In the northeast corner of my Baltimore living room, our Christmas tree is standing tall. This one seems happy enough wearing the same accessories as the many Fraser firs that have preceded it. I always love unwrapping ornaments, which are the closest thing I have to an art collection. Amid the glittering balls, homemade kid pieces and smiling Santas, a treasure of international ornaments remind me of a quarter-century’s travels.
I began putting up my own tree when I was 25, a single girl living in a simple row-house apartment a few miles from the large Victorian where I now live. That autumn, I’d gone to Germany with my mother and visited an evening Weihnachtsmarkt in Essen. Between sips of piping hot chocolate, I wandered the holiday market’s craft stalls and collected little bleifigüren, traditional flat ornaments made from hot lead poured into molds and then hand-painted. Gorgeous little holiday people—from many versions of St. Nikolas to angels and carolers—abounded. I splurged on about 20 ornaments and was gifted 10 more by my mother. Germany also made lovely light wooden ornaments—hearts, balls, toy soldiers and the like—that filled out the rest of my suitcase.
The German lead ornaments were the stars of my Christmas tree that year, and the following one, too. Two years later, I married and made plans to move to Japan with my new husband, Tony. When the moving company came to my apartment, I believed they packed everything. But six months later, when I was trying to decorate the small tree in our little house in Hayama, Japan, that I realized the lead ornaments were gone. I concluded that the bag where I kept them on a high shelf in a closet must have been overlooked.
Tokyo’s dazzling Ginza district was full of German Christmas displays. However, the Käthe Wohlfahrt lead ornaments sold at a posh department store cost four times what I’d paid at the German market. They also weren’t the special ones my mother and I had chosen together. So until I could shop in Germany again, I decided to look around for something else.
A German woman married to a Japanese man hosted a Christmas ornament party each year in her home on Yokohama’s Bluff. At her party, she sold small crane ornaments she made from Japanese brocade. Why not have little symbols of good fortune on our tree? I bought some. At a Kamakura craft shop, I discovered little gift-box ornaments covered in washii paper that had ribbon hangers, and tiny washii paper dolls attached to rings that were also perfect for my first married Japanese Christmas tree.
The next year, when we visited Japanese Shinto shrines, Tony and I collected ema, flat wooden wishing plaques painted with images. People were supposed to write wishes on the back of the ema, which we did—but instead of leaving them hanging around the shrine, we took ours home to use again for Christmas.
After returning to the United States in the mid-1990s, Tony and I, still childless, jetted off to a few winter getaways in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. In a folk art shop, we discovered hammered tin ornaments painted in bright colors. Most were animals, and they had a simple, bold charm. The price was fabulous—so I bought about 20, and every year looked for new tin animals to add to the tree. Today, each one that I hang brings back the pleasure and romance of those carefree, warm days.
Then came the sweet years raising our two young children in Minnesota. We had to work Minnesota into the Christmas tree. A large community of Hmong people from Laos had settled in the Twin Cities as refugees and found success as farmers and textile artists known for distinctive quilted crafts. At the local farmers’ markets, I collected a handful of quilted ornaments that brought new patterns and colors to our tree.
Small things that hand down from parents to children mean so much in one’s life history. When I think about the gang violence that has plagued Mexico’s families, and of the decades of persecution of the Hmong people, I can imagine all the special things lost by the craftspeople who made my tree’s ornaments.
While researching The Kizuna Coast—my new Rei Shimura novel set in post-tsunami Japan—I learned just how much the people of the Tohoku region lost—fifteen thousand lives, many towns and houses, and all the little things that were part of those homes. The tsunami volunteers who came to the devastated town compassionately collected every item that looked like it belonged to someone. They took care in cleaning off mud and returning everything they could to their owners.
The Japanese volunteers were acting with kizuna, a word that means “bonds of loving kindness.” And when I sit in my living room, quietly enjoying the sparkling Christmas tree, I feel it.
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