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All the Trimmings

O Christmas-tree ornament! You fill our memory vacuums so nicely.

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From Christopher Radko's Website, we learn that when he was a young man, Radko was bullheaded enough, in that way that young men are, to suggest that the family Christmas tree, which carried some (are you ready?) 2,000 heirloom glass ornaments, was in need of a new and sturdier stand. He duly replaced the old model, and sure enough, seven days out from the big day, the fourteen-foot giant came crashing earthward, noisily bringing down with it generations' worth of Radko family memories and dreams.

It's not clear that Radko, who now designs Christmas-tree ornaments for a living, could run for president on the strength of this anecdote. As character-building, I've-been-to-the-bottom-and-found-my-redemp- tion narratives go, it doesn't hold an Advent candle to Bill Clinton's pubescent confrontation with his alcoholic stepfather. But as any shrink or decent post-O'Neill playwright can attest, family guilt is a motivator like no other; and so Radko made it his mission to bring heirloom glass ornaments not only to his family but to the rest of us. Today, he bestrides the ornament world as a conqueror -- its Erté, its Fabergé, or, if you insist on being catty about it, its Thomas Kinkade, marketing his hand-painted baubles (the Website, www.christopherradko.com, in describing each trinket's seven-day creation process, waxes positively Genesis-like) at $40 to $80 a pop.

Radko is doing for the Christmas ornament what Sub-Zero did for the refrigerator and Starbucks did for the morning cup of joe. Inevitably, the day will come when we will all be made to feel inadequate if our tree doesn't hold at least $1,500 worth of ornamentation. And yet he seems sincere about the whole thing. How can a person spend all year, every year thinking about Christmas and not be? No doubt he'd say he's just bringing beauty into the world.

But as Rilke wrote, more or less, where there is beauty there is also terror, and Christmas surely brings doses of both. The brief Christmas-morning scene in Todd Haynes's beautiful/terrifying Far From Heaven is silently harrowing, a reminder for any family of all those Christmases that somehow didn't go the way they do in the old movies. Those moments -- Uncle Steve showing up drunk again -- we suppress. Ornaments step in to fill this memory vacuum, which is why the personal symbols of the holiday -- the old family crèche with Melchior missing his left hand, the felt-on-canvas Three Kings wall-hanging you did for Mrs. Bolyard's art class that Mom still dutifully hangs -- end up being what many people cherish rather than the specific memories of events, which are much more a mixed bag. Time will prove, as Radkos spread out across the world, that he is soothing more consciences than his own.


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