I love the Peanuts holiday special. As a boy, I never tired of watching those kids do their weird little dances to that iconic piano music. I wondered where Snoopy stored all the elaborate decorations in his tiny dog house. And I was always moved by Linus standing in the spotlight each year telling the story of the first Christmas. Even though Charles Schulz has been gone for twenty years, the lesson of Charlie Brown’s sad little tree lives on: Everything has beauty…maybe even this 2020 holiday.
Last night my husband Saul and I decorated our own Christmas tree. It was a welcome break from the other weekend chore we had been working on. We were finally getting our will together after putting it off for years. During a time with so much death in the news, it was harder to convince ourselves we were invincible and immortal.
But this year’s tree feels particularly special. After being cooped up inside since March, any change in our home environment is exhilarating. Putting out the bath mat we ordered from Amazon was our last big adventure.
And to me, this simple act of decorating feels comforting in an unprecedented and deeply unsettling time.
I follow a family tradition of buying one new ornament each year. And inevitably, there seems to be a corresponding tradition of at least one breaking.
This year Saul ordered a Santa Claus wearing a face mask, and it was the first ornament to be hung. Only a few minutes later, before the tree was even half-finished, I handed him a clear glass globe with a bright red ribbon inside I had bought in the 1980’s to commemorate the AIDS crisis that had decimated my community. It slipped from our hands and shattered in pieces on the floor. It seemed there was room for only one ornament commemorating a plague.
Letting Saul help me decorate was huge progress from when I was a kid and would throw a tantrum if I thought my older siblings were doing it wrong. I did have to teach my husband the proper way to hang ornaments, with larger ones on the bottom branches and smaller ones on top. I thought this rule was pretty obvious, but reminded myself he is half Jewish, so I let it slide.
As we finished, I stepped back and admired our handiwork. Some of the ornaments were passed down from my mom and have been in our family for generations. I used to stare at them as they reflected the twinkling lights. As a little boy, I was in awe trying to imagine some mysterious great grandparents I had never met bringing them over from Germany or Ireland. My mother has been dead over a decade, and these faded and chipped Christmas bells are as close to family heirlooms as I will ever have.
I reached over to touch the worn-out plush reindeer I had gotten for free with my McDonald’s Happy Meal right after I’d moved to New York City. I had only a tiny bare tree, with no money left to buy something to hang on it. McDonald’s saved the day, just like its cheap fast food had done so many times during those hungry, lean years.
Next to the reindeer was a small, cardboard stocking holding photos of my best friend’s two toddlers she had mailed to me one year. Those boys are now successful adults in their thirties who send me Christmas pictures from their iPhones.
There’s an elegant fairy in a glittery green gown I bought with my first boyfriend after we moved in together. I thought then we would spend the rest of our lives with each other.
Near the bottom is a large Sasquatch commemorating a TV series I produced called Finding Bigfoot that became a hit show. Nobody, especially me, saw that coming. Only a few years earlier I was working as a temp over the age of forty.
My favorite is an orange and blue miniature nativity scene inside a guitar I picked up at a roadside stand in Peru during a weeklong torrid fling I’d had with a handsome South American just before I met my husband. Saul always seems to hang that one in the back where it’s impossible to see.
Just a few feet away from the tree, I couldn’t help but notice the Estate Planning document sent by our lawyer sitting on our dining room table. Saul and I had spent the day focused on what to do about our house, money, and pets after we were gone, but now I worried what would happen to all these ornaments. We have no children to pass them on to. Maybe a nephew or niece will find some value in them, but they won’t ever have as much meaning to anyone else. They will never be as precious to them as they are to me.
This decorated Christmas tree is a symbol of my life.
Each ornament represents a chapter.
I reached over and held Saul’s hand, grateful to be healthy and safe this holiday season. Unlike Charlie Brown’s friends, we are growing older and staring at our own mortality.
The masked Santa sparkled before us in the lights.
Our story isn’t over yet.
One day that too will only represent a memory.