As a year-round Christmas enthusiast the Christmas tree has long been more than just a seasonal thing for me. In fact, when the season comes around I famously put up several trees in our home. I just love them.
A few years back one of my friends in the Christmas community featured in an episode her podcast the idea of an Ancestor Christmas tree. It was a thought that immediately resonated with me and after hearing it I decided to put up an Ancestor Christmas tree as soon as I could.
Well, life got in the way. And it wasn’t until this year after my dear wife expressed a desire for a new flocked tree that I made up my mind to do it.
On a whim, shortly after Thanksgiving, I quickly ordered some prints made of about 50 collected ancestor photos. Then I ordered a number and variety of photo ornaments and within a week or so I had enough to get started on my Ancestor Christmas tree.
As it started to come together I was kind of surprised at how I felt about it all.
The ornaments are all ordinary and yet completely unique. Each one features a smiling face and a different story.
As we trimmed pictures, assembled the ornaments and hung them on tree it slowly dawned on me what we were creating with all this: my family’s faces on a tree is the ultimate symbolism of Christmas.
The Christmas tree, you see, is celebrated around the world. People with and without faith all have Christmas trees. Even those who are not Christian have Christmas trees.
What many do not realize is that the Christmas tree, whether you buy the idea of pagan origins of it or grasp the Martin Luther tale from old Germany, is not just a symbol of Christmas.
The big symbol here is the tree. The size, type, shape or color of the tree hardly matters. It is the tree that makes for the more universal symbol.
The tree has been embraced by world religions for eons as a symbol of eternal life and God’s love. The Bible says there is no greater gift than God’s love.
So to have one of my trees filled with the faces of family suddenly brought the symbolism of it all to mind and it has made for a powerful seasonal statement in our home.
We did discuss this whole thing with a few of our children during the season over phone calls and emails. They teased me, as they often do with my many Christmas and family history pursuits. “What are you going to call it, Dad?” one daughter asked. “The Family HisTree or the AncestTree?”
I can take this kind of teasing. It’s the best sort.
As family and neighbors would come to visit they came and stood before the tree. Looking. Searching. Seeing things no other tree in our home could offer.
It was especially gratifying for me to see my children and grandchildren stop and look.
“Grandpa,” a grandson asked, “Who’s that?”
While it was never my intent to make our Christmas tree an object of family history I am thrilled to have such a question asked.
But even setting all the reactions of others aside I have to admit to my own unexpected reaction to it all. As the tree came together I was overcome.
Gratitude was the first thing I felt. Of course, longing for their presence again, especially in the case of my parents, was unavoidable.
I know every individual on our tree and their stories.
Seeing them as we decorated the tree brought them home to me for Christmas.
I felt the presence of some as I had all these thoughts and never in my life had decorating for Christmas been so personal.
Of course, this will be a tradition going forward. But we’re only beginning to see what we can do.
It became clear, right away, that I need to put names and dates on the back of each ornament.
Likewise, I need to plan for time to tell stories at Christmas as these ornaments are explored.
It will, ironically, become a living Christmas tree. I don’t see that it can ever be “finished” and I don’t see how we can avoid mixing in photos of the living to mingle with the images of the dead.
After all, the overwhelming reaction upon close examination of the images was how much someone from our family past resembles members of our family now.
Another idea that occurs to me is that I need to duplicate these ornaments and give them to our children so they can have their own Ancestor Christmas tree.
It’s a personal and powerful gift of family that is entirely unique.
I look forward to seeing how we can make this new tradition evolve in our home.
Over the years I have slowly added some favorite images of ancestors on the walls of our home. That effort will continue.
But to celebrate them all – both my family and those of my wife – together in one honored spot in our home as a Christmas tree every season is something I view as a gift to myself.
It is a reminder of all those who came before that made our modern life so possible.
It is a connection of sorts too, because they all had Christmas trees once upon a time.
This tree went up just two months after the passing of my father-in-law, Sandy’s Dad, Gary Gillen.
There are three photos of him on our tree – once as a baby, as a young man and as a grown man.
It was a tender thing to remember him this Christmas, knowing how many Christmases of the past we were together.
My Mom, who was an avid Christmas decorator and the creator of so much Christmas magic during my childhood, was present again for Christmas this year.
So too were her parents – all of them. And my Dad too, along with his parents.
We spent this Christmas together.
And we will spend every Christmas together again going forward.
Family history is a gift.