When the Christmas season begins, Palo Alto resident Nicole Macuil always remembers the most beautiful holiday tree she has ever seen: An exotic white and turquoise Christmas tree at a friend's house that has become the basis of her holiday tree goals and one she always wished to emulate, she said.
"My dream was to someday have a beautiful tree that when people came to my house, they would be left in awe like I was when I saw that tree," she said.
Macuil's tree today is covered in golden butterflies, and she has named it "Dreams do come true." She is one of thousands of local residents for whom the Christmas tree takes on special meaning. Beyond the twinkling lights, golden garlands and store-bought baubles, there are personal messages. Some are steeped in age-old cultural traditions; others, such as Macuil's, become the hub of new traditions for transplanted immigrants.
"The Christmas tree was always special. Every year, my mom and I put up the tree. I couldn't wait. It was like a comfort. It wasn't complete until I put a present underneath. I would purposely wrap anything just to put things under the tree," she said.
But the tree is about more than Christmastime; it is also about relationships, Macuil said.
"We both loved art and we are creative. It was about getting to bond with my mom," she said.
When Macuil married and had children, she sought out the biggest, tallest, fattest tree she could find and afford. Her first tree had pine cones on it, but during a trip to a Big Lots store, she found the golden butterfly ornaments that became the basis of her special tree. As Macuil decorated her tree, she kept returning to the store to buy more of the golden-winged creatures.
"I think I went back 30 times that day. Now I think the tree has 60 butterflies all over it, and when I look at it, it's the tree that totally describes me," she said.
Every year she adds something new: a garland, a gold ribbon, a star, the handmade angels given to her by her neighbor.
Macuil's daughters are 2 and 3 years old now. This Christmas she hopes to pass down another tradition, the one in which they can help decorate, as she did with her mother.
"It's that bonding and making everything beautiful it's the thing that brings Christmas to the house," she said.
Barron Park neighborhood resident Winter Dellenbach's family traditions have carried over from Europe.
"My husband's family has been doing this back into (their) time in Germany: They have a 7- to 8-foot candle-lit tree, hung with fresh tangerines and old German wooden ornaments," she said. "We light the tree ... and later light the Advent cake on Christmas Eve. The room is only candle-lit for evening, with the evening lasting as long as the candles do."
Family and friends are served glugg, a mulled wine, with raisins and almonds in each cup for fertility.
For Palo Altan Patricia Karmin, tradition includes passing on ornaments in her family.
"When we were children, every year we were given a special ornament to hang on the tree. Each of our collections were kept in separate boxes after the holidays. When the four of us grew up and began our adult lives, those boxes went with us to our new homes. It made Christmas more special," she said.
"As we hung the old beloved ornaments even the ones that became tattered or worn after 20-plus years it brought back the memories of each Christmas we shared together," Karmin added. "Most of us carried that tradition along to our own children; those without children passed their ornaments to a special niece/nephew or child that we knew, and just kept some as keepsakes."
Karmin still has her red Santa Claus rattle ornament from her third Christmas, she said.
"Yes, his 'fur' trim is falling off, and the face paint is chipped, but it brings back the memories of our lives growing up at home and the happy events we all shared," she said.
Woodside resident Michele Colucci's tree is filled with a collection of official White House ornaments that are issued every year. She used to own and operate a chain of political memorabilia stores on the East Coast, and her sister worked as the special assistant to the president for domestic policy for a few years.
"So between her work and my retail stores, I've collected all the White House ornaments over the years," she said.
Colucci carried the official collectible ornaments from people who had received them along with personal notes from the first ladies or presidents.
"It's a wonderful collection and is reflective of the presidency back to 50 years ago," Colucci said. There's the first family sleigh ride; the presidential train car; the first presidential automobile, and many collectibles of the first family's pets: from Fala, Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Scottish terrier, to the Clintons' Socks, the cat."
But like Macuil, perhaps the most precious parts of her tree are the most personal.
When Colucci moved from Southern California, her ex-husband would not let her bring any of the ornaments she had acquired over the years from her family, so the rest of the tree was decorated in paper airplanes her sons had created in all sorts of colors, she said.
"Though not the most expensive or all that extravagant, it's still the best tree ever for us," she said.
Christmas tree traditions carry on in some families long after the holiday is done.
"We always took our tree down on 12th night (Jan. 6)," Karmin said. "This became the last holiday party for us and our friends, complete with cookies, hot chocolate, music and much laughter. A good way to wrap up the season and begin the New Year."
Read more holiday stories in the Holiday Guide to Everything.