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CHRISTMAS AND THE SUGAR PLUM TREE


The Heights of Little Rock has long been a preferred area to live and is today considered one of the most trendy and desirable neighborhoods. The hills of the neighborhood rise above the city and offer spectacular views in many places. Even where there are no ornate views, there remains an exquisite neighborhood. The streets are lined with mature trees, and many end at the treelined cliffs that overhang the Arkansas River. In winter, the houses in the Heights can be seen dotting the cliffs from the I-630 bridge across the Arkansas River. Many new stately mansions exist today, but houses from a bygone era remain. My friend Marcy was raised there, and her parents owned a beautiful Victorian home in the Heights. Marcy was my mentor through college and beyond. She was older because she returned to college after working to help her husband obtain his doctorate. Before Christmas in 1980, although I had never been to their home, I went with her to visit her parents. At the time, I was attending graduate school and lived on a stipend of just over $400 a month. The inflation rate in 1980 was almost double what it was in 2022. So, my Christmas funds were short, and I had no idea how I would obtain Christmas gifts for family and friends. I assumed I would not be able to purchase gifts.

When we approached her parents’ home, across their porch was an ornate door with slim beveled windows on either side that ran the entire length of the door frame. Upon entering, we were in a small foyer with stairs to the second floor directly across from the door. At the right were French doors opening into their gracious living room with a fireplace on the opposite wall. To the left was the most amazing Christmas tree I had ever seen. It was also different from any Christmas tree I had ever seen. There were no green branches, nor was it one of the tensile artificial models that began appearing in the 1960s. It had bare branches like the deciduous trees that had dropped their leaves for winter on the streets outside. Yet, it had been painted silver, and the branches were adorned with angel hair and colored lights. Ornaments were everywhere and of every variety. Of course, I had to comment. I was amazed at the beauty and uniqueness of the tree.


They called it the Sugar Plum Tree, and there were most assuredly visions of sugar plums abounding. It did not contain sets of ornaments purchased in bulk, all looking the same, or decorations intended to match the home décor more than to symbolize Christmas. This tree was very different. Marcy’s father had cut the top of an elm tree and secured the base for the silver bare limbs to adorn their foyer. Marching down some branches were little wooden elves that Marcy’s father had carved. A small Pagoda Lantern, sent to the family by friends from Taiwan, hung from one of the branches. Marcy’s great-aunt had made ornaments from 1940s and 1950s clear medicine bottles by putting tiny figurines of angels and Santas inside and lining the tops and bottoms with lace. However, my favorite ornament was a red plastic Santa, probably a candy container that Marcy’s mom had found in a gutter on a trip to New York in 1934. I was amazed at the tree and the stories. Every ornament symbolized a memory of love. Each contained a memory of a wonderful vacation or the love of close friends and family, and I could point to any ornament to hear the love story attached to it. It gave me an idea.


After seeing the Sugar Plum Tree, I realized that, if nothing else, I should be able to afford cheap ornaments to give to friends and family as Christmas gifts. I wrote and copied a letter to my loved ones telling them the story of the Sugar Plum Tree. In the letter, I expressed that I could not afford gifts on my school budget and affirmed that the ornament was to symbolize my love for them. I invited them to keep the ornament and place it on their tree so Christmas after Christmas, when looking at it, they would know that it came from a place of love in my heart. Of course, I gave one to Marcy and other friends. The result of that action didn’t come until the following Christmas. By then, I had graduated from graduate school, had a job, and could afford my own Christmas tree. When Christmas came, and gifts were exchanged, I received multiple ornaments from my loved ones, and every year since then, I have received ornaments as gifts. I finally had to tell Marcy, please, only one yearly ornament. Over the years, my tree has been filled with ornaments, and although I have a traditional tree, it is covered with ornaments to the point that it is often difficult to find a place for another one. Yet, somehow, I always manage. My tree, therefore, contains everything from a Klingon battlecruiser to a knitted penis and a taxidermied testicle of a young bull. If someone I love gave it to me, I hang it on the tree. The tree has silk geisha dolls, elves, jesters, Mardi Gras masks, and a brass mask of Genghis Khan from a visit to an exhibit in the 1990s. Some ornaments came from my vacations, such as a decorated cross from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Some came from friends’ vacations, such as a troll globe from Iceland when they visited there. Amid all this are Santas, snowmen, angels, snowflakes, monkeys, cats, ornaments from my grandparents’ tree, and antique ornaments that were gifted or handed down. I have handmade bead ornaments and ornaments made from old Christmas cards.


In 2003, Marcy passed away, and with no descendants, I received some ornaments that had adorned the original Sugar Plum Tree, including the medicine bottle ornaments created by her great Aunt Hellen. Like the ornaments on the 1980s Sugar Plum Tree, every ornament has a story. I can tell you who gave it to me and approximately when. I can tell you the story of our relationship or our trip together. Every ornament on my tree (except for the jingle bells used as a cat alarm) contains a memory of love, including a memory of the Sugar Plum Tree itself. Christmas symbolizes loving memories more than anything else. Every year, when I put up and take down the tree, I review my life, relationships that have come and gone, beautiful events of my past, and beautiful experiences of Christmas past. Some memories are of loved ones living, and some are memories of loved ones who passed away. All the memories are cherished.


It so happened that Marcy, who had been my dearest friend, and my grandmother, who raised me and whom I dearly loved, passed away a little over a year apart in 2002 and 2003. Each one had given me a Christmas music box, and each one had given me an angel ornament. In 2002, after my grandmother passed, I lived on ten acres outside of town in southern Missouri. I recalled going to the woods with Granny as a small child, where we would cut a cedar tree to use as a Christmas tree. I had not put up a live tree in many years but decided to honor Grandma by cutting a cedar tree from the property. I cut the tree, dragged it to the house, and mounted it in the corner of the living room. After about twelve hours, I was almost done decorating it with only a few ornaments left to hang when it fell over, crashed into the floor, and broke several ornaments. I took the remaining ornaments and lights off the tree, put them back in storage, and then threw the tree out. Because of my grief, I decided I would not have a tree that year, but a friend who knew the story of the Sugar Plum Tree encouraged me to put up my artificial tree. After her encouragement, I put up the artificial tree in the dining room. Christmas came and went, and gifts were exchanged, but I was prevented from taking the tree down on New Year’s Day, which was my tradition. Then, a few days after New Year’s, with plans to take the tree down the following weekend, we heard a crash from the dining room. The artificial tree had fallen across the dining table, had broken in half, and had broken more ornaments. I took the ornaments and lights off the tree, stored them, and discarded the artificial tree.


As it turned out, I did not celebrate Christmas in 2003. That and the previous year had been a time of accumulated grief. I also ended my relationship with my partner of eleven years in 2003. On the sixth of December, I moved into a Victorian farmhouse in town that I had purchased and was renovating. Then, I caught the flu right afterward. That particular flu dragged on for a while, and I didn’t have the energy to deal with Christmas’s fixings. I bought a small metal tree about a foot high and put it on the dining table, and all my ornaments and decorations remained in storage. I don’t recall gifts that year, but I recall plenty of grief and anger. One coworker endorsed never having seen anyone lose weight over Christmas, but that year, I lost weight. Yet, as I have always been prone, I picked up the pieces, dusted myself off, and started again.


Since I had moved into a Victorian house with eleven-foot ceilings, I went with a friend in November of 2004 and purchased an eight-foot Christmas tree; still, the ornaments filled it. As is my tradition, I put the tree up the weekend after Thanksgiving and remembered loved ones as I hung the ornaments. The tears came when I opened the music boxes that had been gifted to me by Marcy and Granny. Delayed grief fell upon me, but I welcomed it with gratitude, for like the ornaments on my tree, the music boxes represented my connection with two of the most loving people ever in my life. I wound up each music box and sat crying nearby as it played. It took several years before I could open those music boxes without crying, but every year, I wound them up and listened. I still do, but the tears don’t come now, only beautiful memories of two very precious people.


After Christmas of 2004, on New Year’s Day 2005, I noticed something as I was taking down the tree and organizing the ornaments on the dining table for storage. I placed two angel ornaments side by side. The angel ornament that my grandmother had given me had a chip broken off the left wing, and the angel ornament that Marcy had given me also had a broken chip on the left wing. No other broken ornaments had been kept, and I had not previously noticed the broken wings. One tree fell in 2002 before Christmas, the year Granny died, and one fell in 2003, after Christmas, and foretold that Marcy would pass in only a few months. I told a friend about the two angels, each with a broken left wing, and was informed that the left is considered in some ancient cultures to be the direction of death. Each of my most beloved had died, and each angel had a broken left wing. It seemed more than a coincidence that a tree had fallen during the year that each one died, and an angel was broken for each one. Never, before or since, have I had a Christmas tree to crash over. I took it as a sign, meaning my two angels still looked out for me. I took it as a love message and continued hanging the broken angels on my tree.


In the years since, I have continued the tradition of my version of the Sugar Plum Tree. I have lost some ornaments from loved ones to damage or misplacement, but the memories remain, and every Christmas, my current loved ones still give me ornaments. Every Christmas season since 1982, except for one painful year in 2003, has been a time to honor the life that I have lived and the lives of those who have lived it with me. Each Christmas is a celebration of love, but in more ways than one. Good food, sweets, Christmas songs, parties, family gatherings, and exchange of gifts notwithstanding, my Christmas tree is an honor tree, a different celebration of love, and every ornament on it honors someone or some experience I cherish. It may be fun to give and receive gifts, but love is what counts, and from Thanksgiving weekend, when I put up the tree past the torn paper scattering the floor on Christmas to New Year’s Day, I can look at my version of the Sugar Plum Tree and see only love.

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