If adulthood has made one thing clear it’s that money doesn’t grow on trees, but it sure seemed to every Christmas at Grandpa’s house.
The red brick and matching Spanish tile roof made 211 unique. The black iron fence spanning the perimeter added a certain protective charm. And with no shortage of snow-covered pines lining the yard, it simply felt like Christmas. As dad parked the van, I’d smile knowing what awaited inside.
Christmas on Vinewood Avenue was synonymous with three things: turtle soup, bleu cheese dip, and Grandpa’s money tree. Though all traditions have their origin somewhere, Grandpa’s was longstanding, and one my father enjoyed long before my time.
In my earliest recollection, barreling toward the tree upon arrival was customary. With age, though, came refinement. I learned to savor the expectation of that moment and to quell my enthusiasm, at least in part. I’d sample the holiday fare, saunter through the dining room, and smile in anticipation of the moment: finding my name on the tree.
It wasn’t uncommon for Grandpa to have two or even three trees on display, but there was always one unlike the others. Typically, Grandpa housed said tree in the front vestibule—a small area with an arched doorway and diamond-patterned wallpaper. The crown molding added an air of elegance and spoke of another time. The grandfather clock stood nearby, like a sentinel, almost as if Grandpa himself had commissioned it to keep watch.
No Christmas gathering at 211 was complete without a visit to Grandpa’s tree.
There it stood in the hallway–its tiny lights illuminating an otherwise dark room. Sunbursts danced on each carefully flocked bough as 100-dollar bills, all tightly-rolled and bound with ribbon, dangled from the branches.
It was beautiful. As if a tree bearing currency wasn’t enough, each bill was accompanied by an ornament—one that Grandma and Grandpa carefully selected each year. The two of them were well-traveled, connoisseurs of culture, really. Each of the nine grandchildren had a special place on the tree, and more importantly, in their hearts. Grandma and Grandpa were always on the lookout for just the right piece. Silver nutcrackers, Irish top hats, koala bears, sailboats, and bells—some were actual ornaments, others small trinkets that passed as such, but all as unique as the places they had visited.
As a child, it was always about the money. Pocketing 100 dollars was tantamount to winning the lottery, all things being relative, of course. My negotiations with mom as to how to spend the money generally resulted in my agreeing to save half, reluctantly, of course. In those early years, the ornaments were of little interest to me. If anything, they were obstacles: tiny security devices preventing me from spending the green. Over time, though, I started to examine the ornaments more carefully. I began to see them differently. The money was still a welcomed sight, but there was more—more than I had allowed myself to see.
The fuzzy koala wasn’t just a koala; it was a little piece of Australia. The carefully-whittled bear wasn’t just a piece of wood; it reflected the artistry of the west coast. It connected me to places I had never seen and, quite possibly, some I would never experience otherwise. And each year a new ornament—a new place—sat nestled on Grandpa’s tree, one for every grandchild.
And now when I unpack the holiday decorations in my own home, I see them.
I open the box, gently peel back the tissue paper, and hold each ornament in my hand. I’m there again, standing alone in the front hallway. The tiny ornaments are perched on the tree. Those same light–those playful sunbursts–sparkle in the dimly lit room as they always did. I see the name cards attached to each bill and a special place reserved for mine. And I think of Grandpa.
Since his passing, the tradition has ceased. Grandma still gives generously, always taking care of us, but it’s different now. It has to be. The tree is still there, but it’s purely decorative. It no longer yields the fruit it once did. The memory remains, though, and I welcome it back each holiday season.
For my own children, I know I can never fully replicate the money tree at Grandma and Grandpa’s house. I can tell them about it in narrative form, I can show them the ornaments, I can even attach rolled bills to my own tree, but they’ll never experience it the way I did. It’s just not the same without him. If anything, it reminds me of why traditions become so special. It’s the people, the people who care to begin them—people like Grandpa.
And so, whatever tradition I choose to begin with my own children, I know it will be special—not because we do it, but why.
They may not see it for what it is in the beginning. They may gloss over the sentimental aspects as I once did, the tangible items clearly at the forefront. But with time, they’ll recognize what they missed before. They’ll know that family traditions are meant to bring joy to others; they begin with others in mind. They’ll smile, and cry, when they finally see it. At least, that’s what I do when I think of the front hallway at 211 Vinewood.