As published in the Providence Sunday Journal, December 19, 2021. Above, a gingerbread man ornament made by Juliana Walsh.
They are the presents before the presents: the ornaments my family unwraps each year, one by one, to hang on our Christmas tree.
Some of them date back to B.C.: Before Children. That’s when my wife, Deb, and I threw raucous Christmas parties with one stipulation for entry: guests had to bring an ornament for our tree.
We were in our mid-20s then, so naughty baubles mixed with nice ones. When our firstborn arrived four years later, the zonked-out Santas and badly behaving elves had to go.
Miraculously, several ornaments from those wild nights survive, and others have become keepsakes since. Every December we unearth them from the basement and peel back their tissue-paper wrappings with anticipation and delight.
So how did the whole tree-decorating custom come about?
Many credit German religious reformer Martin Luther with starting the Christmas tree tradition in the 1500s, and those first trees were decorated with candles, apples, and pastries. Three hundred years later, a German glassblower named Hans Greiner, perhaps unable to afford fancy edibles, decorated his Christmas tree with fruit- and nut-shaped pieces he created in his studio. In England, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, a native German, picked up on Greiner’s practice. And when dime-store magnate Frank Winfield Woolworth introduced glass adornments to his stores in the 1880s, the tree-decorating tradition went mainstream in the United States.
On our tree, mass-produced ornaments – striped balls, clear icicles, gleaming snowflakes – hang side by side with one-of-a-kind treasures.
A starfish plucked from Scarborough Beach and tethered to a red ribbon makes me think of the good friend who brought it to our first tree-decorating party decades ago. A colander spoon given by another good friend celebrates Deb’s ingenious cooking skills. A shoelace connecting a Guinness coaster, an Irish pound note, and a pack of shamrock seeds recalls my days in Dublin as a college student.
There are nods to our children’s school-band instruments: a tiny Fender Stratocaster, a seahorse-sized saxophone, and a baby trumpet. A pacifier brings a chorus of laughter: As a toddler, our son Evan usually had one “bippie” in his mouth and another in his hand. The honor of hanging this childhood relic is always reserved for him.
Our son Peter’s first-grade school photo, mounted on a napkin and framed by Popsicle sticks, returns to the tree each year despite a bit of wear and tear, and all the more precious because of it.
And then there’s the light-brown gingerbread man my daughter, Juliana, made in pre-school – a masterpiece of construction paper and crayon, with three red buttons, two red eyes, and a sweet smile evoking the wonder and innocence of childhood.
We have feathered friends in our tree – partridges, penguins, and doves, and also a gold-crested Larry Bird figurine ready to launch a three-pointer in his green Celtics uniform. He is one of our many sports-themed ornaments.
For years we topped our tree with a beautiful papier-mâché angel, recalling the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds in the fields of Bethlehem. Alas, the fragile spirit in her flowing blue-and-white robe plummeted to the floor one evening and broke a wing. A Scotch-tape cast provided a temporary fix, but a Christmas or two later, we decided to ground her permanently after years of angelic service.
What were we going to top our tree with now?
I don’t remember much discussion. And I don’t know how the decision was made. But I do recall climbing up a rickety wooden ladder and, with the help of some picture-hanging wire, attaching Larry Bird to our Christmas tree’s uppermost reach.
He had elevated his game yet again and has been the star atop our tree ever since.