The Christmas Tree List: All I Need For an Awesome Tree

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How’s your holiday season been? Crazy? Mine has and we’re not even halfway there.

Happy holidays to you and yours. The Analytic Eye returns in January 2012.

Elaborate Christmas Displays are Wasted on Me

Every year, decoration experts create elaborate store displays to convince me to update my Christmas décor.

2011's version of our Christmas Tree
2011’s version of our Christmas Tree.

And every year, I cheerfully ignore the lovely but sterile packages of matching bulbs and snowflakes.

There’s only one guide my family has ever used to inspire our holiday decorating — the Christmas tree list.

My mother began the original list when she married my father in the mid-70s. At 18 double-sided hand-written pages (and counting), it documents every single Christmas decoration my family owns regardless of whether or not they can hang from actual tree branches.

The entries, listed chronologically by year, include a short description of the ornament, the giver, the receiver, and any interesting circumstances.

For Example

1983. Girl in red parka (ceramic). Elizabeth from her grandparents. Bought on Alaskan cruise.

The Alaskan girl bought by my grandparents1999. Wooden angel with heart-shaped body, circular head and cellophane wings. One of three Aunt Margie made and used as gift tags that year; affectionately known as the flying asses.

The Flying Ass (self-explanatory) 2007. Ireland map (Belleek pottery). Elizabeth from Mom to remember a trip we took to Ireland.

Ireland ornament (right)We frequently consult the list when unpacking and arranging ornaments each December. Someone will ask about this or that piece, prompting a story about a time, place or person.

As a child, the list was how I learned the ins and outs of celebrating Christmas in my family and heard stories of relatives in Newfoundland, England and other mythical places.

My parents acquired many of the list’s ornaments before its official beginning. The hollow plastic baby in a yellow bunny suit with its arms raised over its head, given to my mother when she was three, is listed alongside the purple metal pine cone that my father vividly remembers on his parents’ tree.

Newer entries mark the year my brother made everyone multi-coloured pipe cleaner candy canes for presents or the time I received a delicate white wooden unicorn from a neighbourhood friend’s mother.

It remains one of my favourites.

Not Just an Inventory of Snowmen and Reindeer

Wedding cake ornament
I didn’t get married in 2009, but this is otherwise a bang-on representation of what my cake looked like.

In the early 90s, my mother began adding new details to the list. It now notes where Christmas was spent, significant events of the year, and the presence of guests, such as the year my brother-in-law joined the Christmas Day celebrations at my parents’ house.

It also makes brief observations about whether the year was a good one or difficult.

The ornaments provide additional insight. There are decorations bought during trips, like that Alaskan cruise, or to mark graduations and new jobs, apartments and houses, engagements and marriages, and — of course — babies.

Deaths have their markers, too.

When my maternal grandmother died, my mother’s remarkable memory ensured that four ornaments I once gave to my grandmother were given back to me.

I think of Nannie and Poppa each year as I find special branches to display them.

With all of this tradition in place, it didn’t take long for getting your name on the Christmas tree list to become a sign of familial acceptance.

Before my brother and I had lists of our own, I recall boyfriends and girlfriends who were determined to stake out a piece of family history by giving ornaments to my mother.

These girls and boys have stepped out of our lives, but the gold and green glass hummingbird, the red snowman with candy cane arms and other romantic relics come out of storage every year to hang beside childhood art projects, treasures passed down from my great-grandparents’ trees, and gifts chosen by the scores of children my mother taught during her long career.

The Saga of Life Saver Man

You would think that having all of this documentation would make dividing up the ornaments a simple exercise when my brother and I moved out.

Not so.

I did receive several carefully packed boxes and five hand-written pages to start my own Christmas memories, but there were notable omissions.

Of these, a decoration known as Life Saver Man was the most contested.

Bought for me at a church bazaar in northern Ontario, Life Saver Man is exactly what he sounds like — a red and green clown of a man slightly longer than my hand. He has a Styrofoam head, a body made out of a tube of Life Savers candy, and arms and legs made of felt.

I am pretty sure one of his eyes is falling off.

His description and origins are clearly documented on both my list and my mother’s, yet undisputed ownership of his desiccated candy-roll centre has not placed Life-Saver Man on my Christmas tree.

My mother and brother were adamant that he remain with my parents’ ornaments.

Without any backing from my father, who wisely defers to his wife in these matters, or from my husband, who was bemused by the whole discussion, I lost the argument.

I tease my mother each year that Life-Saver Man emerges from his cozy lair of bubble wrap and newspaper.

In truth, I’m content to leave him in her care.

My Family is My Christmas Tree

Someday — hopefully many decades from now — Life Saver Man and countless others will be given to me so that his story, and all the other family legends, may be preserved for another generation of children.

That is the list’s true function — not to document, but to offer a touchstone for memory and storytelling.

The Christmas tree list is my family’s version of a parish register written out in wooden reindeer, plastic Santas and cotton ball angels.

It will never be featured in Better Homes and Gardens. The polite term for its style is hodgepodge.

But when I look at its chaotic mix of plastic, glitter, ribbon, sequins and light, I see the intersecting lives of family and friends.

I see joy, good memories and a lot of laughter.

I wouldn’t have it any other way.