I watched with the eyes and heart of the young child I was as my father picked up a box. It was time to decorate the Christmas tree. It was something we always did the day after Thanksgiving. My father had strung the lights on the tree and wrapped it in shiny silver garland. My brothers and sisters had strewn about the strands of matching tinsel upon the branches as well. Of course, mine were all put in clumps at my eye level. No one seemed to care, though. This was a family event, one enjoyed by all of us, despite our age differences.
When the children had finished their part, it was time for my father to place the first ornament on the tree. He carefully opened the box and took out the only ornament inside. It was a white dove with glimmers of light blue on its wings with the faintest shades of grey on its underbelly. Its tail, which bore more blues and greys along its feathers, stretched out and over my father’s large, rough hands. My father, who always seemed stoic and strong, held the dove in one hand while gently caressing it with the other, offering a sense of gentleness he held deep inside.
He reached near the top of the tree and clipped the solitary dove to a high branch. It was beautiful. It sat strong, yet peaceful, its colors even more striking against the forest green pines.
It looked angelic perched atop strands of silver tinsel and garland.
My father turned to us and said, “this dove is for your Aunt Connie … my sister.” He told us the story of how when she passed, at just the age of 16, he took this dove off one of the funeral arrangements. He wanted something to remember her by. So, a new Christmas tradition in our family was born. Every Christmas from then on our family would place a dove on the tree to remember someone who has passed on. It would be the first ornament to be placed on the tree and the last ornament to be removed. Although I was a small child at the time, not more than five years old, I inherently understood the meaning behind this memorable moment.
Many Christmases passed and life moved on, just as other relatives did too. There would be more doves resting upon the branches of the tree. Each one held memories and love, bringing a piece of those who went before us, to our Christmas. The doves watched over us in their unique way. It was more than just enjoying the memories of them. It was as if they were there celebrating Christmas with us in only the way the magic of Christmas can bring.
I knew. We all knew, this tradition started by my father, would be one each of us would continue in our own families. After I got married, I was blessed to spend the first twenty Christmases without any doves upon our tree. Every year, I would decorate the tree with my husband and daughter the day after Thanksgiving. Every year I would be grateful for a tree without doves
It was 2015 before the first bird would adorn our tree.
Who could have known that the first person to be represented on our Christmas tree would be the person who actually started the tradition? My father.
However, I didn’t represent him with a dove. Instead, I chose a cardinal.
It was the last winter my dad would experience. It snowed heavily that January. When the snow finally stopped, my mom and dad stepped outside to look at it. Their driveway was lined with evergreens covered in snow and the yard was nothing but freshly snow-covered hills. They stood there in awe, soaking in the bright, painted scenery when they looked up out at the branches of one of the trees. On the branch sat eight cardinals in striking red against the backdrop of white
When my father died unexpectedly the following July, I stood in the very yard which had been covered with snow months earlier, I stopped in front of the tree. I imagined the scene of that day and how beautiful it must have been. At that moment, I knew a cardinal would adorn my Christmas tree just like it had that brisk winter day.
I chose a cardinal with contrasting shades of deep reds on its wings and the faintest shades of black on its underbelly. Its tail, which bore the same colors along its feathers, stretched out and over my hand. Holding the cardinal for the first time, I was brought right back to 1978, standing beside the family Christmas tree, watching my dad running his fingers along the dove.
I placed it on the highest branch making sure it looked back out on my family. I gently whispered to my daughter, “this is for your grandfather . . . my father.”
It’s the first ornament I put on the tree and the last one I take off the tree.
© Raelyn Pracht 2022