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  • The stories your Christmas ornaments tell

    I started unpacking Christmas ornaments last night. I didn’t recognize a single one as I pulled them each out, individually wrapped in tissue paper, or in their original Hallmark boxes with the photo on the outside.

    Then it dawned on me that the treasure I had discovered was a box of my husband’s ornaments. Some background: Chris Gunty and I got married six years ago, and most of his possessions remained in storage for nearly five years until we bought a house last year. We didn’t do much decorating last Christmas; we just ran out of time after the move.

    This year we made the trek to a charming Christmas tree farm in Union Bridge, Md., near Frederick. After touring the grounds — an old barn turned into a Christmas shop and a mansion built in 1796 to look like a small Mount Vernon — we made our way to the fields. We stopped for a closer look at several trees. One had a nest in its branches. When we poked it, a little grey mouse scurried out. Another had such a curvy trunk we knew it would be a bear to get it to stand straight up in our living room. What seemed like an hour later after stopping, measuring and careful consideration we found "our tree."

    Chris took out the saw, I flinched a bit thinking of cutting into the pristine pine wood and ending any chance of it getting bigger. Once on its side we wrapped it in a moving blanket, hoisted it on to the roof, secured it with packing plastic and bungee cords and made our way back to the owner to settle up.

    Once home that night, the tree was brought into the living room triumphantly, screwed into its stand, water and tree additive filled to the brim, and then it stood silent, still, almost holding its breath as it got accustomed to its place of honor next to the fireplace.

    The following night, six strands of white lights were placed carefully along, around and in between branches. Now, three nights later, I tackle the boxes of ornaments.

    I’ve decided that you can tell a lot about a person by their Christmas ornaments. With this box, carefully taped and marked, I discovered what delights my husband and confirmed what I already knew about his priorities.

    Space, NASA, Star Trek all rank high on his list. His astronaut ornament, recreating the 1969 lunar landing with a man in a white space suit proudly planting the American flag on the moon, looked as if it had been waiting five years for his next mission. A space landing craft, oddly shaped with a mysterious reflective metallic finish, was awaiting directions from Mission Control. A tall rocket — 1961 Freedom Mission 7 — sat tethered to the launch site on another ornament, also waiting to reach beyond our stratosphere.

    But amid all the space memorabilia I discovered his real priorities — a tree-shaped ornament with the names of all three of his children; a dove holding a ribbon with the family name; a homemade paper gingerbread man; vintage items from his childhood — all sentimentally telling a story even with him sleeping soundly in bed upstairs as I unwrapped each one, slowly, gingerly, lovingly. These little glimpses into his past, his childhood, his family are so special.

    One bore the name of a priest who was so special to his parents, all three now deceased. Mementos from the different places he’s lived: a Chicago Cubs glass ball, an Arizona gold filigree scene, a decorated starfish from Florida.

    Then I found it, wrapped in bubble paper off to the side in its own little box, a wooden Nativity scene (he tells me now that his father brought it back from the Holy Land decades ago). The Holy Family, near and dear to him day in and day out, sat patiently waiting for their spot on the fresh evergreen. The crocheted angels were already waiting. The bearded Santas, the bells, the red and green balls, all set the scene for the real Christmas ornament.

    Tomorrow we’ll get out the hand-carved wooden Nativity scene that goes under the tree. It used to belong to Msgr. John T. Cilinski, one of the priests who officiated at our wedding six years ago. He too, like so many of our dear friends and relatives, has left this world. Then, we’ll debate about whether or not to put the Baby Jesus in His manger now or wait till Christmas.

    New traditions, old keepsakes, memories of smiling faces and hopes for years to come all rest on the still-moist branches of "our tree."

    And as for the Disney ornaments, well there’s plenty of room on the back of the tree, in fact there might even be a bare spot. Sorry, Tigger and Mickey.

    This was originally printed in 2014.

    © Arlington Catholic Herald 2021

    @Ann M. Augherton