Every Christmas tree tells a story.
They document children getting older, anniversaries, vacations, interests. They reveal favorite colors, family traditions and whether an owner's taste is simple and classic or more eclectic or extravagant. They display a lifetime of collecting, a newly established life, or a spot somewhere in between.
We asked four Omaha-area families and individuals to explain the stories behind their trees.
Sandie Yeaman traces her love of holiday lights back to a childhood Christmas. She thinks she was around 8 years old.
Yeaman grew up in Omaha, mostly in foster homes. She didn't have many consistent holiday traditions, and she saw her mother only sporadically.
But that year, she was with her mom, and Mom wanted a tree.
They walked to a downtown Hinky Dinky, now long gone. It was late and the store wasn't open.
But there were trees outside, and Yeaman's mother helped herself.
Together, they dragged the tree uphill to Yeaman's grandmother's house at 23rd and California Streets, singing carols all the way. It was snowing. And to the little girl, hauling a stolen Christmas tree up a hill with her mom in the snow was nothing short of wonderful.
“That's my favorite Christmas memory,” she said.
By the time they reached their destination, the tree was battered, missing many needles and some branches, too. There wasn't enough of it left to string lights around the outside branches. Instead, they wrapped the lights around the tree's center.
She still does that.
Yeaman, who now has three children and a stepchild, as well as 12 grandchildren, is big on tradition. She spends days putting up her Christmas tree each year, constructing it section by section and covering nearly every square inch — from the center all the way out to the tips of the branches — in lights big and small.
“I like to make a bold statement, and I think our tree makes a bold statement,” she said.
She adorns the tree with ornaments both traditional and offbeat. On her tree, little ceramic birds so well-used that some are missing parts of their beaks and tails perch next to oversized doves that have also decorated wedding receptions (Yeaman, a retired teacher, has a second career as a wedding planner). A polka-dotted glass ornament she made with her grandchildren peeks out of the tree from beneath light-up pussy willows she bought at a garage sale.
Friends and neighbors now look forward to her huge, decked-out tree.
She also has a small metal tree on the dining room table decorated with crystal snowflake ornaments — one for all but the first of 10 Christmases she has celebrated with husband Paul. The first year, they bought an angel that since has graced the top of the main tree.
Yeaman likes these traditions, but more than that, she loves what they represent.
“These are the things we do as a family,” she said.
Each Christmas of Meghann Schense's life, her mother, Johanna Holt-Jeffres, has wrapped a Crayola ornament and tucked it under the tree.
The first was a family of plastic mice snug in a cardboard Crayola box. Mouse children on a sled constructed of crayons followed, as did a mouse flying a crayon airplane.
For years, the Crayola ornaments remained safely on the branches of Mom's tree, though Holt-Jeffres would periodically ask if her daughter was ready for them.
Finally, when Schense was in her early 20s, she was.
“It was sometime in college, I felt responsible enough to get them out of Mom's house,” she said.
They started out on a small artificial tree in her home. As Schense got older, her small tree gave way to larger real trees. This year's is so big her tall boyfriend could barely reach the top, even standing on a chair.
Most of Schense's ornaments are either hand-me-downs or gifts. They include yarn ones from a favorite aunt, a pair of ballet slippers and an intricate ornament that plays a portion of “The Nutcracker” when you pull a string (Schense and Holt-Jeffres see the ballet together every year).
Her tree is still simple, but Schense is beginning to establish her own holiday rhythm. For a few years after college, Schense lived in New York and New Jersey, where space is scarce and live trees are costly. After returning to Omaha, she decided she would always have a real tree, the biggest one her apartment could accommodate. And once that tree is up and decorated, she always has a party, where she is happy to point out the ornaments her mom gave her (and still gives her) every year.
“I'm kind of still trying to get traditions down,” she said, “but they've definitely flowed over from childhood.”
The Nelson family has two trees.
There's a main tree in the open space between the kitchen and living room in their Yutan, Neb., home. Nearly every ornament on it is a keepsake from Mark and Suzi's 29 years of marriage (their anniversary is today).
There are tiny, rounded wooden ornaments and smooth glass icicles that they bought in Germany, where Mark was stationed with the military the first three years they were married. There are the ornaments their younger daughter, Cheyenne, received from her godparents for her Dec. 22 birthday each year. A few mini Beanie Babies — relics from when Cheyenne and her sister, Whitney, were little — also adorn the tree. The angel on top was a gift from Suzi's mom the first year Suzi and Mark were married. She died not long after she gave them the angel, and Mark and Suzi consider it one of the most precious things on the tree.
“Every ornament we have on our tree is special,” Mark said.
Their other tree is in the basement, which the family converted into a home theater, complete with a working popcorn machine and a big screen bordered by red velvet curtains. That tree is devoted to movies. Jack Sparrow and Luke Skywalker ornaments grace the tree, as do the Little Mermaid (the movie came out when the girls were just babies), Harry Potter (the girls dressed up and went to midnight premieres for most of the movies in the series) and Linus and Lucy (Mark and Suzi played the characters in a high school musical when they were dating). They place bags of popcorn throughout the tree's branches, and at the top is a replica of an Oscar statue.
This tree is special, too.
Movies always have had a prominent place in the Nelson family. The girls, born just nine months apart, now are 22-year-old college students. But when the girls were in high school, the entire family would gather downstairs on Sunday nights for dinner and a family movie.
In fact, movies were sort of the start of the Nelson family.
“When we went on dates, we just went to movies,” Suzi said.
When they were dating, Fritz and Megan Raiser went to Boston.
Megan bought an ornament there. She wanted a keepsake of the couple's first trip.
She and Fritz weren't yet engaged, but she suspected they would be someday.
Since then, the Elkhorn area couple — now parents of Quinton, 6, and Oliver, 4 — have bought an ornament from every place they've traveled, turning their tree into sort of a three-dimensional map of Raiser family vacations.
They picked up an ornament shaped like a flip-flop on their honeymoon in St. Lucia, and another shaped like a crab from a trip to Orange Beach, Ala. (Megan remembers that trip particularly well, because they traveled via RV, and she was pregnant.) There's a mini version of the Vegas sign from a few years ago when Fritz, a huge hockey fan, participated in a Wayne Gretzky fantasy camp. This summer, the family visited Kansas City. For the first time, Megan said, the boys were old enough to join in the hunt for the perfect ornament — and they discovered that the Kansas City Royals gift shop didn't have any. Megan and Fritz improvised, attaching a hook to a Royals magnet and adding it to their growing collection.
Every year as she decorates, Megan remembers the places they've gone and the things that were happening in their lives. Soon, the boys will want to relive memories of family vacations, visits to see grandparents, school trips.
She hopes they won't forget the places they've been together.
“It's a way to revisit those memories at least once a year,” she said.
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