House and Home

A New Home for Some Family Ornaments

A number of years ago (I just asked Jenny, and we were married already, possibly our first married Christmas, but I really don’t know), my Mom was in Sam’s Club buying her usual industrial quantities of ingredients for Thanksgiving cooking, and she saw a display of artificial trees on sale. One of them in particular caught her eye–a tall, narrow tree that was pre-lit in white. I remember that she called me right away and said that she found a tree that would look great in our front hallway.

I didn’t even know that we needed a tree in the front hallway.

Yet, here I was with her some time shortly afterwards buying this tree and loading it into her SUV. As I set it up in the front hallway, I immediately saw what she meant. I had been decorating the stair railing with a garland that I bought when I lived in the Mt. Washington neighborhood of Pittsburgh (no, not with a view, but just several blocks away from it!). It was festive, but this tree added a whole new dimension! She gave us one of her older treetop angels from when we lived in Franklin, and we had recently received a box of color-coordinated ornaments from Jenny’s Aunt Heidi, so those went up, and the tree looked great. It took the place of the hall light on a timer, and it was a beautiful sight to drive up and see the tree glowing warmly inside. 

Fast forward a few years, and the pre-lit lights started to fail. This is when I learned of my absolute disdain for pre-lit light sets. For a year or so, I struggled with finding and replacing dead bulbs to resucitate strings. Then, one year, I put it up and a full half of the tree didn’t light. 

I was done. D-O-N-E. DONE. We had recently started to string white LED lights in the garland on the stairs to add to the front hall decorations. These looked great, so off I went to the local hardware store where I bought them to find some more. I cleaned out their shelf of warm white LEDs, came home, and started to remove the pre-lit strings. OMG. Worst decision ever. I got the string off of the treetop piece, and gave up. I left the rest of them on the tree and just strung the LEDs over them. It looked fine, though there was an awful lot of wiring on the tree! 

The LEDs worked well for several more years. Last year, though, while setting up the tree, I had a few branches start to disintegrate. Whatever they used as wrapping had started to fail, and big chunks of branches were beginning to fall apart. This would be the last year for this tree. It served us well, but I couldn’t see my way to repairing every branch as they started to fall apart. The base had been kind-of broken for a few years, too, and I was using some shims to take the place of one stripped-out clamping screw. We decided that come de-decorating time in January, this trusty old tree would meet its end, and we would look for a replacement. 

I never did find a replacement tree that winter that met all of our specifications. A couple of days before Thanksgiving this year, I went with my Dad on a mission to find him a pantry cabinet at Ikea. We also stopped off at a nearby Pool City so I could look at trees (they had a bunch, of course) and he could find a hearth rug for his house (they had none). I was hoping to find another tall (8-9ft) and narrow tree, either not pre-lit or pre-lit with LEDs. I was unable to find something that fit the parameters. I could get a full-bodied tree that met the size and LED parameters, but a full-bodied tree would not fit well in the space, and I wasn’t prepared to spend almost a thousand dollars on a tree (the original Sam’s club tree, by comparison, was $200 I think). I did find a really nice looking tree that fit the size parameters, but it was pre-lit with incandescent lights. The price was reasonable (still more than $200, but the quality and warranty was much better). As much as I didn’t want the incandescent lights, it went home with me. 

When setting up the tree, I found, of course, a dead string of lights. There’s no way it could go back to Pool City right now, so it is living as-is. If you look closely at the photo at the top, you can see a part of the dead string in the bottom left. It isn’t nearly as apparent in real life, but a long-exposure photo makes it look really dark! This January, when the tree is mostly disassembled and I can easily sit there with just the bottom third of the tree, I’ll find the dead or missing bulb and get that set working again for next year. 

Handmade, after a few repairs!

A new tree ended up being fortuitous this year, as we also decided to go through my Babcia and Dziadzia Portka’s (maternal grandparents) ornaments after Thanksgiving to split them amongst the family. We always had two trees at home, one in the family room that was all of our Woytek family ornaments, and one in the living room that was all of the Portka family ornaments. My Mom was always sort of the chief decorator, especially after Dziadzia passed away when I was in college (1996, I think?). In recent years, with no kids left at home, and after Babcia passed away, it was getting harder for her to do both trees plus all of the cooking she loved to do. I think that her last Christmas in 2015, there were still boxes of ornaments waiting to go on the family room tree a few days before Christmas. There just wasn’t enough time. My Dad now sets up just one tree in the living room, and decorates it with our Woytek family ornaments. The Portka family ornaments haven’t seen a tree in a couple of years. Instead of them sitting in boxes forever, my Dad wanted them to go to family, so my sister Sarah arranged an event after Thanksgiving, and we all got together to go through what was there and pick some favorites to take home. 

Some of my memories of the tree at Babcia and Dziadzia’s house go back to before we moved in with them back in 1989. I remember being at their house, sitting in front of the heating register in the living room, and looking at the tree all lit up. My favorite ornaments were some of the handmade ones (we even made some of our own over the years), and some of the really old “bumped-in” ones. Among the ornaments I picked out were a number of handmade ones I remember as a kid, some really old glass ones, an old high-wheel bicycle made of metal wire, and a few of my own handmade ornaments from my youth (which are amusingly asymmetrical).

I’m really happy to see these ornaments getting some light again at Christmas. I like to spend some time at Christmas remembering the fun times we had as kids with so many loving relatives and friends around us, and these little bits of family history now hanging on our tree is another way for me to do that. 

Jonathan does a lot of stuff. If you ask Jenny, maybe he does too much stuff.

One Comment

  • Katie Nicholson

    Hi Jonathan, I liked learning about your tree and your family tree traditions. It is a reminder of what a special time of year it is and how things like trees and ornaments help us remember the ones we love.