Edmonton

While we tell of Yuletide treasures

My grandmother had the first Christmas tree in St. Vincent. One of her ornaments now hangs on my family's tree.

How a precious Christmas tree ornament captures one Edmonton family's history

This delicate Christmas ball, passed down through the generations, holds a special place in Ann Sullivan's heart. (Ann Sullivan)

'Tis the season for giving! That's why we're bringing back some of our favourite stories. This story was originally published on Dec 19, 2018. Enjoy!

My grandmother had the first Christmas tree in St. Vincent.

The small Newfoundland village is on the edge of the ocean. The landscape is barren, and stunning.  

Decorating a tree with baubles and candles may have been popular elsewhere, but not in St. Vincent in the 1930s.

My grandparents, Josephine and Mike Gibbons, lived a simple life.

Mike ran a fishing crew. Up at dawn and out on the dangerous sea, they'd bring back buckets of cod, split them and lay out hundreds of butterflied flakes to dry on the cobblestone beach.

Jose fed the men a full dinner.

She had one child after another, eight in all, and raised them God-fearing, and often with the back of her hand.

She raised children and chickens. Sheared the sheep, sent the wool off to be spun, and in the evenings knit in her rocking chair next to the black stove that heated the house. She turned that yarn into mittens, hats and jumpers, with a stitch so even it could have been done by a machine.

Her home had no bathroom, no electricity, no proper heating. Children were bathed in a large tub next to the kitchen stove.

A box of ornaments

Christmas was simple, too.

My mother, Irene, was born in 1933, Mike and Jose's first baby.

As the story goes, that same year Jose's aunt, Mary Davis, who lived in the modern metropolis of St. John's, sent Jose a box of ornaments to decorate a tree.

Irene went on to raise nine children of her own, in many ways not that differently than her mother had.

She made the only bread we ate, cooked every meal from scratch, sewed much of our clothes, and reverted to the back of the hand when needed.

After 45 years of a strong marriage, she was widowed in her late 60s.

She's gone a few rounds with the cancer, but at 85 she's tired now.

For the third time in four years, she's in a care home, for respite.

My mother's treasures  

Somewhere along the way, my mother gave me three of Jose's ornaments.

I can't recall when she would have done such a clearly risky thing, as I moved so often and couldn't be trusted with precious things.

When my kids were small, one of those ornaments broke and I decided to put the others away.

For a time, I didn't give them much thought.

But when my family and I took out the decorations this year in our Edmonton home, there they were. One a bright-pink glass ball with a ribbon pattern around it, that may have come from the '50s or '60s.

The other is no bigger than the circle you'd form by putting your thumb and finger together. It's much older. My mother thinks it came from that original, 1933 box.

It's gold coloured, blown glass as thin as paper, and has a small house covered in snow embossed in white, the pattern so delicate it could wear away with too much handling.

I'm half scared to touch it.

This year, for some reason, that ornament got to me.

If it really is from that first box sent by aunt Mary Davis to my grandmother, that ornament could be close to 90 years old.

Maybe as you get older, little things like an ornament that's been handed down come to have more meaning.

Maybe it's the fact that my mother isn't well.

Part of me wants to wrap the ornament in cotton wool, or put it under glass.

But that's not what gives it meaning.

What gives it meaning is hanging it on the tree, hoping it survives another year.

Ann Sullivan's ornament hangs on the Christmas tree in her family's home. (Ann Sullivan)

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