Christmas is a time when tradition trumps innovation. We decorate the house and adorn our Christmas trees, fully anticipating that the holidays will revive our spirit and bring us joy. Our rituals and symbols of celebration reinforce time-honored traditions passed down from generation to generation. For my family, those traditions start with the purchase of a fresh Christmas tree. But, this year has been a year like no other. So, we’ve recast Christmas—reimagining it to beckon our need for refuge, renewal and joy. Christmas 2020 strikes differently than past Christmases, and that’s not a bad thing.
For as long as I can remember, we’ve trekked across the Upper West Side of Manhattan looking for a tree that captures the meaning of Christmas to the child that lives in me. No beautiful, well-shaped trees for us. We’ve searched for the perfectly imperfect tree—some loveable (but misshapen) tree that needs a home. A Charlie Brown tree. A tree that doesn’t look beautiful on the street will transform into a magical fir once we put our family’s rich collection of ornaments on it. We don’t want to pay too much for our tree. Its price, which we haggle down with the tree vendor, should reflect its aspiration to gain a home.
Once our tree is home, we let it have a few days to rest, as its branches unfurl and reveal the natural beauty of our newest family member. We name our tree. Tall thin, elegant trees have been called “Noel” while large sturdy ones took names like “Spartacus.” Traditions—ones that mean more to our little family than they do to anyone outside it. Traditions that we created, we respect, and we follow. Traditions that have been broken for the first time due to the 2020 pandemic. Everything about this Christmas feels different, right down to our Christmas tree traditions.
This year, we didn’t have a large selection of trees to choose from. There were so few in our neighborhood, and they were so expensive, we had to rush to snatch one up before they were all gone. We ended up with a fat, beautiful tree. A classic—you know, the kind of tree that’s shaped like a triangle and looks like it’s wearing a perfect hoop skirt at the bottom. Our tree doesn’t have a name this year. We didn’t focus on the tree’s “character.” Merely having a tree was enough.
We decided to decorate our tree using only animal ornaments. We’ve never done a themed tree. Ever! I saw these sweet felt ocean-themed ornaments online and got it into my head that adorning the tree with animals would be fun. Somehow it felt right to put aside our traditional antique glass ornaments and make way for whimsical animals.
As soon as the tree was trimmed, I realized that the animals represented something more than just a theme. Somehow the tumultuous year had given us the license to break out of tradition and add whimsy to our lives through our tree. It’s a unique, early Christmas gift. The animals on our tree have meaning in ways that our traditional ornaments didn’t.
The Birds Seek Refuge (and So Do I)
I’ve long had a collection of bird ornaments (doves, woodpeckers, canaries, peacocks and songbirds) that date back to my grandparents’ country upbringing. It brings me great joy each year to place these colorful birds on hidden branch limbs so that their feathers can peak out as they rest on their perch in our tree. This year, the birds on our tree symbolize refuge. They have found refuge in our tree, where I imagine they are protected from the elements in much the same way that our tree protects us from the “elements of 2020.” We can take mental refuge in the beauty and spiritual connection that our tree provides to the ideals of giving, rebirth and charity that my family values as time-honored traditions.
Like so many others, our family lost loved ones due to COVID-19. As we end this year, we need a place to take refuge from the effects of that loss. We need time to heal and pause to reflect on the love and comfort in our altered family group. Like the birds, we take refuge as we gaze upon our Christmas tree. As we look upon the branches and notice the colorful birds, we have a moment of solace as we let our minds rest. We don’t overthink. We don’t plan or seek or charter new paths. We exist, hidden among the branches with the birds, taking refuge for a bit.
Ocean Animals Offer Renewal
As an avid snorkeler and ocean lover, I have a collection of ocean animal ornaments. This year, we have leaping dolphins, spiny lobsters, and blue whales. They call to mind the vast, blue ocean and remind me that snorkeling (which was put on hold this year when we canceled our summer vacation) will be there for another time. The ocean animals make me think about the power of water to renew my spirit as I float unencumbered by the weight of land.
I feel most like me when I’m in the ocean. For many years, my spirit animal has been the octopus. I have several octopus ornaments on my tree. They never seemed at home on our traditional Christmas trees. They didn’t fit with the antique, glass ornaments of past trees, but this year, the octopus has taken its rightful place center stage. The octopus ornaments add a little mystery and intrigue to our tree, making me think about their playful intelligence and graceful movements in the water. One look at them reminds me of the time I observed an octopus for more than one hour in the turquoise waters of Bermuda. I can go back to that time when I caught a glimpse of an octopus peeking out from under a rock in Hawaii. I’ve felt privileged to have seen these allusive octopuses, and when I see them represented on my Christmas tree, I recall my sense of wonder. I remember that I will return to the ocean again and have the opportunity to take in its promise of renewal.
Joyful Childhood Memories
The other animals on our tree are connected to assorted childhood experiences and memories, some that date back to my mother’s childhood. My 85-year-old mother (and her father) made some of the sweetest ornaments—a homemade teddy bear ornament made in grade school; metal partridges made out of antique tin salvaged from old, abandoned barns; golden camels, leaping frogs and prize pigs. They are all on our Christmas tree this year. We can look upon them when we like and recall memories that span decades, anchoring my family to our traditions, oral stories and values.
As we close the books on 2020, we realize that this year has given us the ability to break out of certain traditions and ways of thinking to recast our vision for how we want to spend time together and celebrate. This year, our tree represents renewal and rebirth. Our Christmas tree traditions have been altered, but we know that our symbols reflect joyful moments, self-care and the promise of renewal and regeneration in the year ahead. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, much pleasure you do give me!
How are you reimagining your Christmas this year? Has 2020 changed your holiday traditions in any way?
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