Holiday treasures: Favorite ornaments remind us of loved ones and special times
You deck your halls and trim your trees with treasures – some of them handmade, others decades-old and well-worn, the paint chipping and colors fading.
These trinkets are well-loved, even if – in some cases – only the memory of them remains.
From a paper angel and baby’s first ornament to pie-tin star-shaped tree-topper, a young couple’s first set of Santas and many more, your ornaments tell stories of love and loss, resourcefulness and ingenuity. They mark moments and lifetimes together and, of course, embody the spirit of the holidays.
The Spokesman-Review asked readers to share the short stories behind their most-treasured ornaments – and responses were overwhelming. There isn’t room for all. But here’s an ode to some of your most beloved holiday ornaments.
Almost every Christmas, Kathy Fischer buys an ornament to commemorate a special memory from the previous year. One “now elicits the most emotions in me.” It’s a souvenir of the Seattle Space Needle from nearly four years ago. And, “It reflects a life-altering, blessed event.” It represents the day she reunited with the daughter she had placed for adoption in 1974. On Jan. 24, 2015, “we were together in that place – talking, touching, laughing, crying and celebrating her birthday – for the first time ever.” Today, they talk nearly every other week and see each other four or five times a year. This Christmas, her daughter is coming to Spokane from Seattle. They plan to visit Fischer’s Idaho hometown, where her daughter will “meet the rest of the family she hasn’t met yet.”
Tuna can tree
Cathy Gunderson made her tuna can tree in 1971 when she lived in a studio apartment with no space for a real one. “I did not have enough for decorations either, but saw this idea in a book but made of coffee cans for outside.” The cans are painted silver, and a colored glass ball ornament is paper-clipped inside each one, except for the top where an angel ornament sits. A string of lights brightens it up at night. Gunderson has displayed her tuna can tree each year since she made it, except one. It features 65 cans. “That’s a lot of tuna.”
Carol Snyder’s mom, Dorothy Campbell, was famous in her family for making mouse ornaments. It started with a mouse in a Campbell soup can. “Then mom added a mouse for each memorable moment in our lives.” There are mouse brides and mouse babies, a movie-extra mouse, mice commemorating trips to China and Hawaii, a meter-reader mouse. “When I married a construction superintendent, my mom welcomes him to the family with his own carpenter mouse, complete with a tool belt and chest.” Work boots, too. And a plaid shirt over a turtleneck, denim pants, red hat, big smile and even bigger ears. “My mom has passed away, but we remember her love when we see our mice on the trees.”
The “pudgy” angel in a red tutu is just 3 inches tall and wears an “impish” smile. Atop her red yarn hair a crooked golden halo sits askew. “We had never found just the right tree top ornament until she entered our lives, but we immediately knew when she arrived – sent by my best friend years ago – that our search was over,” Isabelle Green said. “She embodies what we cherish most – unconditional love, loyalty and courage. For us, she embodies the eternal spirit of Christmas.”
As a child, Patricia Marvel was “completely captivated” by a tiny paper angel. “Every year I was allowed to place it somewhere on our tree – somewhere special, somewhere hidden, somewhere known only to me. After I grew up, moved away and started putting up my own tree, I continued this tradition with my sweet, simple ornament. Even this year, more than 60 years after I first laid eyes on her, I felt a joyful thrill when I placed my little angel in her secret, special place on my tree.”
“He was Jewish. I was not. We went to different schools, but were neighborhood friends. When I was in first grade, Larry gave me a Christmas present with an angel bell tied on it.” This was 1955, so, Melody Noble said, “I don’t remember a lot of details.” But, every year since he gave it to her, “this angel has hung on our Christmas tree, first my parents’ tree and then my family tree. It is always hung near the top of the tree so it won’t get broken. I lost track of Larry years ago but will always remember his thoughtfulness and friendship.”
Judy Herrmann’s tree topper was made by her sister many years ago and given to her as a gift. It remains “very special. Although our tree decorations change year by year, the sweet black angel always sits on top of the tree and watches our family Christmas celebrations. The black angel seems to represent America’s enslaved people and sing heartfelt songs yearning for heaven. And, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?”
When her daughter was little, Kyra Straub started looking for an angel tree topper. She wanted one that resembled her daughter. “We searched for more than a year. It wasn’t meant to be. Finally, we decided on a blond angel with blues eyes. (My daughter) thought that would be fine. I did not. When we got home with the angel, I pulled out some brown shoe polish and changed the store-bought angel to resemble our angel, brunette with blue eyes. For more than 30 years she has adorned our tree top, placed there by our angel every year.”
Janet Zaborski’s youngest sister, Karen, was 7 or 8 almost 40 years ago when their mom sat her down at the table with craft supplies so she could make Christmas gifts. Today, even though Zaborski has “many lovely ornaments from craft fairs and distant lands,” this one always has a place on her tree. “I never stop being amused by the rather disturbing way the angel in suspended in the frame, which earned this ornament the name ‘Noose Angel.’ ”
Susanna Baylon received her most treasured ornament when she was 4 from her mom. It’s made from a real eggshell and features three oval-shaped cut-outs that reveal a tiny angel, hands clasped and head bent gently in prayer. Baylon has had it for 49 years. “She bought ornaments every year for me to signify a life event that year. That year I was Mary in a Nativity scene, and she thought it would remind me of that. It’s moved five states, protected in a small metal juice container. Its delicateness always reminds me of the fragility of life and the hope of Christmas.”
Jenny Rose’s favorite has been with her for 56 years. She was in Blue Birds in second grade in Spokane in 1962 when she made it. “I took this real egg and poked a hole in each end and blew out its contents.” Then, she spray-painted it gold and decorated it with glitter and sequins. “The original pipe cleaner is still holding it up,” said Rose, 63. “I can’t believe it has not cracked or broke all these years considering it’s hollow inside. It has hung on every Christmas tree I’ve been around since 1962. I hope it continues to hang on my children’s and grandchildren’s trees long after I am gone.”
Stick-horse candy-cane covers
Linda Penfield was raised in North Carolina, the fifth of eight children. Her parents were both Minnesota natives so, she said, “we didn’t have any relatives nearby to spend the holidays with.” But, Penfield’s maternal grandmother – “very artistic” and “so much fun” – would mail a box of “crafty things she would make for us kids. We loved getting a box from her each Christmas.” One year, “Grandma Koenigs made these little stick-horse candy-cane covers.” And, “Every year from then on we kids would clamor over them to claim our favorite. Several years ago, my mother passed them on to me. Mom passed away just before Christmas last year. Although the theme of my holiday decorating as evolved over the years, these sweet cane candy covers remain my favorite.”
“The smell of pork roast, ‘Jeopardy’ on the television, and Grandma at her dining room table are the treasured memories of my favorite ornament,” Michelle Olson said, noting her grandmother “was a farm wife, never sitting for a moment except when she had a white Styrofoam ball in her hand and was surrounded by piles of ribbons, trays of beads, sequins and pins. She’d tip her head back, look through her bifocals and (say), ‘Get my decorations done.’ Each adornment was unique and when completed, she would brush her gray hair back from her forehead and give her critical assessment: ‘It will have to do.’”
Melody Faris has a piano ornament that plays “Für Elise” by Beethoven. She said she’s “heard that piano teachers hate that piece, having heard it played badly throughout their careers. But I loved it before I taught it. I was one of those piano students that played it badly. My children played ‘Für Elise.’ And I have smiled benignantly while other children learned to play it.”
A star is born
“I always thought that a star should be on the top of the Christmas tree,” said Bob Curry, who moved to Pullman in 1976 with his young family, including two small children. Instead of buying a tree-topper, “I made one for us out of a disposable aluminum pie plate. With tin snips I cut it into a star shape and made a hole in the middle for a light, the kind of large, screw-in bulbs we had back then.” They “used for many years.”
A star is lost
Mina Mittelstaed was married in 1956 and, she said, “like many newlyweds, had a limited budget. It was my husband’s first year of wheat farming, the crop yield was poor and the prices poorer. We found a scraggly little tree in our pasture and bought a package of tinsel … but what about a topper?” Her husband disappeared into his farm shop and fashioned a “beautiful star” – from an old hubcap. “We loved and used that star for over 60 years until we moved to Post Falls.” In the move and packing, they misplaced or lost their hubcap star. But, “the memory remains.”
Gifts from dad’s jigsaw
In the late 1970s, Linda Fifer’s dad took a plain piece of wood to his jigsaw and created 24 simple ornaments. He dated each one then boxed them to be opened in subsequent years. “He died in 1979 before I had opened the complete set. For eight more years, I anticipated opening each dated box, these favorite ornaments, from his hand to mine. They are the first on the tree, last to be removed, still warming smiles and memories of my dad on chilly winter evenings.”
Fran Wicht’s favorite ornament was hand-carved about 25 years ago. “Everyone who sees it is amazed at the craftsmanship,” she said. “People say they have never seen such a beautifully carved wooden hiking boot. It was made by a friend of mine. He has since gone blind and can no longer carve. That makes it a memorial boot now. I treasure it.”
Trudy L. Zaborski’s son, Tracey, was born Dec. 18, 1971, and Deaconess Hospital sent him home in an over-sized Christmas stocking. It’s not a tree ornament. But, when he was older, Tracey would hang his very own stocking by the fireplace “in expectation of 7 pounds and 13 ounces worth of goodies to be placed inside. That memorable and treasured stocking became our favorite Christmas tradition.”
Baby’s first ornament
Kyla Scott didn’t put many ornaments on the tree this year. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t celebrating. “After a five-year struggle with unexplained infertility, losing babies during pregnancy, hundreds of injections and blood tests and ultrasounds, tens of thousands of dollars, six or seven doctors, plus all the guilt, worry, shame, fights, ugly cries and headaches, Jake is here.” With her son, now 7 months old and almost crawling, plus three dogs and “the cliched pure exhaustion,” she’s treasuring an ornament with her son’s name on it, a gift from his grandma who brought it with her on her most recent visit from South Dakota. It’s one of the few ornaments to make it on the tree this year. “It’s Jake’s first Christmas, and through the dog hair and exhaustion, we’re trying to make it special for him like he has made it for us. The simplicity of this ornament can’t match his fan-fared arrival, but he outshines most everything anyway.”
Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe
Christmas wasn’t complete without an annual visit to Frederick & Nelson in downtown Seattle to have photos with Santa and, Joan Weber said, “marvel at the animated windows and amazing decorations.” She visited Santa at Frederick & Nelson every year until she was 10. One of her Santa photos ended up in the department store’s history book. “Of course, the author didn’t know who I was, but my parents did. My mother worked in the toy department for many years.” After she was older, she gave her mom a copy of the book as a gift one Christmas. “It didn’t take them long to realize it was me sitting on Santa’s lap!” Weber still has the original photo as proof that it was, in fact, her in the book. She remembers Santa’s “very special helpers,” Aunt Holly and Uncle Mistletoe, “who greeted, shepherded and handed out full-size candy canes. As an adult, my parents gave me glass ornaments of the couple. F&N and my parents are gone, but this marks the 50th year this wonderful couple has hung front and center on the tree.”
It was 1963. “We had recently moved from our 800-square-foot home on Post Street to our new Valley home, which was twice the size!” Susan Rae said. “Mom came home with a package. There was much anticipation as it was something new for our Christmas tree in our ‘big new house.’ She carefully opened it and – with all the flourish of presenting a brand-new baby – she lifted the sparkling new tree topper from its box. The gleaming gold and green spire with a light and angel hair enclosure exuded hushed tones of awe from us kids. We had just moved up three notches on the social scale, or so we thought.” The “electrified” Carillon Spire Christmas Tree Top – patent pending, “unbreakable” written on the box – was made by Bradford Co. “We were thrilled, happy and immersed in the holiday magic once again through our parents.”
A tale of two Santas
Cheryl Ferguson has two favorite Santas. One has been in her husband’s family for more than 100 years. It belonged to his grandparents, was handed down to his parents and now resides in their home. Its colors are faded and worn. But, it’s so special that, Ferguson said, “We proudly display this fragile ornament in our china hutch all year around.” The other “funny little Santa” is part of a set of six. They were purchased at Trident Imports on the Seattle waterfront for 57 cents. Trident Imports closed in 1997. But, Ferguson said, those funny little Santas “were the first ornaments hung on our first Christmas tree 54 years ago and have been the first ornament hung our tree ever since.”
John Reilly, 80, loves his vintage Santa, passed down to him from his mother, Margaret, who inherited it from her aunt, Grace. It always gets a special spot, in the middle of the tree, “for our children to enjoy and learn of the history.” The ornament, still shiny, shows Santa’s face and beard, rosy cheeks and white-trimmed red hat. “This will be passed on to our children, but we hope that my wife (Carleen) and I have many more years with this.”
Made in Japan
Only two are left. Once bright red, they are now faded pink. Diane Eastmen’s parents were a young newlywed couple when they bought four Santas for a nickel at the Harrington drug store on Dec. 7, 1941, before they knew Pearl Harbor had been attacked. “It was my folks’ first Christmas. They have been on our families’ Christmas trees every year since then. They have a tag on the bottom that says ‘Made in Japan.’ A special keepsake from my parents, purchased on a very sad day.”
Rodney Jenkins has had the same favorite ornament for more than 60 years, since he was a boy. “The magical element of this delicate ornament is that inside the clear pink carousel-shaped ornament, there is a small shiny silver and blue metal blade that is balanced perfectly in the center allowing it to rotate and twirl around slowly when the lights of the tree are warmly lit and the heat of the lights around the ornament rises to turn the blades,” his wife, Jill Jenkins, said. “The motion is simple and charming. As a young child, my husband grew up admiring the motion of the small ornament blade spinning on the Christmas tree and later developed a similar adoration for airplane propellers as a professional pilot.”
For 15-plus years before her death in 2013, Myrtle Ohman cut snowflakes from wrapping paper, literally hundreds of them, to send to her daughters, sons, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “The most remarkable thing about the task was that my mom had macular (degeneration) disease and was legally blind,” said Myrna Shockley, who continues to hang her mom’s laminated snowflakes on her tree every year.