Devon Ellington
Dec 10, 2019 · 6 min read
Winter Holiday Tree 2018

The Tree is My History

Every Year I Tell My Story — and Add To It

Putting up the tree is an important ritual in our house. It happens soon after Thanksgiving (depending on if we’ve traveled for that holiday). It is often a work-in-progress until it comes down on or near Epiphany.

I often joke that I celebrate all the holidays from October 31-December 6. But it’s not really a joke. One of the wonderful things about being part of the Broadway community, especially a show like the original production of MISS SAIGON, was that there were so many different cultures and backgrounds involved in the show. In addition to monthly potlucks between shows on Saturdays, where we brought our favorite childhood foods and shared the recipes and memories, we shared our holiday traditions.

So my tree is not just a “Christmas” tree. It celebrates many winter holidays.

We have cats in this household. Over the years, and through the different cats, people ask, “How do you keep the cats from trashing your tree?”

Simple: By including them when we decorate.

If we shut them in another room, they freak out and turn into Destructo-Kitties when they return. If they are there for the process, they can paw through the boxes (often sitting in them), sniff the ornaments, watch them go on the tree, and they’re fine. I also have stuffed ornaments on the lower branches with which they can play, and special toys under the tree that only come out for the holidays. There’s plenty to keep them busy.

Unadorned Tree 2019

Generally, we put up the tree, put on the lights, and tie it into place to hooks in the wall. We live with it like that for a day. The cats get used to it. Only two of our cats have ever tried to climb the tree. Interestingly enough, both were tortoiseshells (Elsa in New York City and Lucy, here on Cape Cod).

I have a fake tree, nearly 8 feet tall, that I bought for $49 at Pergament in Port Chester, NY in 1992. I took it on the Metro North back into the city, and then on the bus across 42nd St. I lived, at the time, in an apartment, on 42nd St. and 8th Avenue, over a strip club (now a comedy club), across from the Port Authority Bus Terminal. I could see the ball drop in Times Square from my window.

I still have that tree. It was in storage for nine years when I gave up the NYC apartment and was off doing other things. When we moved to the house on Cape Cod, it came out again, and fits beautifully in the corner of the living room. I remember that trip getting it back into the city every time I put it up.

In my NYC apartment, the tree was so big, I had to shift it every time I wanted to get up from the couch or get to the couch. When I first moved into a NYC apartment, I bought real trees, but between the expense, getting it home, and worrying about too many trees cut and not being able to plant it after the season, and then worrying that the cats might try to drink the water and get sick — an artificial tree made more sense.

Once we open the boxes and put the decorations on the tree, it’s magic. The tree is eclectic. The only theme is that we love every ornament, and every ornament has a story. We tell and re-tell the stories of each ornament as we hang them on the tree, and remember so many joys we’ve had throughout the years. Every year the ornaments go up a little differently, to compliment the mood and the new pieces we add.

There are yearly Currier & Ives-themed ornaments, with the years on them, that Hallmark used to put out. I started collecting them as a child, and each one brings back a happy childhood holiday memory: the year I received a wooden sled (which I still have); the year my father & I played Parcheesi with the new game all Christmas morning (he died when I was ten).

Ornament detail 2018

There’s the pale blue ball embellished with crystal-and-pearl-like bits bought in Newport, Rhode Island, when we attended one of their Victorian Christmas events, where the grand houses are gussied up for the holidays. There are the small, intricately cut wooden ornaments brought back from the market in Old Town Prague, when I visited with my friend Artie in 2010. They bring back memories of the trip: the coffeehouses; walking around town; learning the legend of the Golem; the British ex-pat bookstore that served brunch, the only time in our trip we were able to get eggs for breakfast; the Astronomical Clock and the legend of the creator’s eyes being torn out so he could never make another one like it; the metal pendants I watched the blacksmith forge before I bought them, and how blue his eyes were, and how warm his smile when he handed them to me; going to see a chamber music piece in the house where Mozart once stayed.

There is the golden shoe ornament from Snow’s in Orleans, where they have a delightful train set running during the holidays; the birds from Country Gardens in Hyannis that remind me of the birds in my garden; the shells that people decorated and gave as gifts over the years we’ve lived on Cape. There’s a glass snowman from a German pop-up shop near Central Park, and a golden dress ornament I got as a Secret Santa gift when I worked in wardrobe on Broadway.

Not to mention Broadway ornaments from different shows, hockey ornaments from different teams the year I took off to spend with them researching a novel, and the various ornaments friends have given us over the years, knowing how much we love them. When we hang the ornament, we remember the friends, and all the good times we had with them. There are the vintage glass ornaments I got in a second hand shop when I was still working off-Broadway, on DEATH-DEFYING ACTS at the Variety Arts, and the lovely golden angel I bought at the Hallmark store on 14th Street, working another show in the same neighborhood.

There are ornaments from trips to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to see the Angel Tree. The sun, moon, and bird ornaments given and received at Winter Solstice celebrations. The salt dough ornaments the year I made and painted ornaments for everyone I knew and worked with (and kept a couple for myself that didn’t quite turn out perfectly).

There are ornaments picked up at thrift shops and garage sales over the years, because they won my heart. I wonder about their past histories. What stories and memories do they contain? I’ll never know, but now they’re with us, creating new memories, and often used in my stories, plays, or novels.

There are ornaments from ex-lovers, which still evoke fond memories, even though those lovers are no longer in my life. There are ornaments from friends and family members who have died, but who still live in my heart. I can take a moment to honor them as I hang their gifts on the tree. They are the ghosts of my Christmas Past, and they are welcome here.

All of it weaves together to remind me of all the wonderful, beautiful people with whom I’ve crossed paths over the years, and how grateful I am that our paths crossed, even briefly.

My tree is my history. It depicts a creative life that might not always have turned out the way I expected, but is rich and varied and full of beauty.

It’s both a reminder and a celebration. The ritual of decorating allows me to relive, renew, and continue what is joyful in my life.

Devon Ellington
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