Conversations with a Christmas Ornament

By Neil King Jr.

There is no better calendar keeper than the Christmas tree, as nothing so punctuates the passage of a year. Put up as the days grow shortest, the tree stands before the fireplace dangled with oddities accrued over decades, seraphim and bears, gold orbs and paper bells, snowflakes and glittery birds, the stuff of a life pulled each December from a plastic bin.

I climb a high ladder to get that bin, cumbersome, heavy with holy things. When I climb the ladder, I pay attention to my grip and the soundness of my footing and am pleased to balance the bin on my shoulder just right while bringing it back down. You note the years as you attempt to defy them.

“Well? How was the year?” asks a Post-It note stuck atop the bin. Myself last year asking a question of this year’s incarnation. Better than expected, I think, except I seem to recall then thinking the year would be still better than it was.

Scattered on the floor of the little attic where the bin resides, I had pushed aside the Ziploc bags containing clippings of other years’ trees, disintegrated now into brown needles and twigs. 

The hoisting of that ladder, the opening of the high attic door, and the climbing up to get that bin are all part of the same annual rite: The erecting of a tree to mark both the birth of a baby sent to save us and the arrival of another year gone. 

I sit here now in a nook behind that tree and marvel at how no matter what you decide to hang on which bough, it always results in perfection. 

Straight ahead hangs an ornament my mother made 55 years ago or so. She cut from a Christmas card a circular image of a curly haired boy, fetched most likely from some Renaissance painting, with his head tilted slightly to the left as he plays music on a golden lute. He stares at me with the look of a young saint, eternal like the visage in a high fresco. 

My mom made the ornament by putting that face on the back of a lid she cut from a tin can, its golden edges then finely serrated and rimmed with a thin bead of costume pearls. It hangs from its bough by a red felt ribbon. You couldn’t buy classiness like that back then. You had to make it.  

The boy looks at me as though he knows a secret. His face within that thread of pearls on that tin can lid contains the power of much inanimate matter to endure for many centuries of Christmases, while those of us who make him return to life by putting him there and admiring him, we come and go. It is as if our very powers to see, to behold and marvel and create, add to the brevity of our time and its special pungency. That without one, we wouldn’t have the other. 

The boy can’t be older than three, so I wonder at his abilities to play that lute. His lips are pursed but not smirking. Still, the tilt of his eyes and his arching brows suggest he might be about to ask a question. If not now, and not of me, then maybe one or two or 100 years from now, of someone else.

“Well?” he might ask. “How was the year? Did you put it to good use? Did it not disappoint? And if it did, might I play you something delightful on my golden lute?”

Neil King Jr. is the editor of Gotham Canoe and the author of American Ramble: A Walk of Memory and Renewal. When not at home in Washington DC, he is very happy to be elsewhere.