In this age of fleeting trends and revolving styles, few traditions are as rich and steadfast as decorating the Christmas tree. Whether your tree is real or artificial, green or silver or anything in between—putting it up and adorning it with ornaments is a most anticipated and beloved ritual. Opening that box of ornaments and trim brings oohs and ahs from excited kids, and a rush of warm memories from their parents. For me, getting those boxes from the attic and pulling the ornaments from their little tissue caves is when the holiday season truly begins.
I’ll admit, I’m a sucker for vintage ornaments. The delicate old mercury glass, often hand blown and so thin it feels like paper—it’s miraculous that those pieces survived decades of use. The really old ornaments were often made in Germany, Poland, sometimes Japan and other countries. I have some shaped like lanterns, walnuts, even a hot air balloon. The paint may be worn and the finish may be faded, but to me they are beautiful. I enjoy thinking about the hands that carefully placed them on a tree so many times over so many years. Maybe a child’s nervous hand, or a loving parent’s, maybe during wartime or hard times or good times of plenty; then carefully packed away after Christmas and stored until the next year.
I often get my ornaments from estate sales, and it saddens me to think that they outlasted their owner or the family’s sentimental attachment. When I find them wrapped in colored toilet tissue, or with pipe cleaners and thread instead of hooks, I imagine it was a thrifty senior citizen who took such care to protect them. I feel a sense of obligation to give them the same care and protection.
The mid-century ornaments have their own stories to tell, and the post-war designs always bring a smile. It’s as if the Christmas trees reflected the same optimism as the country. The familiar Shiny Brite pieces feature bright colors, stripes, flocking, stenciled designs and indents. Although today’s technology allows for a vast array of colored ornaments, there is just something about those 1950s colors that seem more genuine…more sincere. Many of us grew up with the Shiny Brite bulbs – maybe you have some that you kept from your parents’ collection. I can still imagine the tree in my grandparent’s house, with those amazing ornaments tucked among the angel hair and draped with heavy tinsel. The angel hair was actually spun glass, and the leaded tinsel has long since been banned.
And now there is a new breed of vintage ornaments – the Keepsake ornaments we’ve been buying each year since the girls were born, the clumsy figures made by little pre-school hands, the mementos and gifts and all the other special treasures that hang among the branches. We give them with love, we receive them with joy, and we display them with pride. They represent our milestones, changing tastes and interests and even our hobbies. And I bet I’m speaking for many when I say those are usually the ornaments we un-box with the most anticipation and hang in the most visible places on the tree.
When we lost our home to the fire it was in full Christmas mode, so sadly the ornaments and holiday décor were destroyed. But two days before Christmas, a kind high school teacher helped the girls sift through the debris and ash to salvage as many Keepsake ornaments as they could find. We packed the sooty, smelly pieces away and tried not to mourn over them too much. In the following months my husband gave them a brief cleaning and repacked them, thinking we could at least keep them for the memory. Five years later I pulled them out and really gave them a good scouring, smoothing the manes on the toy ponies and gluing the kittens back into baskets. The result was a pretty decent collection of Keepsake ornaments that were restored enough to go back on a tree. I surprised each daughter with her set of ornaments that were believed to be lost forever, and their pleasure was a gift I held close.
Our Christmas ornaments are more than just a style statement or color coordinated way to dress our homes for the holidays. They represent family traditions, sentimental memories, or a snapshot of a moment in time. The stories they tell may not even be our own, they may be the stories of a stranger who lived many years before us. But nevertheless, they tell a story. And when our ornaments become part of our own story, we are creating a tradition that hopefully will spark joyful memories for many Christmases to come.