Maybe it was exhaustion. Maybe it was imagination horning in after a long, tiring day the week before the Big Day. Or maybe it was simply this: The dead Christmas tree in the corner of the living room was bringing everything to life again — and this year was the first time I stopped long enough to notice.

It happened the other night, after the work day had ended, dinner had been made and cleared, the little guys had gone to bed, and there was a half-hour to finally do nothing but remain still in a living room aglow in two strands of red and white lights. A land of misfit ornaments hung from the pine branches of a $37 tree from a pick-your-own asphalt parking lot. They seemed to be talking. Telling a story. Saying, we are here with you.

The village of voices was diverse. They were childhood remnants that had not been tossed with the passage of time, or newer baubles not yet aged with vintage memories.

The Santa Claus with no feet beneath his boots (my husband's, ca. 1970-something, its plastic face grotesque but awesomely odd). The little satin drums that long ago lost half of their glitter (my mom's, ca. 1980-something). The drug-store angel covered in cheap gold fabric that, for the umpteenth Christmas in a row, had avoided death-by-crushing in a storage box (another Panaritis family heirloom). The hand-painted angel from a dear high school friend who recently died of cancer.

As a little kid, you look at a tree like this and get excited. This is Santa's landing spot, you think. This is where some guy in a red suit will be dropping booty after counter-burglarizing your deadbolted house. Toys, toys, TOYS!

Then you turn into a young adult. You move out, probably. The tree is what brings you back to Mom and Dad, or Grandma, or your favorite aunt or best friend's parents. You go back to that house for gifts, hugs, food, a few spats. If you're lucky, you make the pilgrimage back to whatever place you consider home so you can see the people you loved as a kid and who will love you forever as long as they're alive.

As a parent, though, I've come to understand that magical tree as little more than an item on a crowded to-do list of daily survival.

You grab one and, more often than not, wonder when the heck there'll be time to decorate. You're juggling work, food shopping, cooking, crises, and gift-buying.

I hadn't even had a free moment this year to help the boys decorate. So when I plopped down one night last week to catch my breath, the tree came into especially sharp focus.

Candy canes I had bought during a run to get medicine at the drug store were hanging in all sorts of non-geometrically precise ways. The little guys had had their fun, and the imperfection of their asymmetry was sublime.

A notoriously shoddy Baby Jesus dangled from near the top, impressive in that the little plastic savior had not yet come apart from the wooden cross to which it had been super-glued for the umpteenth time last year.

A brilliant shark made of green glass — a delicate gift from wonderful friends — was right beneath a cloth version of Mrs. Claus that my immigrant parents must have bought on sale when I was a kid. There was a snowman my son had picked out at Target, a few dozen green and red jingle balls from the dollar store, some gold ribbons that somehow haven't been thrown away since making their garish debut eons ago.

One of my sons had mentioned how much he enjoyed gently hanging the tattered satin drums. He'd never met my mother, who died long ago. But he knew they'd been hers, and so they'd become his favorites. So had a blue plastic diamond my husband had gotten in Sunday school as maybe a second grader. Could it be that these cheap little misfits had spoken to him, somehow, of all that had come before him?

Sure, this time of year is about the birth of Jesus, or Santa and presents, or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or whatever one chooses to embrace. But I say the dead tree takes center stage. It is, in its own way, very much about life. Years gone, years ahead, and with any luck, years never to be forgotten.