for each of our dogs.  I have the ornament my parents bought for my first Christmas, and ornaments that were given to me by family friends who are long since deceased.  The blown glass fish, pig, pickle, mushroom, chameleon, and skulls.  The green glitter bats.  Each of them commemorate a place and time.  There is one ornament though…one that is amongst my most valued possessions.  It is the first ornament out of the box and on the tree – front and center – every year….until this year.

I made this particular ornament when I was in 5th grade.  The mother of a classmate let us pick a ceramic ornament to paint.  I picked a Madonna and Child.  I painted her in blue, holding her swaddled child in an earth colored wrap.  With the tiniest brush she had, I painted the closed eyes of the sleeping Christ child, and the down-gazing eyes of his adoring mother.  I can still smell the paint, and remember how my hands shook a bit because I was so nervous I would mess it up…but I didn’t.  It was beautiful, and that Christmas I gave it to my Grandma.  I remember she unfolded a paper clip to hang it on her small tree.  When the tree came down, the ornament wasn’t put away.  She kept it near her in the china cabinet right behind her chair.  I was so proud I had given her something special.

She passed away while I was in undergrad.  One of the few belongings of hers that I have is that ornament, which still hangs by the same paperclip that her hands unfolded to hang the ornament the day she received it.  Every year.  Every single year.  Every December I carefully unwrap the cloth from around it, hold it gently between my fingers and remember the best Christmases of my youth.  If I close my eyes I can smell the familiar smell of her house, taste the homemade Chex mix, and hear the football game in the background.  There is an intangible sense of familiarity, warmth, and security that will never be recaptured as in that snapshot of sensory memory.

Today was the day.  I always put up the tree and ride the emotional rollercoaster while I’m home alone.  It’s ritualistic.  Make some good coffee, play some non-holiday music, and start unpacking.  It’s the same every year…except this year I couldn’t find the ornament.  It was supposed to be on the top of the box…wrapped and placed right on top…but it wasn’t.  *insert mini panic attack*  I’m the only one who touches any of this stuff.  No one helps me.  It’s here….so I put up the lights (and found two broken bulbs – maybe I’m not the only one??).  I put up the *broken* lights and started editing ornaments.  We have a kitten, nothing is sacred.  No blown glass.  No bells.  Nothing breakable on the bottom three feet.  Eventually my mind let go of the nagging question.  The tree was progressing, and viola! There it was.

Logic dictates it was my own doing, but I have no idea how Grandma’s ornament ended up where it was.  Perhaps she was providing me a lesson.  Perhaps she was nudging me to stop anticipating sadness, to stop being so rigid in my routine…and to live in and embrace the moment because it will all turn out alright.  The not-husband brought me replacement bulbs.  The Star Wars ornaments are all hanging.  The family pictures ornaments are all there.  I made some little flowers out of felt and saturated them with lemongrass and cinnamon oils to keep the cats out of the tree….and I placed Grandma’s ornament front and center, right where it belongs.  All is right with the world,  All is as it should be.  Now I will work on embracing and engaging in the rest of the holiday.  It’s not an easy time of year when you want it to be what it was.  I’m learning to enjoy what it IS.