Decorating the Tree: A Meditation on Gratitude

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Just after Christmas last year, the wonderful woman who has been cleaning my house for more than ten years turned to me in astonishment and said, “Melissa, do you take every ornament off your tree every year. I’ve never seen a closet big enough for your tree.”  After all these years, Karin has had occasion to be in every drawer and closet in my house, and I think the fact that I couldn’t simply cover my artificial tree with a sheet and slide it in the closet had just occurred to her. Maybe this is not so astonishing with everyone’s trees, but mine is covered with hundreds of ornaments. I assured her that I enjoyed decorating the tree and that taking it down was not such an onerous task. (I don’t think she believed me.)

I thought about her surprise as I was erecting the tree this year, and I realized that for me, decorating my tree each year is an act of gratitude. Many of the ornaments have been given to me by loved ones, and each time I unpack those, I think of the person who gave it to me. Other ornaments were acquired on special trips. All of them invoke deep feelings of gratitude for the life I have and the people in it. 

A teddy bear and a skiing mouse from my childhood tree are among my favorites. There are the small glass ornaments acquired with my limited funds at an after-Christmas sale the year before I left home. I stashed these away to adorn my very first big girl Christmas tree. There’s a seashell I bought in Rhode Island that reminds me of the years of personal challenge and growth while living in that beautiful state. There’s the lighthouse that I bought when my now-husband and I took my parents to explore windswept Block Island. And there’s the blown glass cowboy boots that I bought when my friends Becca and Tom took me to the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art on a visit to Fort Worth. Another blown glass treasure is a Holstein cow I found in a hardware store on Orcas Island, Washington, on a visit with my sister-in-law and her family. (Some of you know I grew up on a dairy farm, and I adore Holsteins.)

The gifts from loved ones are precious including dozens that my parents gave me over the years. There’s the blown glass Santa face that was one of my husband’s very first gifts to me. During my years of college teaching, students often gave me tree ornaments, and I treasure them all. I’ve kept in touch with many of my former students, and the ornaments remind me of the bright, kind young women they have become. Especially precious to me are three ornaments hand-painted by Niki, one of my most delightful students.

Sometimes unwrapping the ornaments can be bittersweet. I always pause to admire a lovely hand-painted Santa that was a gift from co-worker Elaine. This year, that ornament took on extra poignancy because Elaine died last year. And a blown glass cat perched on a royal cushion was a gift from my inspiring former colleague and mentor Karen, a brilliant English professor who didn’t suffer fools gladly. Karen cooked me many fantastic meals, and she taught me much about being a good teacher and about surviving in the male-dominated world of academia.  Karen died many years too soon.

Far from being a burden, decorating my tree is a sacred occasion to reflect on important events and important people in my life. It’s a time to be grateful.

What about you? Are there holiday rituals that offer you time to reflect and revel in gratitude?