I have a magical Christmas tree. It may look like your typical store-bought, artificial tree with pre-lit lights, but that just means you aren’t looking hard enough. Look deeper, closer and begin to listen, for it has many stories to tell.
More than 30 years ago, I started collecting Christmas ornaments from places I traveled. It started as a way to simply remember a moment, or a special trip. Because they were usually small, it was also an easy souvenir to pack in my bag. Amazingly, they have all made it home safely, even the fragile crystal ball from Prague and the porcelain angel from Rome. It’s been a bit odd at times, searching for a Christmas ornament in the heat of July or in a small village off the beaten path, and I’ve had to be creative in some of my choices because a traditional ornament wasn’t available. But they are all distinctive, chosen with care, because I now know the value they hold; their ability to bring back vivid memories of not just the place but more importantly, of the people, I encountered.
Like my ornament from Granada, Spain. The gift shop at the Alhambra was small, hot and empty in mid-September. I browsed slowly through the assorted items on the tables. I was soon shadowed by an elderly woman who worked there. She was dressed in a worn suit that had once been stylish with pumps that had seen better times. Her jewelry was impeccable and while her back was hunched due to age, she carried herself with pride. She couldn’t speak English but it was clear she wanted to help me pick something. Together, we browsed the tables and when I made my selection of a small refrigerator magnet that I thought I could turn into an ornament, she was pleased. She took it to the counter and slowly, delicately, carefully wrapped my precious “ornament” in paper to protect it on its long journey back to San Francisco. Her fingers were gnarled with arthritis and her progress was painfully slow, but I’m here to tell you, I wasn’t going anywhere. It was important for her to do a good job for me and it was important for me to honor her pride and effort.
As I take time each year to unwrap my travel ornaments, I slow down long enough to remember each place, and especially each person I was with. So many of them reflect the years of travel with my dear cousin; from Tarifa to Dublin to Prince Edward Island to Oxford and many more. Travels with friends as we explored Rome, Macau, Barcelona, and Ashland. Many are from my solo trips; Florence, Athens, Paris and, most recently, Route 66.
If there are no other presents under my tree, those ornaments and memories will always be gifts enough. They represent a life of adventure and exploration; a life of fun and discovery; a life of sharing experiences with people I love. And the good news? My tree isn’t nearly full yet! There’s room for a lot more ornaments, carrying magical stories and memories in the years to come.