Amongst the many boxes of Christmas decorations that we unearth the day after Thanksgiving every year is a small bin of delicate keepsakes. Each precious treasure is wrapped individually in tissue paper nestled within its own box, many labeled with my mom’s or grandma’s handwriting. I thought these ornaments might be ready to make their debut this year, now that my sons are 12, 11, and 7. However, when someone actually tried to ring a china bell à la calling the cows home for dinner and another followed suit by shaking a German blown glass ornament like a maraca – which immediately ended up in shards on the floor – I knew this wasn’t the year.
I had no words for my son as I handed him the dustpan. These shards were part of a set handed down from sometime before my time and irreplaceable. The china bell and the remaining blown glass ornaments quickly rejoined the rest of the ornate and fragile heirlooms in their storage bin. I wouldn’t let my boys touch them or even look at them, and huffed off to put them back in storage immediately. I suppose that action in itself spoke louder than any words I could conjure.
While I do cherish these ornaments, they are not the most meaningful to me. My most-loved ornaments are the ones that are made out of Popsicle sticks, yarn, pipe cleaners, beads, or wood colored with markers. We also have cut-out photos, real birds’ nests, and origami creations fashioned from standard-issue sticky notes, as well as crinkle paper garland made from the discarded left edge of perforated loose-leaf paper. Some of these decorations are from my own childhood – like my original clumsy attempts at sewing with green embroidery thread on red felt – but most of them chronicle my boys’ lifetimes, in yearly chapters.
My ultimate favorite story is told by the hand-painted baby food can “ornaments.” At least, I think they are baby food cans. That is what my mom always told me, but I can’t find any documentation that baby food ever came in cans. Suffice it to say, they are little cans about the size of a small vessel of tomato paste, painted brightly with stripes, candy canes, and dots. When my grandparents were first starting out, during World War II, they did not have very much materially. Legend has it, they drove an army surplus jeep with holes in the floor boards (this story always made me think of Fred Flintstone’s foot-powered car). They surely ascribed to the philosophy espoused by The United States Office of War Information on its posters urging Americans to “Do with less – so they’ll have enough.” (“They” referred to U.S. troops.)
My grandparents followed the part about “doing with less” long after the war, it seemed, if one could judge by the upright glass straw dispenser filled with leftovers gleaned from fast food restaurants (which I am sure were washed and re-used). The surplus paper restaurant napkins were in the next drawer down from the supposedly secret stash of hard candies, and my grandparents dried out paper towels for reuse next to their kitchen sink. My grandparents were the only people I knew who actually used a nutcracker: buying nuts already shelled was deemed frivolous. My grandfather’s cracking the nuts we all found in our socks (we hung my grandfather’s actual everyday socks on the mantel for Santa to fill), first for “his bride” and then for the rest of us, was a common occurrence on Christmas morning.
My grandparents also had a storehouse in their basement with seemingly endless shelves of canned goods, no doubt bought at the opportune time these things were on sale. My brother and I learned to like mandarin oranges and olives a lot. We were sent home with bags of these, as well as broth and cranberry sauce. I am not sure it was because my grandparents had a glut of these items or if we just needed food. At the time it didn’t matter: it was just fun “shopping” in their basement.
I came to understand that the baby food can ornaments were an embarrassment to my grandmother, though initially, I couldn’t imagine why. When I was a kid and we traveled over the river and through the woods to celebrate Christmas, they were the first things I looked for on the tree. When the time came that we didn’t sleep over at my grandparents’ house on Christmas eve, my grandmother was only too happy to hand the ornaments down to my mother for our own tree. Here we are years later and I, as the matriarch of my family, am the keeper of the ornaments. They are among the first ones I put on our tree every year.
I understand now that my grandmother was ashamed of not being able to afford “real” ornaments; that hand-painted baby food cans symbolized hard times for her family. (Ironically, because of the value of scrap metal during World War II, they were probably worth more than “real” ornaments.) But to me, the ornaments represent assurance – that Christmas would always be Christmas, no matter what; optimism – that there is light at the end of the dark times; and most of all devotion – that my family would stick together come what may, through thick and thin. There have been Christmases where I have wondered how I could afford the dog and pony show I thought I should put on for my boys to make their Christmas “magical” (never mind the gifts themselves), but regardless, we keep the faith in Christmas, hope for better times, and love our family and friends.
This year, because my boys started circling the same things in the toy catalogs (which had arrived in our mailbox prior to Halloween) that Santa had brought them in years past, I began to wonder if they could name any of the gifts they’d ever received at Christmas – even just last year. I doubted it. So, I decided to ask them what makes Christmas Christmas-y and initiated a list of favorite traditions on our whiteboard. The boys not only more than doubled the list, but also developed a rating scheme. They all agreed unanimously on the chocolate advent calendars, gingerbread houses, festive movies, and spending time with family (this got five check marks next to it, as opposed to the previous line items receiving two apiece). Runners-up included making fudge, decorating, and listening to Christmas music. Giving and receiving gifts didn’t even make the list. While I know they’d feel “not that good” about relinquishing this part, I am happy to know that it’s not the sole focus and that “Christmas” to them is more than just the one day.
After hauling the bin of heirloom ornaments back up to the attic that day after Thanksgiving, I waded — knee deep in decorations – back through the fracas surrounding our Christmas tree, and noticed that someone else had already hung the baby-food can ornaments.
Boy to the World!
And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
~1 Corinthians 13:13