My cousin Ethan is tall enough that on Friday as we decorated our Papa’s Christmas tree, he was able to reach the top to affix the angel.
Papa’s angel is a happy sprite, a white dress, brown yarn hair, rounded plastic cheeks and a tight but friendly smile. I’m sure Nana bought her at Big Lots or Dollar General or something.
I can’t remember having seen her before, having noticed her before, but I know there’s always been an angel on top of that tree.
My parents’ tree had an angel mom bought at Dart Drug in Salisbury, Maryland during their first or second Christmas season. I remember thinking that angel was beautiful. We were not allowed to touch her; Dad would put her on top of the tree after we’d finished decorating.
The angel on mine and Charlie’s tree is a CVS purchase; she wears stiff gold wraps that make her look as if some heavenly wind is holding her aloft. She still has some sparkles left and she attaches to the tree with the wire twist tie that once held her upright in her box.
After helping Mama with her tree, Hollie visited Little Papa and reported that his tree has a star on top. A star! She was amazed. She didn’t know trees could be topped with stars.
It’s one of the many changes over the last year: Little Papa has his own tree at his own house, Aunt Lesli refuses to speak to her sisters, and Big Papa’s Christmas decorations were unpacked and assembled by his grandchildren, without Nana.
I heard my mom showing different ornaments to Hollie telling her where they’d been purchased, when they’d been made, and to whom they belonged. My Aunt Jane told stories about the cross stitched ornaments my mother had made for her parents.
We had come, four children, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, to help ease the overwhelming tide of memories for Papa. He’s been decorating the tree for several years, each time surely wondering if this would be the last time Nana would see it.
He has a method: what is unpacked first, how the boxes are stored, where to put the lights. His devotion to process has helped him through his grief. Our presence interrupted, disrupted, his process.
It’s not like last year, we seemed to say.
It’s okay that it’s not like last year, we said silently to each other.
When we were old enough to decorate my parents’ tree without supervision, my sisters and I took turns holding the Dart Drug angel in our hands. How had we not noticed how shabby she was? Didn’t we know her dress laid over a cardboard cone? Her yellow yarn hair fuzzed and frayed below a gold tinsel pipe cleaner twisted into an oblong halo.
I remember my sisters and I feeling let down by the angel’s real materials. We passed her between us remembering how beautiful she’d seemed atop the tree. We molded her halo back into a circle, smoothed the fuzz on her yarn hair. We wondered at what distance such a thing becomes beautiful again.
“When it’s me,” Papa said on Friday, “I put the angel on before I put the top section on the tree.”
The pre-lit, umbrella-like artificial thing they bought at an after-Christmas sale some time ago about which I teased Nana: “How low maintenance can a tree be?”
Ethan reached up to the top, tied the angel to the tree, and we all stood below and watched. Before any of the ornaments – the 60-year-old tiny glass balls, the trolley car from the year they visited us in California, the green elf perching with his arms wrapped around his knees – before any of these were on, the angel took her position at the top.
My dad always put the angel on last and Charlie does, too. We drape yards of ribbon between the branches, hang red and gold balls, shove faux white poinsettias into the center, and drape beaded garlands across the needles of our real tree. Then he climbs up a step stool, presses the angel’s back to the tree top, and ties her on with the wire twist.
At Papa’s, the angel goes on first.
We drink wine and play music and the TV glows with a muted football game on.
At Papa’s we spoke just above a whisper, reminded one another of Christmases past, felt different being there during assembly of the tree, knew things were different this year.
We didn’t look too long at Nana’s Big Lots angel, we didn’t rub our fingers over her nylon dress, inspect the chipped paint on her rounded cheeks, or take note of the strands of yarn that had come loose at her crown. We looked away, let Ethan put her on top, and looked again once she was aloft.
Turns out it’s not the distance that makes such a thing beautiful. It’s not the age, or the lighting, or the cascade of ornaments, ribbons, and bows beneath. It’s not the time of year or the reason-for-the-season. Keep your gimmicky memes and sentimental songs. To hell with your religious posturing and your convenient charity.
A cheap, tattered angel on the top of a Christmas tree is beautiful because she sees us trying to make each year special and she tries to stay the same.
She see us, despite the differences and the challenges and the heartbreaks and the hurts, and she smiles every year like it’s the last.
She sees us, on our knees reaching deep into crushed boxes for delicately wrapped ornaments, eyes closed, tears leaking out, and she stands.
The distance at which she shows her beauty is about six feet. The top. Above. Looking down.
What tops your tree? What angels will visit you this year?