The Christmas Time Capsule

Every year when the decorations come down from the attic, time goes both ways at once.

Comments: 40

  1. I love your writing, particularly your pieces reflecting your southern background. My husband I lived in Nashville while attending Vanderbilt and many of my family are from Dickson. It’s nice to get a touch of the South in the NYT.

  2. @ Camille Johnson Marsh Harbor, Abaco I also love Margaret Renkl's stories, but I wonder, why is it the Christmas Day for bringing up memories, rather than New Year's day? Your note of the author's Southern background: I never noticed any ante-bellum sentiments in her writing and no echo of "Confederates in the Attic" by Tony Horwitz.

  3. As a parent, at the time, I didn't fully realize how all those special little things we did together as a family, even on the spur of the moment, would grow into iconic memories treasured by grown-up children. I overhear the recollections being re-told to friends by my now-adult offspring, and silently thank my former young, harried, distracted self for somehow finding the energy to provide the magic.

  4. Lovely piece. Thank you.

  5. Christmas is a time when time stands still for us. We have a tradition of reusing gift wrapping from one year to the next, mostly from not wanting to waste, but it has become quite sentimental! We recall the special presents the paper has concealed over the years, and marvel at how it still looks colorful and crisp. We also use as gift labels old holiday cards we received. Each such "tag" brings us back to the people who gave them to us and which year. Some personalized messages from the sender are on the back, as a bonus keepsake. Then there are the ornaments, some homemade, some with their year of origin inscribed, all evocative of bygone Christmases. Our all time favorite is a simple white fabric heart with "I love my cat" sewn in green and red, from 1985. We have gone on to love, and enjoy Christmas with, a number of cats since that year. But we always place it in the same location, near the Christmas tree's center, and remember that initial holiday with our sweet little grey tabby girl.

  6. This past summer I lost 40 years of ornaments in a flood. No tree stand. No lights. No angel that I bought in 1990 when I lived in Minnesota. I still have the memories, and was wondering how I would conjure them up without the ritual of unpacking the ornaments My daughter gave me a new Minnesota ornament this year so the collecting and memory making begins anew.

  7. @Deb Gurke Wow Deb, condolences! What a loss. I clearly remember the floods and damage. I’m a Wisconsinite, too. But, you know, we have grit! Here’s to new ornaments and reviving your Christmas collection. If I may add, try to head to some estate sales if you have the time. Believe it or not, those Christmas treasures are inexpensive there and plentiful. Some elderly person would be thrilled you take over with their prizes of yesteryear. A new hobby? Anything’s possible with Wisconsin sprit. Here’s to 2019! May it bring you peace and restoration. MIMA

  8. Beautiful and meaningful to those of us who still believe in decorating our trees and houses for Christmas with things that have personal meaning for us. As my kids got older, they began to tease me about how I'd tear up as I unwrapped ornaments--but if I managed not to cry, they were disappointed! I think it's sad that in the last several years, your tree is supposed to be beautiful -- with a theme or a color scheme and nothing of sentimental value. I will never stop putting up the childhood and family decorations that mean so much to me.

  9. Your Christmas musings will sound familiar even to folks whose homes do not look "like an ongoing estate sale." Reading was a poignant experience for me as I remembered the many, many items of family history or individual significance which once graced my parents' tree. Much of it is gone now for after my Dad died, neither I nor my brothers had room or inclination to keep many items. Sure, I have the antique 'bunch of grapes' glass ornament which was my grandparents' (though it is far to heavy to hang on most trees), one of my brothers has a paper nativity which stood far back on the branches of trees beginning in my mother's childhood. Still, many more things are gone - to the re-sale shop or the dumpster. Life moves on; new traditions are made; new memories are woven; new generations create their own decorations to cherish in their time.

  10. Thank you for this piece. When my sister packed up my parents’ house after my mother died, she shipped dozens of boxes to me. I efficiently made my way through most of them, but I wasn’t able to touch the ones marked “Christmas” for eighteen months. Two Christmases later, I have mustered the strength to slice one open. I found homemade pasta angels and patchwork ornaments. I can’t bring myself to open another until next year. Those objects hold real power.

  11. @Betsy. It is like holding the precious moments of the past in your hands and reliving them when you touch an ornament that conjures moments of love and wonder. When I hold the ornaments my children made, it is as if they are with me again as six and nine-year-olds...before the pain, before the heartache and desperation I felt about them in their "grown up" years. They (and I) were as yet untouched by the trauma and destruction that was to come. Those ornaments are like a beautiful time machine for that I wish I could move into and never leave.

  12. For many, this wonderful time of the year is not filled with joy. It should be, however. Memories are embedded in our hearts and souls, precious ones, that recall those Christmas moments like tree trimming, homemade decorations, evergreen wreaths and gentle voices, sometimes pierced with the happy shouts from children. Thank you for sharing.

  13. While in high school, my father struck up a friendship with one of his teachers. Then at some point after my dad was married and added my brother and me to this family unit, this teacher began inviting us to spend Christmas at his farm just outside of a little town in North Carolina, Seaboard. The two-story house had been built before the Civil War and was surrounded by several huge white oaks and 400 acres of farmland. And this was all framed by a fringe of woods. Needless to say, spending Christmas here was very magical indeed. Later, my wife, daughter, and I would spend the holiday with my mother-in-law, who used to live in the country near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. She resided on about five acres in a split-level house, and there was a small pasture on one side and a fringe of woods on the other. Yet, even while wrestling the artificial tree out of the rafters of my mother-in-law's garage - she graciously allowed this to be my job every year - the memory of the magic of the former naturally transformed these Alabama Christmases into experiences just as magical.

  14. Thank you! I too have a few of the ornaments that were all I could afford for my first Christmas tree in my first apartment after college: cardboard angels and Santas. I think they were meant to be used as gift tags, but they covered a small tree beautifully, with some strands of tinsels and lights. I have some glass ornaments from the store around the corner from the first home I shared with my husband, and the ornaments handmade by the three children we later had. Most meaningful of all is the Provencal creche given to us by my mother, with santons added during our honeymoon in France and later on our children's first trip to France. Last year, for the first time, the santons my mother bought on her own French honeymoon in the 1950s joined the nativity scene in our house, after her death. It is comforting to see them.

  15. An ornament story. My very favorite ornament was a homemade beautifully painted Christmas scene that my grandma (since deceased) had purchased at a school fundraiser. Putting the ornaments on the tree, I mentioned my favorite to my husband. Well, our old cat must have shaken the tree and in the morning, my favorite was smashed! I was heartbroken. My dear husband, without a word, contacted a friend of mine who also lived in the same town as my grandma. One thing led to another and my husband was actually able to locate the woman who had originally painted the ornament I loved. She told him she would try to duplicate it! So he mailed her the pieces and she replicated the original! When he went to pay her, she said she could never charge a husband who would do something so loving for his wife! (So he sent her a box of candy) On Christmas, I could not believe my eyes when I opened up this gift - the likeness was astonishing! I was in love with an ornament again, and my husband, too. That’s Christmas love for sure. And by the way, the new ornament never got hung on another tree until Fluffy went to heaven.

  16. @MIMA- ha! This makes me think that there’s a special area in kitty heaven where a select group of kitties talk about the ornaments they “took out” back in the day. “The job was quick, y’know? Oh yeah, she was plenty upset, but what was she gonna do??? I went up to her later, and flicked her leg with my tail, gave her that smooth pass, and bam-2 hours later, I scored the turkey bits in my bowl. “

  17. Beautifully said! When we open the boxes of ornaments every year, long gone or now grown family members reappear and their stories with them. The little box of glass ornaments that my parents splurged on in the 1950’s when my dad was still in grad school; our now adult kids’ preschool ornaments; the hilariously quirky ornaments that my now deceased mother-in-law collected; items we found on distant travels. It sure doesn’t look like a Pottery Barn tree, but it looks like love and life. Thank you for a wonderful essay to start our Christmas Day while we wait for “the kids” to wake up and see what Santa left in their stockings.

  18. I used to have my own ornament treasure trove, but homelessness and many moves since a nervous breakdown in 2007 have scattered all that to the four corners of the universe. How I miss those ornaments. The handmade one I did with my kids, before they stopped speaking to me. The ones belonging to the first tree I put up by myself in 1979, seven years after the trees stopped because my Grandmother died and no one felt like Christmas. Those ornaments were hard fought and won and then mental illness robbed them from me. I'm still missing them. I have new one, but they don't carry the weight of love and loss. Maybe that's for the best.

  19. @SweetestAmyC Amy thanks for your remembrances. You speak of much loss. Many have depression at this time, but cannot speak of it. May there be healing in finding new connections. We all must part with our belongings at some point.

  20. You have a wonderful way of taking the little things in life, to and of which so many of us never give a thought, and weaving a beautiful tapestry of a story about the great value those little things have. Such value should not be surprising, for after all, in relationships and in life, the little things are the big things.

  21. Now in our seventies we face boxes in the attic filled with memorabilia of raising four: old trophies, past art projects, vintage clothing, a homecoming sash. Buried at the bottom of piles of photos are pictures of ex boyfriends and girlfriends. Each has moved on. If we die there will not be time for any one of our children or grandchildren to sift carefully through the collections. So we begin the task ourselves. Sometimes after a morning of going through shoe boxes, I remove perhaps 2% for discarding and keep the rest. The progress is slow.

  22. I ended up with that difficult and hurried task after moms stroke put her in the nursing home.Tragically, my brother didn't want his signed first grade art, including a portrait of cross-eyed Rudolph. I need to frame that.

  23. @Boomer My Mom, practical mid-westerner that she was, culled the accumulation of family artifacts in her final years, leaving just enough for us five kids to look through and share. It was a gift - your kids will appreciate your efforts.

  24. @Boomer You have my sympathy. I have been known to give away books and years later humbly request the recipient to return them.

  25. Mommy (as she was to me then, and ever will be) came home from the hospital a day-or-two before Christmas 1957, and was re-admitted a day-or-two 'after.' In my mind there is a vision of her sitting on the arm of a couch, in front of our tree ('itself' standing 10' tall in front of the bay windows of our apartment @ 751 President Street in my beloved Brooklyn). She is watching my 2-years-older sister open her presents. It is the last 'vision' I have of her. (In those days, the hospital didn't let 8 year-olds visit even a mother 'in her circumstance.') She died January 22, 1958. Since then, ornaments are just ornaments -- as are Christmas eves and Christmas days.

  26. Thank you for this beautiful piece. While reading it I was simultaneously enjoying the visions that surfaced from my own mental archives. Towards the end I surprised myself by choking up. How deep and tender are the memories.

  27. This stirs countless emotions. I am quite saddened this year by our daughter-in-law's rebuff of a special ornament we got for our 4 year-old grand-daughter. (Others were accepted in by our daughter for her children.) In short the DIL said "you can keep it for your tree." It's just a little sled with the child's name and 2018 on it. YIKES! Crushed my wife. That said we did not put our tree up this year for other reasons and while we don't have quite the collection you describe there are certainly some treasured ornaments.

  28. @Pete The little sled sounds lovely - I'm sorry your DIL didn't appreciate how even adult children love these slowly accumated tree ornaments. Maybe your granddaughter will ask you herself for the sled one day for her own family tree. Christmas is about love and tradition. We are no friends of curated designer trees - you are not alone!

  29. Frank, Save that ornament and give it to your granddaughter when she is a little older. I can’t say that I agree with your DIL, but she is likely in that phase of life when creating her own traditions requires her to rebuff those of others. I had your DIL’s mindset in my 20s and 30s. As I grew older, memories of my rigidity made me cringe— they still do.

  30. My mother passed in August and, as the only living child, I was responsible for going through our family’s belongings in her Florida home. Our Christmas decorations were more important to me than anything else my parents owned. The nativity scene we bought in 1964 is now with me, along with other cherished ornaments and decorations, including many my brother and I made as children in the 1960’s. I, too, grew up in the South, and I think it’s difficult for my Minnesota-raised husband to understand my sentimental attachment to items from my childhood, as well as to the many objects I have stored away from my own son’s childhood. Your lovely article has brought me more joy than you can possibly know.

  31. Your house sounds like a home, Margaret. A beautiful, warm, kind and loving home. No one should be sentenced to live in a heartless Pottery Barn catalog. Yuck! (p.s., I hope you found a new rescue dog to make your house truly special this Christmas.)

  32. Margaret Renkl, I love your writing. You get it. You convey it poetically. Merry Christmas to you and yours. Thank you, NYT.

  33. Oh my gosh. I'm in tears. You nailed it.

  34. Margaret, You are the Ornament of the NYT. This made me cry, in a very good way. Never stop writing, and I’ll never stop reading. Happy Holidays.

  35. Thank you for summoning up, if only in imagination, the lares and penates of my own life. Merry Christmas!

  36. Wait, you haven't gotten a Trump ornament yet? Just hit up the usual suspects for all your 'We're saying Merry Christmas again' guy gear. Talk about memories. Think of it as an ornament for 'Nightmare Before During and After Christmas'.

  37. I thought this might be less a personal essay, and more a middle aged Southern woman taking stock and cleaning out her lot at Christmastime, after a year in which Southerners were indeed asked to take stock and clear out those images from the past that tradition (and sentimentality) dictates you hold on to, but the 21st Century and diversity tell you must go...

  38. Beautiful piece, love all the comments it has evoked, happy and sad, for new and for old traditions. My first tree, in a candle lit room, was hung with tangerines which we later ate. Now it's hung with memories like yours. I'm no friend of exquisite minimalism or even naturalism, when it comes to trees. Neapolitan plaster angels jostle with the tasteful / natural wooden objects of the German school of ornamentation, neon paper art and the the crafted children's ornaments. Sometimes gingerbread figures. Chandalier crystals found at markets. Real candles. Which are strictly supervised while lit by adults in the room.

  39. What a beautiful ode to family and tradition! And for those of us who lack family or tradition: reach out and create them! Happy holidays to all!

  40. How about a NYT recipe for salt cookie ornaments?