It hangs quietly from the green branch; the red lights of the tree reflecting in its glossy surface. Its finish has worn down over the years until all that is now left is the glass base; with an occasional bit of cracked silver or red paint to remind me of its past silver-hued glory.
If it were not for its unusual origin, it probably would have been discarded long ago, but for as long as I can remember that silver ornament and its brothers hung on our Christmas tree wherever we happened to be living. And every year my father recounted the story of its beginning.
The year was 1945, and the 42nd Rainbow Division had just broken through the German lines. My father, along with several buddies, rummaged through the debris of a bombed caf. Dad found a cardboard box containing five glass ornaments that had miraculously been spared. He opened his tank jacket and stuck the box inside, preparing to take it home to my boys.
He had the box with him as he sat at night huddled in his foxhole, afraid to sleep lest he not wake up. It was with him as he drove through the gates of a hell-on-earth called Dachau Concentration Camp. The bells acted as his talisman against the threat of death until he stepped off the train in Atlanta to greet a wife and two sons who seemed like strangers to him.
Looking almost regal, an illuminated silver star shines from the top of the tree. Until a few years ago, a faded angel watched over our holidays, but my young daughter wanted a star. I mentioned this to my supervisor one day. The next morning she surprised me by donating our current treetop ornament. Her only comment was bring that child her star!
Every year, as I set the ornament in place, I am reminded of this loving and compassionate woman who would give a gift to a child that she had never even seen.
They hang on our trees and mantelpieces quietly reflecting the lights and warmth of the season; these small objects bought sometimes as an afterthought during our seasonal shopping. They are such an ingrained part of the season, that the holidays could hardly be complete without them; yet few of us realize they are not merely inanimate objects; they are legacy.
Unwittingly, most of us have stored in our attics or closets a family album whose pages are built of plastic, glass, glitter, and ribbon; handheld antiques which hold recollections not only of our family history, but of the times we have lived through.
Those recollections are as clear as a Norman Rockwell painting; and they serve the same purpose. They act as the common thread which runs through the generations, tying each to the ones preceding. For children, they are the promise of wonderful days to come; for adults they are reminders of glorious days gone by.
Whether this metaphorical painting is true and accurate is really not important; our collection of ornaments serves as a miniature history of our hopes and dreams. When American astronauts stepped onto the moon for the first time, a small astronaut holding an American flag hung on the tree. In 1966, every little girl in America was hoping Santa would bring her the new Barbie doll. Last year, my wife purchased a Barbie doll ornament in memory of those years. And finally, following the tragedy of 9/11, it was reported that two of the most popular ornaments bought that year were flags and tiny firefighters.
Our holiday ornaments are the red and green spectacles through which we see our current and past lives side-by-side; spectacles which come out of our attics once a year and allow us to respect, honor, and share with those who came before. Spectacles which bring into focus not only our aspirations, but the sacrifices our fathers and mothers made to make those dreams come true.
This year, as I have in the past, I place the little silver bell on its branch of honor at the top of the tree. As I do so, I will remember my fathers Christmas long ago, huddled in the bitter cold of his foxhole. I will recall the many who did not return from Germany, Vietnam, or Iraq to celebrate another Christmas, and of the incomparable sacrifices they have made. I will remember - and truly wish for Peace on Earth. Happy Holidays!
(Dennis Jones is a Martinez resident.)
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