Christine Carlson

is a writer in Philadelphia

They say your life passes before your eyes as you die. For me, this passage happens once a year. But I'm not dying. I'm decorating our Christmas tree.

To me, decorating our tree is rather a ritual. Each year, I begin by pulling out the Christmas CDs. Once again, Bing Crosby, Kenny G, and now a new arrival, Leslie Odom Jr., serenade me as I unwrap the ornaments that time-stamp the fragments of my life. An activity central to such a joyful season is offset by melancholy as each piece of my past is revealed. My emotions run a gamut as happy memories intermingle with the emptiness that comes after the years have dulled the grief of losing someone so loved.

There are the 1970s-era beaded and sequined Mr. and Mrs. Claus that my mother made from a kit that hung on the tree of my childhood home. I can't look at them without catching a whiff of that slight oily odor of Lionel electric trains circling around a plastic village blanketed with artificial snow - and missing my mom and dad. My mom's tree was orderly and monochromatic, a pattern of identical gold balls, gold cherub faces, and gold garland.

There is an ornament given to me by my high school piano teacher, as well as ornaments I received from my own piano students years later. There are 30 years of sister-themed ornaments given to me by my sister Linda. I like to hang these together. Friends have given me ornaments because they know how much I like them, and I've collected ornaments from places I've traveled and events I have attended.

I also hang items not originally intended as ornaments. If you look closely, you'll find the Happy New Year tiara I wore when we celebrated my dad's last New Year's Eve. He was dying at home, under hospice care, when my sister and I stopped by and snuck him champagne. He returned our hospitality by serving us his favorite appetizer: Spam and Velveeta cheese on Ritz crackers. He died a couple of weeks later, but that evening was one of the best times I ever had with him.

Once we had children, new types of ornaments began to appear on the tree. We have a dozen "Baby's First Christmas" given to our first child that don't quite balance with the single ornament our second-born received. Then there are the yearly ornaments each child receives. Progressing from Barbie to volleyball and Thomas the Tank Engine to Star Wars, each represents a moment in time of their evolving interests so far throughout their younger years. And there are the yearly Christmas pictures of both children that I've inserted into ornament frames. There are 13 so far with, hopefully, many more to come.

Each year, our friend Jay sends us some of his celebrated ornaments. They've graced the tree at Harrods in London but somehow work hanging next to the laminated handprint of a 2-year-old.

One of the best wedding gifts my husband and I received was a box of Christmas ornaments from the 1940s and 1950s. They were given to us by an older couple, who are dear friends, from their personal collection. I especially love hanging these unique pieces from another time.

On my tree, no two ornaments are the same, yet the final product is not chaos. Perhaps it's because I take the time to place each ornament in just the right spot on the tree. Some are close to the edges, others partly hidden among the branches. A stream of gold ribbon, perhaps a throwback to my childhood tree, weaves its way from the golden cloak of the angel on top to the branches on the bottom, providing a continuity that brings it all together.

Through most of my adult years, decorating the tree has been a solitary affair. One might say I can be obsessive-compulsive about where and how each ornament is placed. But I had to learn to give up control of the tree when toddlers began to take an active role in decorating. They were assigned the nonbreakable ornaments, and each lower branch became adorned with multiple ornaments dangling rather like a bunch of keys on a key chain. I would grit my teeth at the occasional crash of glass followed by the inevitable "uh-oh" when, whether I wanted them to or not, they decided to hang glass ornaments themselves.

Now that they are older, they are not as interested in helping me decorate the tree. They are busy with other things, or perhaps they grew tired of hearing the stories that go along with each ornament. I must admit part of me is glad to regain control of the tree once more, but I do miss their company and the joy they took in finding a place for their own ornaments on the tree.

After New Year's Day, it will be time to pack the ornaments away for another year. I listen to the Christmas CDs one last time. As I wrap each ornament and pack it away, I can't help but wonder if one of them will come to represent the loss of another loved one in the year to come. This happened this year when my sister Janet died unexpectedly in October. This year, when I see the Dala horse ornament I purchased when we were touring Sweden together, I will bear the sorrow, still so fresh, once again.

I expect that as years go on, I will continue to relive my life every Christmas season until someday some of my own ornaments come to represent a memory of what was once me.