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The Christmas time capsule

Every year when the decorations come down from the attic, time goes both ways at once.

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Getting down the Christmas decorations is always a reminder of eternity, that unfamiliar space where past and present and future exist simultaneously.

Nashville

IT would be fair to call my home decor aesthetic the opposite of a Pottery Barn catalog. In theory, I would love to live in a Pottery Barn catalog, but in practice, I'm too much of a pack rat to be comfortable among spare furnishings in rich earth tones. Our house looks like an ongoing estate sale.

Every tabletop is jammed with family photos. Every windowsill is a miniature stage for cicada carapaces and crinoid fossils, tiny superheroes left over from our sons' childhood, antique buttons, earrings without mates, watches without bands. The refrigerator door is wallpapered edge to edge with photos from old friends' Christmas cards; the doors of our kitchen cabinets are covered with notices for art shows long since closed. Even the drawings taped to the walls of my home office go back so far that several of them are signed in the mirror writing our youngest child used before he got to kindergarten and learned to flip the letters to face the proper way. That child is now a sophomore in college.

Time extends backward

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All day long I'm surrounded by reminders of nearly a quarter-century in this house. Who I am and who I've been, and who everyone else I love has been - it's all laid out before me like a life-size version of a fourth-grade social studies diorama.

Then the Christmas boxes come down from the attic, and time extends backward even further, beyond this house, and forward to a future in which the broadest outlines are already clear though the details are still unknown. Getting down the Christmas decorations is always a reminder of eternity, that unfamiliar space where past and present and future exist simultaneously - a space I can enter, even figuratively, only at Christmastime.

Here is the ornament in the shape of a baseball player from my husband's boyhood years. Here is the little felt-covered drum my mother helped me make from a paper-towel roll. Here are the blown-egg ornaments my high school Secret Santa left in my locker and the gold-and-silver Benson & Hedges box a college friend hung on the tree in my first college apartment. Here are the metal lapel pins that proved I'd paid for admission at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the only "decorations" I could scrounge up when I was in graduate school. Here are the twisted-tin icicles my husband and I bought at a craft fair the year before we got married, already looking ahead to our own first tree. Here's the little marionette Santa my mother-in-law won as a door prize at a Parkinson's support group just before what turned out to be her last Christmas.

Most precious of all are the homemade ornaments from my children's preschool years: messy, often unrecognizable figures - is that an archangel or Medusa? Rudolph or Popsicle-stick conceptual art? We hang them on the tree every year, ugly as some of them indisputably are. They remind my husband and me of that brief time in our family's life when there was still someone at home small enough to jump up and down, clapping with glee, when the Christmas tree lights came on for the first time, even if it was only a test and the lights were spread out across the floor or still tangled together at the bottom of a cardboard box.

Homemade ornaments

Other boxes hold the stockings my mother needlepointed, one for each boy. The Coke-bottle Santas my mother-in-law bought at the gift shop in her tiny hometown, also one for each boy. The tie-quilted Christmas tree for the front door that came from the annual bazaar at the country church where my mother grew up. The nativity set my grandmother's best friend made for her in a backyard studio - each year a new camel or wise man or shepherd or donkey, till the set was complete. The angel my great-grandmother crocheted of white string and starched into a stand-alone shape that allows the angel to balance in place at the top of the tree.

Last year when I packed up the Christmas decorations, I set aside our oldest son's homemade ornaments in a separate box. He is on his own now, and I know the day is coming when he will have his own tree to decorate, his own holiday traditions to establish. He didn't put up a tree this year, so his father and I are still keeping them safe, but we are also ready for whatever comes next.

For now those ornaments are back in their old familiar places, hanging alongside all the other reminders that the people who are gone from us are never truly gone, that the little boys hopping up and down with excitement are still somewhere inside the grown men who can set that homely angel in her place at the top of the tree without even straining to reach. NYTIMES