O Tannenbaum

Pam McGugan’s Christmas tree is bejewelled with more than 2,000 ornaments and just as many precious memories.

November 19, 2013 | | Back Issues

Purchased in the late ’60s at the Florentine Shoppe in Yorkville, this Styrofoam ball was carved, decorated with braid, pearls and beads, then lacquered. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Purchased in the late ’60s at the Florentine Shoppe in Yorkville, this Styrofoam ball was carved, decorated with braid, pearls and beads, then lacquered. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Ask Caledon resident Pam McGugan about her Christmas tree and you’ll learn much more than the backstory of 2,000 or so Yuletide baubles acquired over a lifetime. Indeed, there are endless tales behind this eclectic collection – from a hand-blown glass pineapple received from renowned abstract artist Harold Towne and another glass ball blown from the ash of Mount St. Helens, to crafty student creations she’s received over her decades as an educator. Beyond the stories, though, you’ll hear in Pam’s voice an eagerness, almost a responsibility, to impart the importance of this tree-bejewelling tradition – and for good reason. Like goodwill to others and the spirit of giving, embedded in Pam’s tree is another lesson of the Christmas season we would all do well to honour throughout the year.

Pam knows firsthand how such beloved holiday rituals connect us to loved ones still with us and those long gone. “I have my mother, Constance Hunt, and my father’s mom Gran Arnold to thank for passing on a love for our family’s tree-dressing tradition.”

Her Grandmother Arnold had a magnificent ornament collection and her tree was the centrepiece of resplendent holiday parties in 1940s Quebec, complete with guests delivered home by horse-drawn sleigh, huddled together under buffalo skin throws, sleigh bells ringing.

Pam’s mother, then a teenager, met her father at one such party – he was driving the sleigh. “I think of Dad every time I look at the decoration he gave his mother when he was a little boy,” she says.

Even Pam’s tree-dressing technique is passed down. “I learned how to place the ornaments watching my mother. You begin with the largest ones, placing them strategically throughout, then the next largest and so on,” she explains. “Certain ornaments, like the rich purples, reds and golds of my Polish ornaments, play off others, and create clusters of colours and shapes. And each year’s tree is different.”

Hand-blown in Poland, a giraffe head protrudes on one side of this ball and the rest of it depicts African grassland and acacia trees. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Hand-blown in Poland, a giraffe head protrudes on one side of this ball and the rest of it depicts African grassland and acacia trees. Photo by Pete Paterson.

Pam knows too how important these traditions are for younger generations. Much as her parents did when she was a child, Pam would head out with her husband Jim and their two daughters Melissa and Alexandra to find, cut down and drag home the perfect giant tree (big enough to accommodate all those decorations).

Among the many precious memories are also the stages when her girls swore with rolling eyes that they’d never go to all that trouble. Now young women creating their own homes, both daughters cherish and carry on the McGugan tree tradition.

These days Pam has switched to an immense artificial tree. She’s grateful for the support of her husband Jim who continues to do the heavy lifting involved in assembling the tree in their vaulted foyer every December 1. Pam then takes a full week to bedeck the towering conifer and another two days in January to take it all down – a massive undertaking on both occasions.

People always ask: Which decoration is her favourite? She confesses it’s a bit like asking a parent to choose one child over another. She adores one from her mother, a frog prince comically holding a diamond ring. There are seashell creations from Florida, a giraffe head surrounded by Acacias trees, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis fandangles, crèche festoons made of dough from Peru and woven straw figures from Ecuador. Still, some of her most cherished are those you might find on any family tree – macaroni angels and other such dog-eared finery made by little loving hands many years ago.

This translucent ornament was purchased in Hilton Head, South Carolina where ocean motifs abound. Photo by Pete Paterson.

This translucent ornament was purchased in Hilton Head, South Carolina where ocean motifs abound. Photo by Pete Paterson.

“Each decoration represents a moment of my life, and every year I bring them out and take time to remember. It’s quite something to take it all in, once the trimming is done.” This year McGugan will hang a new ornament from Sorrento, Italy, where her daughter Melissa will be married next year – a little something to mark a future memorable moment.

Most of all, I think the McGugan tree says a lot about the power of rituals. Yes, the big ones around holidays, but also all the little ones in-between. In our family, it might be Saturday morning hikes to Cataract, or the last dog walk with my son every night before lights out – those rhythms of our lives (not always easy or convenient) that both mark the steady passing of time and keep us circling back to each other. Little things that over time, if we commit to them, become big and memorable – just like Pam’s tree.

About the Author More by Liz Beatty

Liz Beatty is an award-winning feature writer and regular contributor to National Geographic Travel magazine, books and blogs, among others. She writes frequently about sustainable travel themes. Previously Liz headed up communications for some of travel’s most enviable brands. More recently, she’s hosted and produced Native Traveler, a national travel and culture show on SiriusXM Canada Talks. Her show moves to the Entertainment One (eOne) podcast network this spring. Native Traveler recently won gold, bronze and first finalist honours in the radio broadcast category of the North American Travel Journalists Association Awards. Liz lives with her family in Brimstone, Caledon.

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