The first ornament I always put on the tree is a delicate glass ball. It’s red with the words Silent Night and a white-etched scene of a church in a snowy field and stars in the sky. As I place it tonight in the center of our lit tree, Christmas carols are singing out on the speakers and is it a coincidence that Silent Night comes on just at that moment?
That ornament, along with some five others, is from my childhood. As I hold it in my hands, it speaks across some sixty years and sets me down in my living room at 542 Sheridan Avenue. I’m a small boy again with visions of sugarplums dancing in my head, my mother’s loving touch, my father playing the organ, real snow outside my New Jersey door. Can it really be that this fragile piece of glass that I held in my small hands is again in my aging ones? Such stories gathered in a 2-inch sphere, stories that are deeply mine and no one else’s—and yet everyone else’s.
We elders always marvel at how fast time has gone and yet stepping into my small boy slippers again, it indeed feels like many lifetimes ago. So many incarnations of myself in all these decades, held together by a thin thread of continuity as fragile as the glass of this ball. Who was that boy? Can I really recognize myself in him? Can he recognize himself in me? We listen to some of the same music still, feel some of the same feelings of wonder and confusion, but there’s so much we can’t understand about each other.
The Buddhists have it right—self is a flowing river, never the same twice, but connected loosely by the banks of this thing called “river” that gives it shape and helps direct the flow. And at the end, the waiting ocean to swallow up all these little identities, the place where we will “sleep in heavenly peace.” But meanwhile, such a trip! So many landscapes to travel through, so many seasons to traverse, so many different people at different points in the river swimming, wading, crossing over, jumping aboard the boat.
I step back to admire my work and look at the tree and suddenly dearly miss my mother and father. (My sister still here to share these joys and sorrows with—she’ll come over on Sunday to carol with her kids.) I—we— don’t have parents with us, but instead these tiny glass ornaments come up from the basement once a year to bring all the threads together. They share the tree with my wife’s family heirlooms, two histories joined with our own—the $.49 ornaments we bought as a young married couple combing the aisles of Cost Plus. Then the ones various kids at school gifted to us, more histories twining together—now over 40 decades worth.
I have to layout the Holiday Show Program tonight and was so frustrated dealing with fonts and columns and all these abstract ephemeral things on glowing screens. It was such a joy to hold a real glass ball, inhale the scent of a tree, listen to some carol, drink some tea and bring all the senses together to remember, to cherish, to marvel at a long life lived one year at a time between the annual hanging of the Silent Night ball.
It’s an age of thermonuclear explosion power, billion dollar heavy boots trampling the world, spectacles with massive crowds and giant screens and speakers and screaming fans, but tonight I felt the unmatchable power, deep comfort and remembered love all contained inside a delicate Christmas ball.