“Faces of Christmas Past and Present"

by Marilyn A. Kinsella


Every family has traditions at Christmas time and mine was no different.  For instance, every house up and down St. Clair Road .had their tree up early, but not our family – oh, no - it was our family tradition that kept us from putting up the tree until the Saturday before Christmas. I’m not really sure if it was an old German tradition or just a wee bit of my father’s Scottish heritage that held to the belief that “If you wait until the last minute, ladies, you get such a deal on a tree.” Whatever, we finally chose a tree - usually one with broken limbs and a wonky crooked top.  But, at this point we didn’t care…we had a tree!

After we got the tree home, my father started the laying of the lights.  You see, back then we didn’t have the cool twinkling lights where if the set goes out, you rush out to by another set.  No, we had hot, 6-watt bulbs.  And if one of them should happen to go out - all of them went out.  So my father plugged the lights in from one socket to the other creating a giant lighted checkerboard on the floor of our living room. My father sat down in the middle of the lights trying each and every light until he found the burned-out culprit.  Finally, he put the lights on the tree.

Next, we got out the big box with the ornaments wrapped in old newspapers.  Each one of the family had a special ornament to place on the tree.  My father had a huge cobalt blue ornament from Germany.  It was so big that he had to hang it from the bottom branch close to the stem, so the tree wouldn’t topple over.  Next my mother hung her gold ornament.  It was a bit smaller than the blue one so she placed it somewhere in the middle of the tree.  My two older brothers, Bill and Chris, had identical glass Santa Clauses except one was green and one was red.  My younger sister, Melissa, had a beautiful ornament someone had given to her for her first Christmas.  It was small with a pearly pink color and a dollop of crystallized snow on top.  Then there was my special ornament.  Only I didn’t think it was so special.  It wasn’t big or little; it didn’t have a special shape; and it wasn’t even that pretty.  It was just an average-sized, silver ornament.  But every year I dutifully placed it on the tree.

Then one year, I asked my mom, “What so special about my ornament anyway?”

 “What’s so special?  You mean I never told you the story of that ornament?” 

 “Not that I know of.”

 “Well, that ornament belonged to my mother, your Grandmother Adelia.  She just loved it because it was so clear.  She said she could gaze into the shiny orb and see the faces of her grandchildren.”

My grandmother Adelia died several years before I was born.  I never got to meet her, but I did get to know her through the stories my mother told me about her. She and my Grandpa Joe were one of the first families to build a non-farming house on the newly plotted land to be called Fairview in 1913. She was the oldest of 12 children. Her family owned the famous Lauman House in East St. Louis where she and the others put in long hours making the inn a reputable place to stay. Even so, she became an accomplished musician and an artist. In fact, I was given the middle name of Adele after my Grandmother Adelia.  After my mom told me about the magic of the ornament, I spent hours gazing deeply into its reflection to see if I recognized my grandmother.  After that, I even had a special place for it on the tree - near the top, so Grandmother could see it from above.

 Then when I was 16, I was careless.  As I reached up to the highest branch, the ornament slipped from my hand.  It did a rather graceful slalom down the tree before it crashed into a thousand pieces on the floor.  I was so upset because it wasn’t just the end of the ornament, my tradition was shattered as well.


Many years passed and I had almost forgotten about that Christmas memory.  That is, until 1988, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I had the surgery and all the chemotherapy that went along with it.  Fortunately, I caught it early enough and the prognosis was good.  However, there was a 24 hour period before the tests came back that gave me time to reflect on my life.

It was during those 24 hours that I realized that I had no regrets.  I was blessed with growing up in a loving family and now had a loving family of my own.  I had great friends and, of course - storytelling.  If I did have one regret, it was not having met my future grandchildren.  It was then that I remembered that ornament.  I realized that traditions aren’t always things; sometimes they are the process of doing.

So that Christmas I went shopping for an ornament - not too big, not too small… a rather plain silver ornament.  When I got home, I placed it way up high on the tree.  Later that night when everyone else went to bed I took it down and gazed deeply into its reflection.  As I was looking my young daughter, Amy, walked up behind me.  “What are you doing?”

I just had to laugh.  “Well, Amy, I guess you could say that I’m just carrying on a Christmas tradition.”

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