O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, Why are Your Branches So Bare?

Undecorated tree with lights
My bare tree.

It’s been over a week since I put the Christmas tree up, and it still hasn’t a single ornament on it. Why? I’ve asked myself that for several days now, and — as usual — it’s complicated.

We lived in Montana when I was little, and did the traditional “go get your tree in the forest and bring it home”. Some of my friends (and my grandmother) had artificial trees, but in the 1960s that meant fake-looking, odd-colored exotic wonders. They weren’t real Christmas trees. The biggest debate in our family was what kind of tinsel would go on the tree, crinkly or straight.

Even after moving to the big city (Seattle), we always had a real tree, whether through a friend or the Boy Scout Troop lot. But getting the tree was only the start. Decorating was the important part.

Many of the ornaments predated my birth. And there were a couple of special ornaments from my grandparents that dated to WWII. Translucent blue with painted stripes, they were the wartime replacements for the ornaments my grandparents lost in a flood. Metal was reserved for the war, so they were thin, clear plastic or glass, with painted stripes. Others had been added over the years, some worn or scratched but beloved. There was something about the tradition of placing these bits of family history on the tree every year that anchored the holidays.

My first Christmas away from home was spent on a study tour of Israel in 1977. I begged my mom to leave the Christmas tree up until I returned in late January. True to her word, I returned to a bedraggled tree with faded, brittle needles that was every fireman’s worst nightmare. After 3 nights, I took it down and put everything away, but I had needed that fix of familiar and tradition for everything to be right in the world.

That time in Israel and Europe change the dynamic for me in an important but subtle way. Traveling light and on a shoestring, I made the decision that most of my souvenirs would have to be inexpensive, easily carried or shipped. As a result, I began to collect ornaments.

This became my personal tradition. Whether olive wood stars and camels from Bethlehem or woven straw bells from Ecuador, for the next thirty years or so I collected and gifted ornaments, the more unusual or unique to my travels and life events the better. Some were home-made by friends, some were store bought, some antiques found along the way, but all had special meaning.

  • A crocheted snowflake made by a friend.
  • A mouse and a hedgehog to remind me of my favorite stories from German class in college.
  • A clay storyteller from Taos, made from micaceous clay at Taos Pueblo.
  • A cross made from seal skin with the fur still on, by villagers in Alaska, at a church bazaar in Minnesota that was raising money for the village church. (It had to be bagged separately during the year because it wasn’t cured and smelled.)
  • An angel made of yarn by my first college roommate.
  • Real brass Swedish angel chimes like my mother’s (antique).
  • A glass bell and ball made from Mt. St. Helens ash — I was in the area when it blew.
  • My HO-Gauge electric train engine, a coal-fired steam replica of the Denver Rio Grande. (OK, not an ornament, but it was part of Christmas. I did have a glass-blown train engine, too!)

And many more.

All kinds of ornaments, some beautiful, some kitschy, some kind of ugly but with good hearts and/or memories behind them.

Real, scraggly tree with ornaments
Our tree in 2006 with my eclectic ornaments. It’s real, scraggly, but smelled great.

Somewhat to my husband’s dismay, the “real” tree tradition continued after we married, until we were living on the road in a 5th wheel travel trailer at Christmas. With little room, we settled on a 36” tabletop fiber-optic tree. It was, I must admit, beautiful. I bought a few tiny ornaments for it , but the tree itself didn’t really need it.

My usual Christmas stuff remained packed away back at home, and came out when we were back for what turned out to be my last Christmas seeing most of it.

When we moved to Odessa, TX, we were living in a 5th wheel again, and had most of our stuff in a storage facility. The storage unit was my second closet, and I was there almost weekly, trading out clothes, cooking, and baking stuff that didn’t fit in the trailer.

After Christmas 2012, I had taken most of the Christmas stuff back to the storage the Wednesday after New Year’s. The only things left were the outdoor things that were too wet to pack up. Three days later, I went to put the outdoor stuff away, and couldn’t get in.

Long story short, sometime in those three days our storage had been broken into. They planned to return, as they hadn’t taken everything and had put their own lock on. But along with some $5000 worth of tools and clothes, they had taken my Christmas box.

I would give anything to have that box back.

And that is why I struggle with even the idea of decorating the tree.

It’s not that the tree is artificial: it’s a nice, pre-lit tree, not too dense and not too sparse. In the desert, you can’t count on a real tree being fresh, and they’re too expensive. The ornaments we have now aren’t special but nice, and it looks pretty when decorated. I decorated the fiber-optic or this tree every year for 5 years in our previous house, knowing it would be seen by many.

No, it’s the ritual of memories that I miss: Thinking about family, the people, places and events that were attached to each ornament, as I found the right place for it on the tree. I’ve been a lot of places and known many, many special people. My first real Christmas in my first house with my name on it, and the ritual is gone.

A chunk of my soul was lost to some strangers’ greed.

Would I feel the same had my box been in a fire? Lost in a flood? I don’t know.

As I sit here crying, I struggle with the realization that this loss is so visceral. Sure, there was a time when I expected to pass the ornaments with their stories on to my children, but I have no children. In my sixties now, I won’t be having any. Is that what I’m mourning? I don’t think so.

I’m guessing — and this is just a guess — that I’m mourning the loss of people I will never see again, dreams that died natural deaths (or more agonizing ones), places that no longer exist due to war and politics and time, and events that shaped who I am.

Without my touchstones to help me remember, what will I forget? Who have I already lost to memory? Am I still me?

I don’t collect ornaments anymore. Oh, I have a beautiful red pendant that a friend sent me the next Christmas after learning of the theft, and a lovely glass ball from a trip to Colorado, but they are displayed year round and don’t go on the tree.

So the tree stands bare of all but it’s lights, twinkling day and night. That’s something that’s different, too. Turning the lights off seems like giving up. And I refuse. Even if I don’t know what I’d be giving up or giving into.


As usual, when I write something that hits me hard emotionally, I like to sleep on it before posting. Drinking my coffee this morning while catching up on some reading, I came across this: Why You Keep Experiencing The Same Emotions On Repeat, by Brianna Wiest.

The “repeat” process she refers to is what I usually call the onion layer effect, but I liked how she pointed out the physicality. And somehow it challenged me. After running a few errands, I made some tea and started on the tree.

Decorated tree with white lights
The topper is on, so it’s done, right?

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