Remembering All That is Loved and Lost During the Holidays
There are two kinds of Christmas trees in this world: decorative ones, and historical ones. Let me explain.
Decorative trees, like the ones you see in department stores, are perfectly put together as one unit. Color coordinated and usually thematic, these trees are an elegant addition to holiday décor. Lots of people love these kinds of trees, and they are truly beautiful.
I, on the other hand, am a historical tree sort of person. From the time I was little, we always got one ornament a year to add to our stockings, from Mom’s interpretation of something that symbolized that year. Each December as we decorated the tree, we would get to go through our box of memories and smile at the happy thoughts it would bring: a crumbling peanut reindeer from 1982, Garfield, a trinket from a trip, a symbol of a new home.
When I was older and on my own, Mom gave me my ornaments that I had collected over the years to start my own tradition, and that is where I began to understand the emotional wallop of the holidays. The first time I pulled out an ornament belonging to a dog who had died that year, I cried for an hour. It was a good catharsis, but unexpected.
Mom briefly undertook the task of buying an ornament for each pet during the year, but quickly realized this was a bad idea. At my highest I had four animals, and during a particularly rotten year (2009) I lost three of them for unrelated reasons. That Christmas, I opened the first package to find a Golden with glued-on angel wings, which of course made me cry, then I looked in dread at all the piles I still had to open. The holidays always seems to magnify one’s sense of loss.
In many ways the tree is a symbolic 3-D family history book, growing heavier each year with the weight of time’s passage. Now that I have two kids, they’ve started their own traditions and their own collections, and I have my own bittersweet moment as I see them graduate from “Baby’s First Christmas” rattles to Barbies and Legos. That, too, will change soon.
Each year I think the tree holds all it can, but we always manage to find room for just a few more. But this year with my mother gone, there’s one less family ornament to buy, one collection that has reached its completion. Now the task of ornament shopping and family recordkeeping has passed to me. And this, too, is a slightly bitter pill to swallow.
It is the first year this holiday is more pain than joy, and the tree a reminder of so much lost as well as so many memories gained. But we put it up anyway because that is what we do, and that is part of being human; recalling our history and all it entails.
Despite its subdued tone, I am glad we are not ignoring the holiday altogether, because that would kind of defeat the whole meaning of the holiday. Almost all of my boxes are still in storage, the lights and the bows and the garlands, the stockings and the icicles and the merry music boxes. They will have to wait until next year, those twinkly drops of cheer I don’t quite feel.
We do, however, have our tree, in its most simple form- just the tree, some lights, and the weight of a thousand memories in the form of all our precious ornaments. It is the book of our family. At night I sit on the couch with my dog and contemplate how much has happened, in a time that feels simultaneously short as a blink and as long as a light year. And in that moment, I am glad.
A Merry Christmas to all who are celebrating, and may the day bring you and yours much joy.
Dr. Jessica Vogelsang