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This year's ornament

There's a story about my Christmas tree.

I bought my fake Christmas tree from the sales floor of a Sears, back in 1996.  I could afford the floor model if I cut down on things like food and tea for a week or two until my next paycheck.

This was long before I had my husband, or our house, or pretty much anything other than a small apartment and the sense that Christmas was going to be rough. You'd think that remembering that every time I set up the tree would be kind of a downer. But it's not. It reminds me, with both a physical presense and the ornaments - which I'll get to in a moment - that I am lucky. I am loved.

Now, if you'd told me that back in 1996 - well, I wouldn't have believed you.

In 1996, I realized, once I got home, that though I had just bought a Christmas tree, I had no ornaments.  None.

And barely anywhere to put a tree, either, come to think of it.

I was a little addled.  It was going to be my first Christmas completely alone.  Because I'd come out, and I wasn't going anywhere near my family this year.  I'd been uninvited, to put it politely.

I had no garland. I had no lights. I had a tree, no cash, and a desire to smack myself in the head. Instead, I managed to gather enough change to buy a box of candy-canes (the cheap little ones wrapped in a package) and unwrapped each and every one of those little suckers and put them on the tree. It looked - as one friend put it when she visited - incredibly pathetic.

She was a cross-stitcher, though, and she made me a little cloth ornament. It was pretty, and on the back there was the year, and a wee message of love. I hung it up with the candy canes. That first Christmas, on my own, I smiled when I looked at that ornament.

By 1997 - when I put the tree up again - I realized something:  I might be okay.  Sure, not having a family sort of sucked, but at the same time, I was gathering friends.  I threw what I started to call "Christmas for Losers" - a party for the disinherited. 

That year, I was also told by a Creative Writing prof that my work was both 'trite' and 'common.'  It was commemorated by a friend, who bought me a little ornament of a mouse at a typewriter, the paper having "Dear Santa" written on it so far.  Inside the card that came with it, he wrote the rest of the "Dear Santa" letter from the mouse, who was writing to ask Santa to send our university a better Creative Writing prof. I'd also bought a set of simple white glass ornaments, to fill the tree, and some gold garland, and a string or two of lights. The mouse at the typewriter joined the cross-stitched ornament on my tree in two small places of honour.

Unintentionally, this began a tradition.

The year I was hired at Coles was, quite frankly, one of the best years of my life.  Finally I wasn't slogging sheet metal, or working overnight inventories, or any number of other paycheck-to-paycheck jobs that left me tired and frustrated.

A co-worker's sister made ornaments.  I bought one from her that year - a glass orb decorated with candles - and on the other side of the ornament, it says "98." While the rest of my tree had plain white ornaments on it, there were three ornaments that reminded me I wasn't doing half-bad job of my life.

This isn't to say that I didn't make a bollocks of things now and then.  Christmas '99, for example, is one of my greatest regrets, ever.  I was with a man twenty years my elder by this point, in what I thought was a committed relationship.  I had, at his request, nearly shut down all my friendships, and thought I was moving forward, when in reality I was moving backward.

By April of 2000, he would introduce me to his new boyfriend at the same moment he asked me to move out.

That year, I was gifted a ceramic raccoon-and-wreath ornament that was crafted by the mother of my boss at the time. She - my boss, not her mother - was already telling me my boyfriend sort of sucked, and I wasn't listening.  I've since learned to listen to what my friends say.

The ornament I got in the year 2000 is special to me for many reasons, even though it's a little plastic handcar with an elephant on it (and more than a wee bit tacky).  Since I'd been on my own since 1996, and had been rather darkly dumped and decidedly single since the early part of 2000, I was in my own little apartment at this point, and incredibly tired. However, my sister and I had started to speak again, and when she sent me a Christmas present, this was tucked inside as well, and my sister's note told me that it was from my mother.  Neither of them had the slightest idea I had any sort of Christmas ornament tradition at all. 

I cried as I hung it up, and reminded myself I'd already started over once. I could do it again.

By 2001, I was "moving up" at work, and had reconnected with my friends.  I bought a little snowman at a craft fair - he's holding a red heart with my name on it - and added the date myself with a gold gel pen when I got home.  This was also the first year I shared Christmas with some really good friends - I didn't wake up in my apartment alone, but in someone's home, with friends, laughter, and presents.

2002 brought an odd strained relationship back with my mother.  We'd speak on the phone (I couldn't call her, but she could call me, as to not alert my father).  At some point, I must have told her about the ornaments I'd begun to collect, as that Christmas, a blue stocking ornament arrived, with the word "Son" written on it.  Once again, I cried.  Then I pulled myself back together and went to go see a movie Christmas Day with my friends.  It became another tradition - seeing a movie on Christmas Day.

As a side-note, in 2003, something fun happened - my future husband (who I hadn't yet met) was given a dated ornament from a friend, a little wooden sprig of holly, handpainted, with the year on the reverse. When we set up our tree for the first time, I told him it was "prepwork" for meeting me.

My ornament? Well, in 2003, I finally underwent braces.  My jaw was dislocating, my teeth were cracking from closing incorrectly - the long and the short of it was that by this point in time, I was hurting weekly from my Wednesday visits to the dentist.

I picked up an engraveable silver snowflake after one such visit - I'd decided it had to be a metal ornament that year, because of the braces.  I was in pain, and the girl who engraved the date on it wasn't skilled.  She screwed it up (the 2003 is wonky) and something about it charmed me.  It was metal, scratched, and broken.  Just like me.

I also finally began having a real relationship with my family again, including occasional visits.  It was never pleasant, but it was better than silence.

2004 was the best Christmas of my life, after some of the worst days of my life.  My father passed away at the end of November, but I spent my first Christmas with Dan, who met my immediate family at the hospital when my father was dying, and then the rest of my family at my father's funeral.

When we opened his boxes at Christmas, we discovered that Dan's glass ball ornaments had been water damaged.  With a handy little Klutz kit, I made dragonflies and leaves and a big '2004' and covered the water damaged spots on one of his ornaments.  Something about restoring something that was damaged spoke to me, and this was my official ornament of the year.

But that wasn't the only one... I bought Dan a little green glass frog for his stocking (he has a thing for frogs), and we hung it on the tree Christmas morning.

By 2005, I think everyone knew about my one-ornament-a-year notion, and as a result, I was starting to get more than one a year, which really just meant my cup was really running over, to my joy. One was a present from my best friend, who was there from the beginning of the whole "moose" thing that sort of got out of control among all my friends. By this point, I was living with my husband-to-be, and we had torn apart a spare bedroom to make a Library.  Hence the plastic "handymoose" ornament (a moose with a set of tools and a "how to" book).

By 2006, I had married.  I had a sister-in-law, and her girlfriend, with whom, long before I came along, my husband had a long tradition of gag gifts.  They learned about my yearly ornament tradition. That year I received a purple stockinged leg and velour red high-heel shoe ornament that has to be seen to be believed.  That year, ten years after this whole Christmas tree ornament thing began, my mother came down and stayed with my husband and me for Christmas, and brought two little sled ornaments with her - one says "Nathan," and one says "Dan."

I introduced my mother to all my friends, she ate dinner with myself and my husband and my in-laws, and even cheered over a hockey game with some of my hockey-obsessed friends. 

There was a time when I thought I would never have any family other than the one I made.  I long ago gave up thinking that was a bad thing, nor do I believe it's any kind of settling to do so, but that my mother and sister, niece and nephew did come back into my life, and that I married and gained a whole other family as well, is a never ending source of joy to me.

We also hung two more ornaments on the tree in 2006 - a beautiful dragonfly and a lovely frog, both of which we bought while on our Honeymoon in Victoria.

In 2007, an ornament arrived with a Christmas Card from a friend in Nola whom, though I'd never met her face to face at that point, was someone I considered a friend.  I'd had a lovely explosion of "meeting" some wonderful authors and friends online that year, and the ornament - a star - was a perfect way to mark that theme of the year.  And, to further the theme of my husband and I having our one year anniversary, which is paper, the ornament is made of a heavy paper/cardboard.  The next day, another star ornament arrived from another friend, this one from Texas, and it joined the other on the tree. So this year, I got two ornaments, two stars, from friends I've yet to meet in real life.  I have to say, I'm overwhelmed sometimes at how amazingly full of friends my life has become.  I wish I could send a message back in time, and tell the me in 1996 how this would all turn out.  Then again, maybe these were the stars he wished on to bring companionship into his life, and now that they've done their job, they fell.

In 2008, my husband and I became avid photographers of the squirrel world, so an adorable wooden squirrel ornament seemed like a hit for representing the lighter side of that year. But we also ended up with a wonderful golden orb, which we bought in Niagara on the Lake, while there for a vacation (and a wedding).  We toured a vineyard, and when shopping downtown after, found the lovely orb at a 10,000 Villages shop. A third ornament joined the ranks as a gift from my assistant manager (and good friend). We'd both become somewhat addicted to the stupid online games at Webkinz, and she bought me a Webkinz ornament.

There's a fleur-de-lis representing 2009.  In 2008, I'd gone to New Orleans for a literary conference (and had met the people who'd sent me the stars, as an aside). In 2009, my husband came with me to New Orleans. We got the beautiful green and gold beaded ornament in New Orleans that May, at a Christmas Shop there.  That trip was definitely the highlight of our year, and this time I got to introduce my husband to nearly everyone. Laissez les bons temps rouler. Once again, friends also sent me ornaments - a pretty red felt star with "Joy" written on it in white, and a beautiful leaping reindeer done in glittering primary colours. Also - my sister, mother, and brother-in-law "crashed" Christmas day by arriving as a surprise, and my mother brought a little stocking ornament, done in cross-stitch.

In 2010, we visited Houston, and on a side-trip to Galveston, found a Christmas store. There, we got ourselves another little wooden squirrel ornament.  I cannot resist a squirrel, dragonfly, or frog. We also got another Texas star, this time in silver. We were hosted by two lovely ladies who are the notion of "chosen family" incarnate, and got to spend time with the wonderful people of Texas that I've been blessed enough to know. Another package arrived in the mail - a big fluffy snowman head, and a lovely hand-painted ornament done on a tiny canvas from an artist we both love - and had bought a piece from that year. The ornament matched the piece we'd bought. I also tucked a small red ornament into my husband's stocking from the (RED) ornaments series that were for sale at Starbucks.  They're lovely, hand-made, and support HIV/AIDS awareness and support in Africa.

And this year? Well, the most noteworthy thing my husband and I did this year was to pay off our mortgage - there's a lot of work to be done still, but the house is ours. The little ornament (the image at the start of this post) we bought represents that - the extra funny being the fence is just like our fence - which blew over in a windstorm.

Every year, hanging the ornaments is like re-reading the story of my adult life. Every year, there's another page or two, and my husband and I smile and think of the year that each ornament represents. Most notably, this year, when we hung all the yearly ornaments on the tree, the tree was full. In previous years, we've had to tuck a few generic ornaments here and there to make it look complete. There's definitely room for more, but by itself, these meaningful decorations are enough.

My life - like this tree that has been mine since 1996 - is now so full of love. I am such a lucky man, and each year, the holiday truly begins for me when I open up those boxes of ornaments, reach in, and pull out a piece of our history.

(If you're curious for what the ornaments look like - you can see them all here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/n8an/sets/72157603359406747/with/6468506655/ )


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Thanks for sharing this!

I loved the tour of your Christmas ornaments on Flikr!  But mostly, I loved this story of how you eventually created a true  family: your husband, new friends, and mother who managed to evolve. . . finally!

Happy Holidays to you and all your loved ones!



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Thank you - it's been fifteen

Thank you - it's been fifteen years (!) and it's always wonderful to remember how far we can come.

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Nathan, this is such a wonderful piece and so inspiring. I wish you a wonderful holiday this year and the next and the next. You definitely deserve it.

Best, Madeline

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Thank you - I definitely know

Thank you - I definitely know I'm a lucky man.

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What a read!

Nathan, I enjoyed this essay so very much. What beautiful traditions you have, and you write about them so movingly. Thank you for sharing your thoughts here so that we could all have our hearts warmed by them. 

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Thank you so much, Shana. I'm

Thank you so much, Shana. I'm aware of how lucky I am. :)