By Molly McClaskey, Contributor
My parents weren’t shopping types. Food and necessities was one thing, but walking in and out of stores for fun with no particular goal in mind was not on their list of things to do, except during the month of December when they planned purposeful shopping outings. They walked three blocks to catch the bus to Montclair where they shopped for hours in search of one perfect new glass ornament for our Christmas tree. Some were simple and round; others had a distinct shape or bore an intricate painted pattern. One year there was a sparkly star, and I remember a teardrop painted with white snowflakes, an angel and a white bear. Some were hand made, others were ordinary, but each was made of glass.
Christmas in my family was a time of surprises, secrets, gifts and giving. We followed traditions passed down through Irish and German generations and looked forward to the same rituals year after year: Christmas Carols, Dad reading the Christmas Story, a family feast in candle light, and especially mysterious notes inside glass ornaments. The tall balsam tree in the living room was hung with forty or more familiar and fragile ornaments. Hidden among them was the new ornament my parents shopped for and my three siblings and I eagerly searched for on Christmas morning. Ornaments were passed down from my father’s parents and grandparents, some so old the paint was worn thin and we could see into the globe where, more times than not, a tiny rolled note was visible. Sometimes there were two notes inside. We kids would imagine what they said.
Each year my parents wrote a new note to one of us and then dated, rolled, and inserted it through the top of the new ornament. Then it was hung strategically among the other ornaments on the tree where it wasn’t immediately obvious. And there the precious note stays until, at some future time, the bulb breaks. At times a glass ornament was dropped while decorating the tree or became so old it cracked in someone’s hand. More than one was knocked off the tree by our climbing cat or wagging dog, giving us the chance to unroll the mystery message inside. To whom was the note written and when we wondered. Who was the author, and what did it say. The year our tree was pulled down by three mischievous lab puppies glass ornaments shattered on the slate floor, and Will and Emily thought they had hit the jackpot. Among the scattered shards of colorful glass they each found several notes written to them, as well as one for my sister and another for my mother. Will and Em then innovated on this long-held note-writing tradition by cutting small squares of paper the size of the notes they received. They carefully taped the squares, one to the bottom of each of their tiny curled notes. They wrote messages on each, squeezing special words onto the tiny square paper and addressed each to a family member who will one day read, as Em and Will put it, “ two notes-in-one!” With help, they rolled the now extended notes with new attached to old, tied them with a thread, and slid them into delicate glass balls for someone else to discover some other Christmas.
As my parents aged and spent the holidays at our house, I became the keeper of the note-writing tradition, preserving this family practice for generations now and after me. Will and Emily are 34 and 31 and would tell you that stockings are the best part of Christmas in our house. But in 1998 when the tree fell over and they found notes written to them for the first time, I’m certain they would have said notes in ornaments and secretly writing new ones was the best part. That year they experienced the satisfying feeling of creating a surprise for someone else and the magic of carrying a tradition forward.
Christmas customs have knit McClaskey family fabric together for generations and are part of my growing-up story. There were four of us siblings and our household was busy. It seemed like we were always coming and going, spinning in separate directions. As the youngest, I clung to the times our family was together, doing things in solidarity. This was especially true on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day when we all stayed home, life slowed down, and we felt important to one another. I remember wishing that feeling of Christmas would linger, wishing I could carry it with me through the year. Isn’t that, after all, what we want for our children and grandchildren, to grow up feeling the very pulse of family in their veins? Keeping ornament-notes and other traditions active for my children and their children originates in the deep feeling of comfort and connectedness holidays brought me and I continue to savor now.
Our rituals will outlast me and thread generations together note by note, ornament by ornament. It turns out that the Christmas spirit I yearned to hold onto as a young child has endured and lives within my children, their children and me—one just needs to pause and notice.