Remembering Our Family History With Christmas Tree Ornaments
The Fisher-Paulson family tree isn’t fancy, but it does have a Lenox china Superman, Cruella de Vil and winged Pekingeses. And angels.
The oldest ornament on the tree goes back 75 years. It is a cardboard house decorated in silver glitter, the kind you could pick up at the Woolworth’s. The family story goes was that my father, Hap, had served his time, and was due to be mustered out of the Army on December 8, 1941. His mother, Grandma Sadie, celebrated Little Christmas, December 6, with a tree from a lot on Myrtle Avenue. Grandpa Carl put on the lights; Sadie put on the cardboard ornaments and the tinsel. The next morning was the Pearl Harbor attack, and Hap’s leave was canceled.
Christmas came and went. On the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, the day that the tree always came down, Carl went to the basement to get the storage box and Sadie said, “Stop. The tree stays up until my son sees it.” There was a war going on and Hap did not get back to Queens until April 1942. The tree was a fire hazard of dead leaves by then, but that little cardboard house still hung on its branch.
In the 1960s, Hap and Nurse Vivian lived in South Ozone Park, and the tradition was that the weekend before Christmas, every family helped all the other families put up their trees. The Carbones next door had an aluminum tree, and Margie offered a glass of wine to the adults before they went to the McCafferys who had a 10-foot fir that always had to be chopped into a bush to fit through their screen door. Peggy offered a beer to the adults and then off to the Caddens, who always served highballs.
The last house was the Paulsons, so our tree was the least sober, one year, just leaned against the wall. As in all the other homes, each family brought an ornament from their tree, so that their home was part of ours, and our home was part of theirs.
Being much more sentimental than Brother X or Brother Not X, I inherited this hodgepodge of decoration. One year I made a flight of angels out of clothespins and cotton.
When Brian was a boy, his mother (Nana) was a single woman, working two jobs, but she always took both of her sons out to lunch on Christmas eve, and gave them each their first present of the season: a dragon for Craig and a unicorn for Brian.
In the early years of our marriage (the 1980s), Brian and I lived in a five-story walk-up above a funeral parlor in Jersey City. One winter, I got fired from my retail job, just as Brian had decided that he could not jeté one more Nutcracker. We got the last scraggly scrub pine on Newark Avenue, and carried it up the stairs.
Don’t know how, and our dog (Miss Grrrl) never told us, but at 2 in the morning, all by itself, the tree fell out the window, fortunately not hitting any passerby on John F. Kennedy Boulevard. In flannel bathrobes, we ran down the stairs and found the only intact items were: his bell made out of macaroni, one of the clothespin angels and Grandma Sadie’s cardboard house. The year our Christmas tree committed suicide, we decided to move to California.
We’ve lost other angels along the way, but for almost two decades, our friends and family have wandered into the blue bungalow in the outer, outer, outer Excelsior, on the very edge of San Francisco, sipped a glass of mulled wine and left an ornament. And over the years, Uncle Jon has made candy canes out of stained glass, and Uncle Tim contributed the Barbie: Solo in the Spotlight and another year brought a ceramic piranha.
Often I’ve wondered what values we teach to our children, and which they ignore. I know this: Zane and Aidan take the tree as seriously as we do. Zane comes with his reindeer made of Popsicle sticks, and Aidan with his star made out of emery boards. And when Zane asks me to make hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, I know that all of these Batman snow globes, felt stockings (one for each of the triplets) and bread dough holly wreaths will be part of the tale that he will tell his children a decade or so from now. And that child will wonder at the angels who will always light the Fisher-Paulson tree.
May our holidays, and our stories, be part of yours.
This post was originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle.