Amidst the weight and volume of Christmas and holiday ornaments, a few tend to distinguish themselves for personal reasons. In them we discover something about others; in some we see ourselves.
Seventeen Decembers passed before we recognized the error. In that seventeenth year on the night when we decorated the holiday tree, my son reached into a box for a Christmas ornament. He chose a round ball with hand-painted letters. He held it up, rotated the ball in his fingers and laughed as he read the holiday message. “Look,” he said, “I wrote ‘Christmas Merry’.” He stretched his arm across the box to show me the words he printed for his grade school project. “I made this back in Banyon School,” he said. “I didn’t know I did that.” He laughed again. I looked at the print, nodded to acknowledge his discovery, and dismissed the error as a worthy effort by a young painter. “You were in first grade when you made that,” I said. I reached in the box for another Christmas figure. He turned toward the tree and hung the ornament among more perfect decorations.
During seventeen tree-trimming parties, the “Christmas Merry” ball made the short trip from corrugated box to pine branch without comments about grammar or word sequence. Each year when the ball re-appeared, we reminisced about Banyon school, his teachers and his classmates. No one noticed that the words of the traditional Christmas greeting appeared in reverse order.
In December, millions of hands lift lids off containers that safeguard Christmas ornaments. They reach our homes by way of skilled artisans, manufacturing sites, and from the best efforts of school age children. Freed from their protective tissue paper, lifted from layers of cardboard matrices that shelter them for eleven months, the Santas, snowflakes, stars and snowmen return for their seasonal visit. Revelers dangle them on trees, attach them to rooftops, and accessorize fireplace mantles. Around the globe, pine cones, icicles and sparkling lights dress up homes for the Christmas holidays.
Lying in wait, most decorations look the same. They are holiday staples. We expect to see the smiling Santas, the Bethlehem nativity scenes, and pine wreaths that dress up doors. Before they take their place on trees and lawns and entrances, they are ordinary items produced in numbers to satisfy market demand. For the most part, they are familiar shapes, sizes and colors. But with the touch of celebrants, the plain faces of decorations assume character and expression; personalities emerge. For a brief time in the dark of winter’s night, we enjoy the light, and the spirit that made it shine.
Within most homes, there is a moment when a pair of hands picks up an ornament from the inventory of festive trinkets and it recalls a memory. That uncommon ornament links back to a place, a time in one’s life, a friend, a stranger, or a family. It is a connection that matters to the persons who remember. The object creates energy. It re-kindles the memory and preserves it for another year. In that moment there is a chance to share a speck of life for which there is meaning beyond the material and the moment.
Even in the first grade, presentation depends on the designer’s skills and a compromise between creativity and convenience. The young artist painted words on a Christmas ball. The letters rocked and tilted as they tracked across the center of the sphere. The spaces between the letters shrank and swelled as the young hand brushed each one across the surface of the decoration.
At any age, interpretation emerges from experience and understanding. Patience rewards the observer with options , meaning and understanding. This eighteenth year in the life of the ornament, I picked out the first grade project – the gift to Mom and Dad many years ago. I held the ball in my hand. I stared at the word “Merry” for a few seconds and then I turned the ornament, a slow twirl from right to left. There was a gap, a double space, before the word “Christmas” appeared. I turned the ornament a little more. Then “Merry” re-appeared, nudged up close to the end of “Christmas.” And, in that year, I laughed. The ball read, “Merry Christmas.” In fact, it always did.
I am among those who enjoy the ritual of unpacking decorations one at a time. Unhurried, we can take the time to re-tell the highlights of those ornaments that have a story. We can add the character and color of the ones with most impact, humor, or memories. When there is no curfew or rush to finish, decorating the tree is one of the holiday events I most look forward to each year.
The pleasure of unpacking memories to enjoy them every year explains why I put the “Christmas Merry” decoration back in storage after the Christmas holiday. Once, in late December, I thought I might leave the ornament out all year to remind myself to judge with care, and to measure the magnitude of failings twice to be certain of their size and importance. For some events, it takes a while to view all sides, and understand what it is we see. As time passes, we discover more about ourselves when we look at where we’ve been and where we plan to go. Mistakes made at any age become less important, even disappear, when we let them go and accept that they no longer matter. And maybe, in some cases, we discover that they never happened. Then achievement and growth, however slight the journey, become the reward worth remembering.