“That’s what Christmas memories are made from, they’re not planned, they’re not scheduled, nobody puts them in their blackberry, they just happen.” – Deck the Halls (Movie, 2006)
My grandmother lived on the first floor of a modest two-family home. The rooms were not large, the décor was somewhat dated, and storage was always an issue, especially for a woman notorious for saving everything.
Her first-floor apartment always felt warm, safe, and welcoming for a little boy who spent countless hours in his grandmother’s company.
Widowed in her early 50s, I became a loyal companion for my grandmother, filling in some of the silence with endless chatter, constant questions, and hearty laughter, which seemed to lessen our loneliness for very different reasons. Hers, due to the loss of my grandfather and me, always struggling to fit in and find acceptance even at a young age.
As was customary, my grandmother would pick me up from home around mid-morning the weekend after Thanksgiving. We would run a few errands at the local K-Mart or Bradlee’s stores before returning to her apartment for our annual Christmas decorating tradition.
My grandmother did not have a free-standing Christmas tree, which was logical given her space limitations and the reality that it was only her now living in the apartment.
Instead, she opted for a ceramic Christmas tree, which, according to the American Ceramic Society, was extremely popular in the 1960s and 1970s as a kind of do-it-yourself craft for the holidays.
Made famous in the 1940s, when private artists handcrafted them on a very small scale, molds were eventually mass-produced, with craft shops offering classes for people to create their holiday masterpieces in varying sizes and limitless colors.
The trees featured dozens of tiny plastic bulbs inserted into holes on the tips of each branch, and one centralized light source in the tree’s interior brightly illuminated the bulbs from within.
My grandmother attended one of those craft classes in the early 1970s, and the result was a wonderfully glazed ceramic Christmas tree painted in light and dark green hues, which stood almost two feet tall.
Because of its size, the tree came in three separate pieces: the base, containing the centralized light source, a large mid-section, and the top, with plenty of tiny plastic bulbs to fill every hole (as well as plenty of extras for they always seemed to disappear from one season to the next).
My job was to help carefully bring the boxed tree up from the basement. I remember always being nervous as the basement stairs were steep, narrow, and dark. But I also felt so honored that my grandmother trusted me to handle this festive decoration with the utmost care.
We would clear off a side table in her living room before draping a small red tablecloth over the top. Then, I would start reconstructing the tree carefully, one level at a time.
First, I would set the base in the center of the table, the tree’s light and dark green hues coordinating perfectly with the rich, red tablecloth. Then, my grandmother connected the power cord to a nearby wall outlet to ensure the centralized light source was fully operational.
Finally, I would place the mid-section on the base, followed by the top, making sure the ceramic grooves aligned perfectly for stability. Grabbing a clear plastic bag containing all the necessary plastic bulbs (multi-colored was my grandmother’s choice), we would ensure every hole was filled before standing back and admiring our work.
The tree was small, but it adequately lit up the modest living room, casting a warm, star-like reflection on the ceiling above.
Continuing, we would put a few ivory, 5-light Christmas chandeliers with holly berry and bell bases in her front windows, complete with orange bulbs for that realistic candle effect (well, to a little boy, it looked realistic), before heading outside to hang a few branches of pine garland on the front stoop railings.
With our holiday decorating complete, we would hop back in her car and drive to Roy Rogers for lunch, where my grandmother let me order anything I wanted without question. The town’s bakery was just down the street, and the day would not be complete without a little sweet treat, and this place never disappointed.
When she dropped me back home, three or four hours had passed, yet my time with her felt considerably longer as we created the Christmas memories I still cherish today in my late 40s.
Christmas memories revisited
My beloved grandmother passed away in 2005, and no one is quite sure what happened to that ceramic Christmas tree that welcomed the holidays every year.
But as with most things in life, everything old becomes new again, and suddenly, ceramic Christmas trees began popping up in retail stores and online. However, the centralized light source was now LED, and the tiny plastic bulbs were permanently glued in place (why didn’t they think of that before?).
One Christmas, feeling incredibly nostalgic, I could not resist, and my wife and I now have a small ceramic Christmas tree on a dresser in our bedroom, which casts a warm, star-like reflection on the ceiling above, just like my grandmother’s.
It is a beautiful way to fall asleep during the Christmas season while being reminded of someone so special.
While the tree has been modernized over the years, there is no denying how its presence in my home ignites some wonderful Christmas memories from long ago with a person I love and still miss dearly.
In a society that has come to demand over-the-top experiences and lavish gifts for anything to be considered memorable, I am truly grateful that a ceramic Christmas tree is the only thing I need to reminisce about cherished Christmas memories from the past.
It reminds me of what is truly important not only during the holidays but every day: sharing time with those special people who fill your life with love, joy, laughter, and, most of all, memories.