When an Ornament is More than an Ornament

Staging area.

I’ve waited somewhat patiently for this day to come:  the day after Thanksgiving. The day Amanda and I would start decorating the house for Christmas. It’s likely that she’ll be deployed for Christmas next year, so we agreed that this year, we would go all out:  decorate the house, entertain, bake, and generally revel in Christmas, well, revelry. That also means we decided to stay home, which means this is the first year ever that I haven’t gone to my mom’s for Christmas.

Earlier this week, we pulled all of our Christmas decorations out of the attic and staged them in my office because I am my mother’s daughter and therefore need to have a staging area rather than making multiple trips into the attic for ornaments. Duh.

As we took stock of our decorations and ornaments, I realized that my bag of Christmas ornaments that I had purchased gradually over the last five years, as I’ve been living on my own, has vanished. Likely, it went to Goodwill when I moved, a mistake I’ve now made twice, an oversight that makes me feel silly and stupid.

I got more upset than I should have. For me, Christmas decorations aren’t just Christmas decorations. They’re a symbol. My family has a tradition of each of us buying a new ornament each year, one that represents who we are or what we’re interested in that year. My sister has a lot of angels and then a lot of teacher ornaments. I have a lot of food ornaments – s’mores snowmen and gingerbread men and a cool tea kettle one.

I carried that tradition into my own collection – each year, I got an ornament for my mom’s tree, but I also got one for mine. And those ornaments are now gone. And I searched the house, every bag, every box, to no avail. And then I cried like a little girl.

Not because of ornaments. Those are just things. But because Christmas is going to be different this year.

I have no regrets about our decision to stay home and make our own celebration. I loved Thanksgiving yesterday, and Christmas will be so wonderful. But it is still different. I won’t go to my mom’s. I won’t go to Waffle House breakfast with my dad. I won’t watch my niece and nephews open presents. I won’t watch my dog open presents, for that matter. And losing my Christmas ornaments drove that home for me.

Otis’s new favorite spot next to the tree.

I know I’m trading old traditions for new ones. I’m trading my dog ripping open toys wrapped in tissue paper for watching Otis pounce on discarded wrapping paper. I’m trading Waffle House breakfast and lunch at my mom’s for food that Amanda and I will make together. Those new traditions will be sweet and valuable; they will take me through next Christmas when Amanda will likely be away. But that doesn’t mean I don’t already miss the old traditions. They’re all I know.

I remember a student of mine wanting to write an essay about how Christmas wasn’t the same when she went back after a semester away at college. She was surprised and disillusioned and sad and hurt and somehow reconciled to it. She didn’t know how to make sense of those emotions, so she wanted to write about it. And I told her it was an essay worth writing because it’s a feeling we all experience – growing up, changing, making our own traditions, finding a balance, and seeking out the best ways to live our lives with love and kindness and grace. I recognize it now:  she had lost her bag of ornaments, and in a way, I think we all do at some point. But then we dry our eyes. We put up our Christmas tree. We begin the collection again.

5 thoughts on “When an Ornament is More than an Ornament

  1. I really love the metaphor – I’ve lost my bag of ornaments – it makes this situation of growing up (which by the way happens for one’s whole life) and away from what we are familiar with just a bit easier to bear – thanks

  2. When I lived in Honduras, I stayed there the first year at Christmas. It was both exciting and sad at the same time. I loved experiencing it in a new culture, yet it was hard to not be celebrating Christmas with my family. But my parents had both already died, so I was never going to be able to go back to what Christmas used to be to me. It was a hard year, but also a freeing one, because I saw that Christmas could be whatever I wanted it to be from then on.

  3. I read this post on Friday, got teary, and couldn’t think of a proper comment. I still can’t. I’m so connected to certain Christmas ornaments… and so many other things. So, I’m pickin’ up what your puttin’ down…

    1. Thanks, movita. My mom called me all upset about it as well. We place a lot of significance on ornaments in our family. They’re special. But I’ve already started our new collection. Just call me Silver Lining Girl.

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