Like many, when the Christmas holiday season rolls around, the house is adorned with decorations with the centerpiece being a Christmas tree. Once the tree is placed in the appropriate spot, it’s time to carefully extract a container holding lights and ornaments to be placed on the tree.

Our ornaments are wrapped in paper like a little gift; each little bundle waiting to be unwrapped from the previous year, almost as if the peeling away of paper is but a rehearsal for Christmas morning.

I own a number of tree ornaments we call “fillers” but there are some ornaments dating from previous generations. My favorite decorations hold memories for me as a child as they hung on my parent’s tree; still some are older once belonging to my grandparents.

Christmas ornaments are a gift, and deserve to be wrapped carefully because they represent layer upon layer of life. Though inanimate, they contain the joys of children’s laughter, the recollection of intimate moments, and the delights and sorrows of life quietly accepting all manner of memories. In my collection, I have two decorations nearing their 100th anniversary having once belonged to my father’s parents.

One decoration is a fish, and the other ornament could be best described as an acorn, and it is this acorn which holds much value. You see, an acorn is the nut of an oak tree containing a single seed to propagate life. As it hangs on the Christmas tree, it serves as a metaphor of immigration and the birth of new life.

Jakob (pronounced Yah-kob) Keller immigrated to the USA in 1921 from the city of Novi Sad, on the banks of the Danube (formally the Austro-Hungarian Empire) now the second largest city in Serbia. After the devastation of World War I, the region was caught up in chaos after the fall of the Hapsburgs as each ethno-faction within the former empire began to assert itself claiming autonomy. The tumult  produced the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes (Yugoslavia).

This region in central Europe, mostly filled with Croats and Serbs, was also populated by ethnic Austrians named Donauschwabens (Danube Swabians) who were given means by the government to populate this area in the mid-18th century by Empress Maria Theresa. Though Serbian was the lingua franca of the city, imported Austrians continued to speak their own German dialect, and held to their own customs. After all, it was Emperor Franz Joseph  who held power, and was the dominant force.

With the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Serbs in the area began what could best be described as ethnic cleansing making it very difficult for Austrians to live in the city. Fearing for their lives, Jakob, through the help of his cousin, immigrated to the United States in 1921 with his wife, and child, my father. After landing at Ellis Island, Jakob became known as Jacob, and Franz (my father) was renamed Frank.

The Christmas tree ornament in the shape of an acorn represents the hopes and dreams of a family fleeing a post traumatic war torn central Europe seeking sanctuary in a new land filled with opportunities, a land which provided a family a safe place to live, and grow.  It is the same acorn which heard a family struggle to learn a new language, an acorn absorbing the baby cries of two more children, and after a move to Southern California from Ohio, found its way to a new home with more life, and all manner of the messiness surrounding new holidays. It is the same acorn that now resides in my home, which I hope might make its way to one of my brother’s children.

Christmas trees and the things we hang on them are visual reminders of various chapters in the history of humankind, and all we need do is look at them and listen to what they have to say. Do your Christmas ornaments have a story? If they speak, can you take the time to listen?