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The Feel-Good Stories Behind Our Favorite Ornaments

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There’s not even close to a one-size-fits-all approach to Christmas tree decor. Some people have aesthetically-pleasing themes, with refined color schemes and clear design choices. But I’d say that by and large, most Christmas-decorators have a motley crew of tree hangings: collected on travels perhaps, or handmade by young relatives, personalized in mall kiosks, or gifted by friends with inside jokes in mind.

Ornaments are often small tokens of “I thought of you,” made more special by the comparatively short time they’re put on show. They’re a way of giving someone a hyper-personalized gift, and because they only come out once a year, some of the pressure (both to give and to display) is mitigated.

The thrill of remembering which ornaments you own from year to year never fades, either—it’s just as exciting to unfold the tissue paper as an adult as it was to tear open the storage boxes as a child. The memories come flooding back, and you can revel in each of them while searching for the perfect branch.

My mom’s favorite ornament is one she’s had for 30 years, that she bought right after my dad and her were married. Every year she hangs it high on the tree, away from prying kids and dogs, and at the end of the season, tucks it carefully away in its original box. I’m only a little insulted that her favorite isn’t the one I made for her, but that’s okay.

Since ornaments quite clearly have a holiday hold over us, we’ve asked some of our team members to tell us which ones they hold most dear. Read on for some sweet stories.

Photo by Caroline Mullen

My mom has given me ornaments every year since I was born. She’s very sentimental (especially so when it comes to Christmas), and wanted to make sure I had a sort of Christmas dowry to take with me when I moved out. My favorite ornaments now, as an adult (my parents would beg to differ), are ones that used to slightly embarrass teenage me—symbols of phases in my life I was so obviously past, Mom. Now I can unwrap them without the flush of shame for a hobby I grew out of, and instead be unbelievably grateful for the filled-to-the-brim childhood my parents allowed for me.

In the year 2000, I was itching under a sequined headpiece and swishing in a tasseled recital skirt, exhibiting a surplus of self-importance that came with the little bit of blush applied to my cheeks. Naturally, I got an ornament of a ballet costume this year.

In 2005, I was second flute in the middle-school band, and by then I had been playing long enough for the rental payments to amount to a purchase. So naturally, I quit shortly thereafter. Also in 2005, I was taking weekly guitar lessons, which I stuck with for longer than the flute, but not long enough to really nail ‘Stairway to Heaven’ in its entirety.

Lastly, but only for this list’s sake, is the typewriter my mom got for me in 2017, when I graduated with a degree in Creative Writing—off to work in media with bright eyes and a bushy tail.

Photo by Brian Mahoney

This pink flamingo always makes me smile. Not only does it have the perfect amount of whimsy and flair, but it reminds me of my husband and our first Christmas after moving in together. We were living near Union Square in New York, and were visiting the annual holiday market for gift and decoration inspiration, when we came across a booth with beautiful hand-painted wooden ornaments from Bali. We befriended the owner (shoutout to Monkey Business!), and love returning to her booth each year to add to our collection. I look forward to being able to do so again soon in a post-pandemic NYC (which is still very much alive, thank you for asking).

Cara’s dad holds up the prized ornament on Facetime.

Photo by Cara Vaccaro

Every year my mom waits until we (my two siblings and I) can all be home to put this one specific ornament up the tree. It’s a handmade ornament of a Christmas tree, and it’s my favorite because each of us (myself included) is convinced we made it, and every year there is an argument about who actually did. We all have hyper-specific memories of making it (I’m definitely the one who did) that we recount, but it’s all in good fun and always leads to lots of laughter. Now, it’s almost like the legend has become bigger than the ornament itself, and it’s a pseudo tradition I look forward to every year.

Photo by Rebecca Firkser

My family isn’t strictly (or loosely, for that matter) religious, but my Jewish dad and Christian mom always insisted on both putting up a tree and spinning the dreidel. Which brings me to this, our Star of David ornament, which makes a yearly appearance front and center on the Christmas tree—simple, but effective. When I was very small, I assumed everyone got to take part in more than one religious tradition (like I did), but it was only as I visited others’ homes that I learned it wasn’t the case. I still feel that my early exposure to the traditions of two religions—which, let’s be honest, barely scratches the surface when it comes to worldwide belief systems—helped me understand at a young age that there wasn’t just one way to see the world, and definitely not just one way to celebrate. While I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for our putty-nosed I Love Lucy ornament, as well as the revered pickle ornament (which a different member of the family is tasked with hiding somewhere on the tree each year), the older I get, the Star of David means just a little bit more.

Photo by Patrick Moynihan

As a kid, I was in awe of a particular set of ornaments, and their emergence from the basement with the rest meant it was officially time for Christmas. There was a whole set of them, in a wide range of colors and details, and the fact that my aunt had made them herself only increased their hold over me. A puzzle-making wunderkind, known for making them upside down (just for fun!), these ornaments are the best example of her attention to detail and admiration for the finer details. Similar to a certain cowboy named Woody (when his owner leaves the room), these ornaments show their true beauty when the sun goes down and the Christmas lights come on. Combine those lights with the beading and ornate stitch-work, and you get a tree that feels alive, and dare I say it—magical.

Decorating the tree was a notable, albeit tenuous, event in our house. With three young kids and a mom who knew precisely where each ornament should live on the tree, there were tearful moments. Once unpacked, though, a calm set about the house and, handled with care, these heirlooms took their rightful place at the front of the tree. Now, where’s the eggnog?!

Photo by Erin Alexander

I love filling my teeny-tiny Christmas tree (anything taller than three feet simply will not fit in my living room) with ornaments I’ve collected over the years, but one of my favorites was given to me not too long ago. In 2018, I participated in Food52’s annual holiday swap for the first time and received the yummiest box of goodies—margarita mix, a bottle of homemade enchilada sauce, chocolate-covered pecans, local coffee, and more—from someone in Waco, Texas (which, as a ‘Fixer Upper’ fan, I was very excited about). In the box, she also included a Texas Lone Star ornament as a tribute to her home state. And while I’ll probably never get the chance to meet my swap-ee in person, every time I see that ornament up on my tree I’m reminded of all the thought and care she put into a gift for a complete stranger, and the joy it brings me each year.

Do you have an ornament you cherish most? Tell us its story below!

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