Christmas treeFrom a distance, it looks just like any other bedecked Christmas tree. But this one, residing in the back room adjacent to my neighbor’s kitchen, is a little different from the one in the living room. (Yes, she has two.) You have to get close to see what I mean. This tree is aptly and affectionately called the shoe tree.

The shoe tree had humble beginnings. One day she saw one of her sister’s doll’s roller skates laying on the floor. With a stroke of creative genius, she added a hook to it and hung the found-object turned ornament on that year’s holiday tree. Shortly thereafter, tiny shoes – pairs and singles – started finding their way into her life, and nearly ten years later, it became clear that the shoes needed a tree all their own.

The first shoe tree was about three feet tall. Today, thirty years later it averages seven-and-a-half feet, and only half of her still-growing collection can fit on it. Pairs of petite shoes that are a tad to large to hang on the tree stand in a circle around the base of the tree.

detail of Christmas tree covered in shoesThe accidental shoe fetish has become a passion for everyone who knows her. This unassuming yet remarkable assemblage is a physical manifestation of the journeys she and her friends and family have taken over the past several decades. Shoes have come from near and far – from a San Francisco auto supply store and exotic corners of the earth.

Some of the shoes are guideposts from their respective moment in fashion and time. Others, were they full-size, would serve particular functions for specific activities. All are a reflection of the culture from which they were born. Some are marked with the traveler’s name and year and place where they found the shoe. All of them have a story, and it’s the rare few with unknown provenance.

tiny sequined hightop sneakerdisco and ethnic shoes on a Christmas treeI am fascinated by peoples’ collections of things, and I loved what my neighbor had to say about the merits of her well-curated shoes:

  • She’s very particular about the shoes and everyone knows that they must be an exact replica of an actual shoe in terms of the material from which they are made.
  • The collection is made up of small things that together do not take up a lot of space.
  • It’s seasonal, so it’s exciting to pull them out year after year.
  • They are meaningful. The shoes remind her of friends and travels, and they are a reminder that people think of her and her funny little collection.

tiny black loafers and an old-school metal roller skateshoe on shoe tree

And when it’s time to put the shoes away for their eleven month period of hibernation, they return to the gift wrap organizing bins they call home and get slid under the bed. Clogs with clogs, slippers with slippers. Cultures mingle and chat beneath closed lids until they can share their stories to all who visit when they return to the back room after Thanksgiving. And then the magic of my neighbor’s tree decorating ritual and visits with old friends begins anew.