Christmas tree ornaments: Touching holiday memories
Published: Friday, December 23, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, December 20, 2011 at 5:24 p.m.
For most people, the box of Christmas ornaments that comes out of storage each December is a box of memories. Each ornament has a story and, hung together, they are the narrative of our lives and the history of our families.
For many people, one ornament or group of ornaments stands out from the others. It's the one that goes on first or last and gets special placement and special treatment. The act of unearthing it each year and hanging it on a secure bough connects us to a cherished person or an especially tender time.
When a firestorm in July 1996 tore through the Sonoma Valley, Sharon Ponsford and Craig Jones were tragically in its path.
The Glen Ellen couple, then owners of Sonoma's Artisan Bakers, lost their home and everything in it, including their beloved Wheaten terrier Henry, and cats Zoe and Rufus.
Friends and community showered them with necessities. But it wasn't until much later that the couple realized they had also lost all of their Christmas ornaments.
One December day an employee entered Sharon's office with a small box that had been dropped off by an anonymous stranger. Inside was an unsigned card with the message, “I made these for you in memory of the three pets you lost earlier this year. Merry Christmas.”
There were three golden eggs, one hand-painted with a picture of a dog and two with cats. It brought Ponsford to tears.
“Somehow the very fragile eggs have survived now for 15 years,” Ponsford says. “We are always misty-eyed when we hang them on the tree, as they remind us of a very painful period in our lives and of our three lost friends. Now after 15 years our ornament box is full again, but none are quite as special as the three golden eggs.”
Susan Dunphy Mall said before her mother died, she gave her an egg carton filled with her grandmother's glass ornaments, some almost translucent from wear.
But the heirloom decoration that truly captured the Healdsburg woman's heart is a string of glass beads that her grandmother brought with her when she emigrated from Switzerland in 1907.
“My mom said when she was growing up those were the last thing that went on the tree,” says Mall, who with husband Jeff owns Healdsburg's Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar. “I remember watching her as one of the glass beads would break. She'd get teary and tighten up the string that went through them.”
Now the once 10-foot long glass garland has shrunk to five or six feet. But Mall, like her mother, treats the century-old beads with the same loving care.
“They give me a feeling of connection to those people, imagining that my grandmother carried those with her and celebrated her Christmases with them until she married and my mother growing up with her brother and seeing them and now Jeff and me having them on our trees. It's a line of continuity and connection to who you are.”
For some 20 years Joyce Wieck would send her father a tiny tool for Christmas. They were part of a line of miniature Craftsman Tool ornaments put out by Sears.
“Tools were my dad in every essence,” says Wieck says of dad Ed Doty, a contractor who built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena and later moved to Hawaii.
Wieck, of Santa Rosa, attached a new tool to the Christmas package she would send him. He displayed the growing collection on a wire tree. When he died, his wife Joan sent them back to Wieck, whose husband painstakingly repaired the broken ones and built her a small wooden display bench.
“This will be the fourth Christmas since I lost my dad,” she says. “I put the workbench out each year and everyone always asks the story behind that display. They mean the world to me.”
When Janice Haslam opened the old cookie tin, she was greeted with the toothless grin of her 6-year-old daughter Simone in a cardboard frame, ringed with glued redwood cones painted gold. Turn it around and she can see that this ornament was once the back of a Cheerios box. It is dated 12/15/1973.
“It was my Christmas present that year. It just brings back hugs and kisses,” says the Penngrove grandma, who has one of these precious photo ornaments from each of her five kids.
Some have lost their tiny redwood cones. But she loves their childish simplicity, bloopers and all - like the one with a paper-clip hanger pierced through the face.
She makes sure she finds a place on the tree that is stable for these most beloved of ornaments and she tries to always put them near the top.
Her children's faces are special for many reasons, perhaps most because they are captured forever just exactly as they were on Christmas, wearing the innocence of first grade.
Two fragile glass ornaments have always had an honored place — side by side — on Jacky Macy's tree.
Macy, of Santa Rosa, is now the third generation of her family to caretake the little Santa and cottage ornaments that her grandmother bought 70 years ago.
Her mother inherited them and decorated her tree with them when Macy, now 68, was growing up. When her mother decided to update her tree, Macy happily took the old ones.
“We have some of the others, but they don't make nearly as much of a statement as these do,” she said of the old Father Christmas and the glass cottage, neither more than 3 inches high.
They survived because they were treated with care. Her mother insisted on decorating when Macy was a kid to avoid breaks. Macy gives them the same TLC, wrapping each in tissue and putting them in a drawer after Christmas.
“I get a warm feeling in my heart when I see them, a feeling of family around,” she says. “It brings everybody that has gone before me back close to me again.”
It was a beggarly Christmas in New York for David Logan-Morrow and his partner back in 1975. Both had just been laid off but their unemployment checks had yet to kick in. With $10 between them they set off from their Chelsea flat to Canal Street, the place to go to stretch a dollar. Many of the shops had bargain boxes out in front filled with 25 cent and 50 cent trinkets. The pair were able to fish out a number of ornaments, and several strings of lights for 75 cents, all to adorn the scraggly, Charlie Brown tree someone had given them.
To this day Logan-Morrow, a photographer and a longtime actor and director in regional theater, treasures one unique ornament from that Christmas on a shoestring. It is a simple angel, with a cornhusk body and yarn locks.
He kept it all these years in part because of the memories it stirs.
“It reminds me of those days when you had very little money and you could do Christmas on a budget like that,” says Logan-Morrow. “We made cookies and even though we didn't have a lot of ornaments we strung popcorn and made popcorn balls.”
“Somebody wanted to get rid of that angel, but I never did.”
David Logan-Morrow, Santa Rosa
TINY FELT STOCKINGS
They are not very old or very elaborate, but the two tiny felt stockings that Ellen Skagerberg and her husband Eric place on their small tree are by far their favorites. Niece Mary Ellen Wood made them about eight years ago for her grandma to use for presenting cash gifts of $50.
“The money got spent right away, but every year we put up those little stockings with our names in glitter glue,” says Skagerberg, who works at Copperfield's Books. “To me, anything handmade has always been much better than anything you could buy. I would rather have that little handmade stocking from Mary Ellen than I would a silver Tiffany's ornament.”
Ellen Skagerberg, Santa Rosa
“I package it in a different box each year, wrapped in bubbles and soft tissue, in an attempt to preserve a treasured piece of her. Each year it comes upon me by surprise near the end of my unwrapping of the ornaments, as it's nearly the first to be put away and therefore nearly the last to uncover.
“And still, after all this time, my eyes tear, my vision blurred by memories of a season close to 50 years ago.
“I see my mother, cooking the corn starch mixture, rolling it to an even perfection, smooth and white, demonstrating how to carefully place the cookie cutter, close to the edge and to each other. I can smell the cornstarch baking and as they cool, paint colors and shapes are claimed, ideas imagined. Then the fun begins as the three of us — my brother, mother and I, create and compare.
“Some are traditional: my corn-piped snowmen and gingerbread men with wavy lines, some statements of our times: My teen-aged brother's Christmas-ball peace signs. Some are unexpected: My mother's intricate Christmas lion. But there's one I can clearly remember her painting — not your typical reds and greens but bright oranges and hot pinks from the psychedelic late ‘60s. Her masterpiece, faded and chipped with age, a design carefully executed on a fluted round shape: my mother's creation.
“We didn't share many Christmases after this. Perhaps, knowing of her terminal illness, she made more attempts to leave pieces of her, and our time together. Each year the ornament's design becomes more diminished and yet I see it, as on that pre-Christmas day long ago, through the eyes of a young girl. My mom's bright creation! I feel her presence, our love, a reminder of what remains.”
Alix Geller, Forestville.
"Say the magic word, say Mission Pack, and it's on its merry way,
No gift so bright, so gay, so right as the
Mission Pack magic way."
“My favorite Christmas 'ornament' is really my favorite Christmas character — Happy Holly — who was the star of the Christmas commercials for the White House Department store in San Francisco. My memory is that Happy Holly actually had his own show for kids, apparently starting in 1950. I remember him from when I was 5 or 6 years old — which would have been 1953-54.
“I was always on the quest to find someone else who loved Happy Holly the way I did. When I met folks who grew up in San Francisco (and if they were about my age), I would ask them if they remembered the elf Happy Holly and the TV show.
“No one ever knew what I was talking about, until ... I was holding a Madame Alexander doll show in my store Gingerbread in Montgomery Village in 1998 or '99 (now closed 11 years), and I met another woman from SF that I asked the same old question. She didn't know what I was talking about, but Miale Bridgewater overheard the question and was full of information. Miale is a doll collector (and I believe does some repairs/restoration too) and she was a guest speaker in the store for the Madame A event. She told me that she had a Happy Holly doll, that there was a record (remember that old word?!) and a coloring book. She said if I haunted the doll sales at the Vet's Building I could probably find one of the dolls.
“A few days before Christmas someone dropped off a wrapped package. When I opened it, I found my 4-inch-tall little friend. I think he has a wire body (since you can move his arms and legs) and he is dressed in a green felt suit with red shoes and cummerbund. Miale had found a doll for me, and had enclosed an article from a magazine article that told his story: 'The White House, Raphael Weill & Co Department Store, SF chose Happy Holly as their promotional theme in 1950. Artisans at the store created wonderful fairyland display windows along Grant Avenue depicting the scenes of Happy Holly's journey on his flying bark to find the Christmas Spirit.'
“Happy Holly lives in my china cabinet, and stays out for me to see all year. That way I keep the spirit of Christmas alive through the year. This old elf is over 60 years old!”
Linda Simonds, Santa Rosa
A MOTHER'S HANDMADE ANGEL
“My ornament was sewn and hand embroidered and appliqued by my mother, Frances Minkler, when I was in elementary school, around 1965. It's priceless to me as my mom was always a wonderful seamstress and loved to express her creative side. The angel's dress was made of leftover velveteen fabric from a holiday jumper she made for me; my younger sister also received her angel ornament in green, the color of the jumper my mom made her the same year. She hand glued and applied felt to the face, hands and feet, and made yarn hair and the stuffed and quilted white wings. Though the angel's face now has a stain (where I spilled hot chocolate as a girl), it has stayed intact for over 45 years.
“My mom is now in the late stages of long-standing Alzheimer's disease, now 90 years old and in a nursing home. She used to love Christmas and the deeper meaning of the holiday as well. Though she no longer comprehends the idea of Christmas, I hang it every year as a way to keep my mother in our family's thoughts at Christmas.”
Christine Minkler Pena, Sonoma
SANTA AND HIS SLEIGH
“On Christmas Eve our family gathered at our grandparents' home, Oakmead. It was 2 miles west of Fulton. My first trip was about 23 days after my birth in 1926. The last gathering of Wood relatives at Oakmead was on Christmas Eve 1955. It was a holiday the Frank and Hattie Wood family never missed. Their children, Helen Connolly, Talmadge "Babe" Wood, Edgar Wood and Frances McMullen along with their families, looked forward, among other things, to the almost 12 foot Christmas tree in the parlor with lots of lights and ornaments. The first sign of Christmas was a Santa in a sleigh pulled by one reindeer. It was placed on a table close to the family entrance. Now that ornament is placed on my table in my front room at Christmas time. My great grandchildren are cautioned to look and not touch.”
Barbara Connolly Schefer, Santa Rosa
PLASTIC SANTA FROM SANTA
“Favorite Christmas ornaments have been a topic in my family as long as I can remember. The one favorite I have to this day was received as a gift from my visit to Santa Claus as a little girl. Not only did I get to ask Santa for what I wanted him to bring me, but he gave me a sucker in a plastic Santa ornament as a gift for coming to see him in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota. This plastic (that was a new commodity at that time) Santa has hung on my trees for the past 60 years. I smile each time I unpack it and lovingly place it on our family tree. The sucker has been changed through the years, but the memories of snow-covered rooftops, streets, and yards and singing carols as we went to Grandma's house on Christmas Eve, come to life each season as this one ornament is viewed. I was fortunate to grow up in a loving, caring home. This ornament brings back these warm, happy memories and I hope will continue to do so for many years to come. It is a treasure.”
Pat Hall, Santa Rosa
BOO'S FIRST ORNAMENT.
“My favorite ornament was sent to me one Christmas when I was expecting my first and only child.
“He was due just after Christmas time. While my husband and I awaited his birth and bandied names about, we simply referred to him as "Boo". A good friend from out of town sent me a beautiful, painted and glazed bread-dough ornament depicting a fireplace with three stockings hanging from the mantle.
“I choked with emotion as I read each name of my little family: Steve, Jan and Boo. My son now is almost 19. Each year when I pull out that ornament, I tell him the story of his nickname and how blessed we were to have him.”
Jan Donnellan, Petaluma
REMEMBERING A FALLEN SON
“My favorite ornament I made a few years ago at our C.O.P.S. (Concerns of Police Survivors) Christmas meeting. It has a picture of our son, Officer Jimmy MacDonald and his badge number 1032. Jimmy was a police officer working for the Compton Police Dept. when on Feb. 22, 1993, he and his partner were murdered while making a traffic stop. I leave the ornament in our front-room window year 'round honoring our son.”
Toni MacDonald, Santa Rosa
“My mom was a gentle and loving soul, but she was a bit of a prankster. (I think she overdosed on Mother Goose rhymes as a kid!) On occasion, she enjoyed scaring her kids and grandchildren, but always in good humor. She would drive the car off to some remote spot and pretend we were lost. One night she dressed as a ghost and kept passing her grandkids' door on the second floor of our cabin. That backfired on her because later she found them trying to escape out the window with sheets tied together! Luckily no one was hurt!
“This clown ornament was naturally my mom's favorite because she knew the freaky clown scared my little brother and I, which, of course, delighted our older sister and brother. Instead of sugarplums dancing in our heads, we went off to bed with visions of that clown dancing on or smashing our heads!
“On the last Christmas I spent with my sister before she died of cancer, she handed me an elegantly wrapped gift, which I knew would be the last one from her. There in the box was the clown that I had completely forgotten over the years. I'm sure she gave it to me not only as a precious keepsake, but as a reminder to stay loose, pull a few pranks, and not take life too seriously!”
JoAnn Barton Tyler, Petaluma
AUNT NYDIA'S WINGED BEAR
“My Aunt Nydia Bogue passed away three months ago, but her daughter Kathy Alger decided to continue Nydia's Christmas tradition of a birthday/holiday luncheon and exchanging $1 gifts with family and friends. This year Kathy found a bag of ornaments Nydia had collected through the years to put on her tree. Her tree was the envy of the neighborhood as it was beautiful, elaborate and carefully assembled. We all closed our eyes, reached into a bag and picked one of these special and precious ornaments. So, needless to say, my chosen sweet little bear with tiny wings will be my favorite tree decoration for years to come.”
Ruthie Kurpinsky, Cloverdale
A SISTER'S ANGEL
"This angel has been on top of all of my Christmas trees for 60 years. I was born and raised in Idaho and had an older sister, Linda, who died of leukemia at 3 years old. I was born in September 1950 and she died that October when I was only 10 days old. My parents had purchased an angel to go on her grave that first Christmas and purchased another to go on the family tree in honor of Linda. I have had it with me every since ... and last night it went up on the tree top, as it always has. It's a memory of many holidays throughout my life but also a memory of a sister I never knew, but think of every Christmas when 'Linda's angel' goes on the tree."
Peg Miskin, Santa Rosa
You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or email@example.com.
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