Posted by: Naomi Baltuck | December 21, 2011

The Christmas Gang

There is an ancient British tradition called Ganging, from the Anglo-Saxon word gangen, meaning ‘to go.’ For fifteen hundred years, in what evolved from a solemn prayer ritual, village folk would gather to go ‘beat the boundary.’ They walked all around the parish to impress upon the youngsters’ memories the place they called home. Their elders dunked them in dividing streams, knocked their heads against bordering trees, and made them climb over the roofs of houses built across the line so they would never forget.

Our family has a gentler holiday tradition, a celebration as much as a reminder. Our Christmas tree is nothing like those featured in House Beautiful. It’s topped with a Star of David, as we also celebrate Hanukkah. The oldest ornament, a cellulose umbrella, decorated my great grandmother’s tree. We carefully hang Grandma Rhea’s handmade ornaments, dioramas inside blown eggs dressed in velvet. My children’s contributions are made of Popsicle sticks, glitter, and clothespins. The marshmallow snowman has grown sticky and yellow, with a tiny bite taken on the sly from its backside, but it makes me smile, and bookmarks an era.

I hang up the key to the house where I grew up, and recall my childhood, running barefoot through the back alleys of Detroit. The little Polish dancer wears the same costume my dashing husband wore performing with his dance group Polanie. The glass pen celebrates the year my first book was published. A tiny guitar marks the year my husband broke his leg and, instead of sulking on the couch, taught himself to play guitar. It hangs near Eli’s tiny oboe, and Bea’s violin and clarinet. A small glass bottle contains ash from Mt. St. Helens, collected from my pants cuff in 1980, when I was caught bird watching in Eastern Washington during the eruption.

Each Christmas, we carefully remove our ornaments from their tissue paper cocoons. As we hang them on the tree, we retell the stories. It’s like a crazy quilt, where scraps of colorful memories are pieced together and, voila! E pluribus unum! From the contributions of individuals we have compiled a portrait of one family, and from the many generations we have pieced together one history.

Ganging, or beating the boundary, is a tradition that teaches children their limits and sets rigid boundaries. Instead of knocking our children’s heads against a tree, let’s invite them to help create an empowering communal story among the branches of the family tree, free of boundaries and limitations, celebrating their lives, so full of possibility.

Do certain ornaments hold special memories for you? What other keepsakes might you hang on your tree? Do your recollections find their way into your stories?

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Responses

  1. What a delicious story of your family’s tree trimming. I felt I was right there with you all. I like how some ornaments honor an event, like the Mt. St. Helen’s ash (and I bet there’s a great story behind that!) and express the strength and creativity of your husband to turn a boring bone healing time into learning a new instrument.

    We also have special ornaments from different times in our lives, and our daughter’s lives too. My husband Jim called our tree a “folkart tree” this year. I have an old bell ornament from my babyhood. Jim’s grandma made a mailbox of red and white yarn for daughter Katy when she was quite small with her same embroidered on it. It opens, and Santa always remembered (sometimes surreptitiously on Christmas morning!) to put a little treat inside. We have lots of bird, fish, and leaf ornaments. Remembering when we acquired each ornament always takes us back to that time in our lives.

    This is our first year without children. Our eldest moved to Tucson last year, and in October our youngest, after a beautiful August wedding, moved with her new husband to Oklahoma to live close to his family for a few years. Our house felt amazingly empty and quiet after they left, as she had been living with us for a year. Jim and I will spend the next few Christmas’s creating new traditions for ourselves. Such a monumental transition to make after 29 years of having their presence make the holidays meaningful for us. It is good for all of us to put on our skates and make new patterns in the ice; daughters gliding away to places we cannot go, and we, feeling the ice somewhat thin, circling gingerly as we search for our own path.

    Thank you Naomi, for “bringing me into the fold” of the Guild. Peace and happiness to everyone this New Year.

    Megan Douma

    • Hi Megan,it is clear from your response that you are a storyteller. It makes me smile to picture Santa’s mailbox, and all those special deliveries. It is such a beautiful thoughtful image of the two of you figure skating in pairs, and creating new patterns in the ice. I am so glad you have each other in this transition time as you create new traditions of your own. What a great time to focus on your music and storytelling. Wishing you joy, and a bright New Year!

  2. Believe it or not, we have an umbrella just like yours! 🙂 Other favorites: a walnut shell with a tiny figure of Mary, Joseph & Jesus inside (which my mother referred to as “Christmas in a nutshell”); a series of about 20 ornaments given to me by my paternal grandmother, Naomi 🙂 Rutherford (my birthday is in early December and she would put an ornament on my present every year!) and an impossibly heavy, rather hideous bright green ball with the hand-print of my (then) 1.5 yr old step-grand-daughter.

    Thank you for beautifully giving voice to why unpacking and hanging those every year brings me back to myself and my dear ones.

    • Dear Anne, it’s amazing that you have the same ornament from your grandmother’s tree! We always place it at the top of the tree, out of reach of little fingers. I love “Christmas in a nutshell!”and I’m sure you think of your mom every time you hang it up. Your story about the hand-print made me laugh. It reminds me of the plastic snowflake ornament on my tree, with a photograph of my Cousin Margie in it. Honestly, we weren’t very fond of her, and the other kids wonder wonder why I hang it up each year, but she was a part of so many of my mother’s childhood stories, and at all of the family dinners and holiday celebrations, and it always brings to mind another story the kids haven’t heard yet. Thank you so much for stopping by. I always appreciate your thoughtful comments that are always full of insight. Best wishes for a happy holiday, and the New Year.

  3. I love the mixture of ornaments on our tree as well: from those of my childhood, to the few I collected on my own as a single woman and now joined by the special handmade artworks of my children. It’s fun to compare hand prints and how they’ve grown each passing year. Additionally, special ones given to each of us from friends and family members that celebrate our own unique interests and life experiences. It is hard to choose a favorite, and we all exclaim with delight as we unpack these treasures to adorn the tree every year. Last year my aunt sent an ornament she created from my 97 year old grandmother’s hair roller- something we saw her use twice weekly her entire life. And this year it was joined by a crocheted cross that was bejeweled with one of my grandfather’s 30 “Lions” pins. they get the place of honor on the tree heretofore.

    • Hi Sue. Your tree sounds unique. I have never seen an ornament made from a curler! Thanks so much for sharing your family memories, and for stopping by!

  4. […] here is what I carried away from it.  A tiny bottle of ash collected from my pants cuffs, that I still hang on my Christmas tree each […]

  5. This just tickles my heart. 🙂

  6. […] here is what I carried away from it.  A tiny bottle of ash collected from my pants cuffs, that I still hang on my Christmas tree each […]


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