When I try to remember my earliest memory of Christmas, I think about my first Christmas ornament. It was a round, white Precious Moments ornament with a little smooshed face Baby Jesus sleeping in a manger. My First Christmas- 1987 scrolled under the manger in a delicate, curvy script. I don’t exactly know why this is what I consider to be my first Christmas memory because I’m pretty sure that my senses weren’t the most developed at the ripe age of seven and a half months when my first Christmas was occurring. But this was always my ornament that I loved to hang on the tree because every year it reminded me that I was loved enough as a baby for someone to celebrate my first time of experiencing Christmas.
I loved and cherished this ornament until two years ago when I was searching my mom’s Christmas tree trying to find it. When living at home, I had always hung this ornament on the tree, but my mother now decorates the tree on her own since all three of us children have moved out of the house.
Its absence was wildly conspicuous to me, so I was sure my Mom must have noticed if it were missing. This extraordinarily important Christmas ornament had been a part of her life for the past twenty-three years, so I was sure she would know exactly where on the tree she had hung it.
I yelled to her as she made cookies in the kitchen. “Mom, where’s the ornament from my first Christmas?”
“What ornament, honey?”
“Come on, you know. The ornament from my first Christmas.” I figured she must have just not heard me, and she needed to me to repeat the object of my intense quest. I got no response so I continued my description. “The Precious Moments ornament that’s been such a huge part of your last twenty Christmases. The one that reminds you of your youngest son’s first Christmas and how that was one of the best Christmases of your life.” Again, I waited.
Finally I hear a voice from the kitchen. “Oh. I think I might remember one like that. I dropped a box of ornaments when I was getting out the Christmas stuff this year, and some of them broke. Maybe it was in with those. Can you come help me with these cookies?”
Help with the cookies? How could she have the audacity to act so flippantly about such a precious piece of our family’s heritage?
I sat on the ground in front of the tree and mourned silently for this lost piece of my past. Even though I grew up Baptist and not Catholic, I crossed myself and tried to find a candle to light because I felt like this was an appropriate way to pay homage to the loss of such a significant yuletide relic. As I rummaged through drawers looking for matches, I realized that it’s actually pretty miraculous my ornament lasted this long. The fact that it had been a piece of at least twenty Hampton family Christmas trees means that it had taken at least six twilight topples smashing down onto the wooden floor of my parents living room.
I consider my family to be pretty bright and talented, but I don’t think I’ve ever met a bunch of people so ill equipped at keeping a Christmas tree upright. Many families with chronically toppling trees can blame it on a rabid family cat with an affinity for attacking dangling Christmas bulbs. My family has never owned a cat, so we have no such excuse. Well, wait. Actually, come to think of it, we might have an excuse. But to explain it, I must explain another long standing Hampton family tradition–The Hampton Family Christmas Tree Hunt.
Hundreds of thousands of American families have the classic tradition of loading their family in the car and driving to the forest to cut down a Christmas tree. While our family expeditions never quite reached the riotous extent of the Griswolds’, our trips were never boring. Every Friday after Thanksgiving, we’d descend upon some unsuspecting Christmas tree farm on the hunt for the perfect tree. It actually wasn’t until I was in middle school that I realized there were people who bought their trees from a stand in the Lowes parking lot.
I can’t specifically remember when we started hunting for our trees, but I can only remember one childhood Christmas where a tree was acquired without the family’s trip to the woods. This was probably the Christmas when I was four or five. I distinctly remember it because it left me crying hysterically. Now I cried a lot as child, and in hindsight, the tears weren’t always warranted. But this specific Christmas my tears were more than justified. In fact, I believe that tears were a rather minimal expression of the unjust actions that occurred. My mother had simultaneously committed two Christmas travesties both of which involved our tree.
First, she decided to put up our tree in our family room in the basement rather than in front of our main windows in our living room where the tree ALWAYS stood!
I couldn’t believe it either!
Who did she think she was to make such a catastrophic decision without the rest of the family’s input?
The second holiday crime committed by my sweet mother was that the tree that I found standing in our family room was fake!!! I was shocked! I’d never seen a fake Christmas tree in our house before, and as far as I was concerned, my mother had just single handedly killed Christmas.
Now I can’t remember exactly how this situation resolved itself, but I do remember that a fake tree never again showed up in our house until all of us kids had moved out, and scheduling a family trip to the woods to fetch a tree wasn’t very feasible. I can’t really blame my mother for this. Every one of us served a very important function in the hunt for a tree, and it would have seemed unnatural picking a tree sans a member of the hunting squad.
My dad served as the leader of our little pack. He would drive us to the Christmas tree farm, keep us all heading in the proper direction, and make embarrassing comments to our fellow hunters or the staff of the farm. My mother acted as the keeper of the peace and the money. Her heart was always set on a soft and luscious douglas fir which kindly accepted lights and ornaments without biting back. However, she would know ahead of time how much money we could spend on a tree. If it was a year where the budget was a little bit slimmer, she and my dad would give little nods to each other, and he would direct us away from her beloved douglas firs toward the discount lot. Jonathan, my brother, served as the official keeper of the saw and the mischief. The winter weather in northern Indiana is always unpredictable, but he was ready regardless. If it was a year with snow, he would be the first to throw a snowball. If rain was pouring down, you could expect to be tackled into a mud puddle. But, vindication always arrived for the rest of us because regardless of the climate or form of precipitation, everyone knew that it was his job to slide under the evergreen and saw it down. My sister was there to ensure that the tree was proportionate and didn’t have any glaring flaws, and I was there to ensure that Jonathan had an easy target for tackling and snowball throwing.
Now, prior to Jonathan crawling around underneath the tree, we had to all partake in the arduous task of agreeing on a tree. One of the keys for picking a tree involves burrowing into its thick hedge and examining the sturdiness and straightness of the trunk. Since, however, we were usually in the discount tree section, we had to try to find a happy compromise between an attractive exterior with crisp, fertile branches and a trunk that could stand upright once the tree was cut out of its earthy home and inserted into a flimsy, plastic stand in the center of our living room. Unfortunately, we often made the same mistake that lays at the base of so many of American society’s current problems. We opted for an attractive exterior that looked bright and expensive. Alas, underneath the beautiful and costly exterior was a trunk that looked like it had been twisted around like a pipe cleaner from a child’s craft time. Reality would then make us a trade off a few nights later during the twilight hours. Lady reality exchanged our choice of Christmas vanity for an evergreen sprawled prostrate across our living room floor.
The next morning after the collapse, the tree would be upright again and suspended between the front windows with fishing line. While my mother, my sister, and I were concerned with the aesthetic nature of our tree, my father’s first priority in re-erecting the tree was to ensure that it wouldn’t fall again. This often left our Christmas tree looking more like it belonged to the Clampetts than the Cleavers. Since, however, the problem often originated from our focus on looks rather than functionality, we usually decided that an upright tree was worth the sacrifice of the fishing line.
I find it ironic that my little Precious Moments Christmas bulb endured so many falls onto the living room floor, but it was a trip up the stairs that finally sealed its fate. I’m a little bit sad that I won’t have this Christmas relic to pass onto my children someday, but as I grow older, I have begun to realize that ornaments will break and trees will fall and traditions will change. The fact that I had an ornament commemorating my first Christmas was not the signifying factor that I was loved as a baby. My parents’ love was shown through us being together every Christmas. There love was made real by us sitting together on Christmas morning reading about the birth of Jesus from the book of Luke and focusing on the real meaning of Christmas. I have been blessed to grow up in a family where I always knew that I was loved, and this is the greatest tradition I will have to pass onto my children.