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Once upon a time, when I was eight or so, I first noticed the beautiful things above the fireplace. It wasn’t that I had been completely oblivious — after all, I knew that was where the stocking were hung, and you can bet your britches I was paying attention to those — but it was all the rest of it that finally caught my eye that Christmas Eve.

During the majority of the year, the mantel held out family pictures. There were fine frames that held the wedding photographs of various family members, now so far-flung that they sent cards for the holiday that always arrived a few days later. There were handmade frames, like the one I created out of popsicle sticks in kindergarten, that held the candid pictures. Those were the best ones, the ones where we were really ourselves.

Christmas hearth

Christmas transformation

But during the Christmas season, the frames came down and one large one went up — one that had been taken at the mall, me and my two siblings sitting on Santa’s lap. I was staring at the camera in something that must have been fear, my mouth open in a giant “O” that must have been a wail of panic. I was two years old and scared of Santa. What in the world had I been thinking?

Around the picture were other things that had escaped my notice until that year. There were tiny houses with lights inside. There were small Santas, each one of them a little different, made of porcelain and wood and glass. There was a garland of what looked like cranberries. There were handmade ornaments, put here on the mantel instead of on the big tree, and I assumed that meant these were special. I saw the little ornament I had made last year, covered in glitter, and smiled.

‘A life that was secret and quiet, theirs alone …’

But there were other things, handsome things I didn’t recognize, but I instantly knew they mattered. There was a stack of letters, their addresses faded, written in strong script, the stamps so tiny — they had to be old. There were two candleholders that gleamed in the light, tall and silver and set far back on the mantle. There was a weathered round ornament that said “Our First Christmas.”

At that moment, I realized something important: That my parents had a life before me, before my siblings, before this house. They had a life that was secret and quiet, theirs alone, and memories that came well before I took my place on this earth. For a long moment I stood looking at the evidence of this, marveling at the idea, and wondering what those things were — what that life must have been like.

vintage photo letters roses

Soon enough, the moment was gone. I was called out of the room by siblings, or perhaps my mother, to come do this or that. The importance of it all shifted to the back burner of my mind, but it didn’t leave. Every Christmas after that, I would look at the mantel and wonder. And sometimes when my parents said something to each other that didn’t make sense — it was years yet before I would hear the term “inside joke” — I could almost taste those years before me, and something about that made me smile.

My own mantel

Why am I telling you this now? Because this year was the first time I decorated my own mantel with a baby in my arms.

Not-so-little Thomas weighed nine pounds — yes, have sympathy for me — and screamed at the top of his enraged lungs when he was born three months ago. In the picture with Santa that hangs over the mantle, he is sleeping soundly. Santa is looking not at the camera, but at Thomas, with the genuine smile that comes from looking at a peaceful child.

There is a set of silver candlesticks, those that my mother was given on her wedding day, and then passed on to me. There is a shiny square ornament, one that heralds “Our First Christmas.” There is a little house of popsicle sticks, built by my niece in her kindergarten class. There are stockings, three of them this year — for me, for Thomas, and for his daddy — but I’m sure in the years to come there will be more.

And there will be more keepsakes on that mantle. Look for the history of a family and you can find it in both the most obvious and most unusual of places. Look for the history of our family, and you will find it on the Christmas mantel.

 

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Shannon Dauphin Lee

Shannon Dauphin Lee is a journalist and occasional novelist with a serious weakness for real estate. When she's not writing, she and her husband are taking road trips to explore covered bridges, little wineries and quaint bed-and-breakfast inns in their beloved Pennsylvania.