The Sad Truth about Christmas Tree Ornaments

01 Penguin Christmas Ornaments

We always open a couple of small gifts on Christmas Eve. In 2005, Nathan was living in his apartment about a mile down the road from where we live now. He stopped by on Christmas Eve with a couple of gifts for me, and one of them was this pair of penguins ornament. I remember being very excited—it was our second Christmas together, and his putting our names together on an ornament—especially since they were penguins, which he knew were my favorite—meant he believed he was going to be in my life for a long, long, time. I still keep it in the original box—which is, actually, a clear plastic container that once contained fudge.

In many homes, Christmas trees are integral to the season.

For us, the “work” part is choosing one, bringing it home, and setting it up (and making sure the kitties don’t view it as a big plaything). The “fun” part is decorating. We open a bottle of wine, spread out the refreshments, fire up the Christmas music—and unwrap our ornaments.

02 Small Christmas Tree

Our tree last year. It was tiny and only has room for about a quarter of our ornaments—at the time, we thought we’d be moving, and we didn’t want to unpack everything, since most of it was already relocation-ready.

There’s a story for each one. A story about a glass star ornament Nathan still has:

“Every year my mother and I used to buy an ornament – and they could never be very expensive, because we were so poor. One day we were walking through the Acme supermarket, and they had these beautiful little mirror ornaments for a dollar a piece. And I found a little angel and I said, “this is what I want my ornament to be this year.” So we picked it up and we were carrying it back to the register, and I dropped it. And it broke. And I was so upset. We went back to the bin and looked through all the other ornaments, but they didn’t have another one. So we put the little angel back in the ornaments and I brought home this star. Just before Christmas, we were back in the Acme to shop because we were getting ready for Christmas dinner, and I saw the little angel, broken, still in the ornaments. Nobody had bought it because it was damaged, so I took my Christmas money and I bought the little angel ’cuz I felt bad for it.”

He no longer has the angel—he used parts of her to make a piece of artwork, which he gave to one of his teachers. But he still has the star, and it’s a story he tells me every year.

It reveals much about the way he grew up, his family traditions, his personality, his likes and dislikes.

03 Large Christmas Tree

Me, Christmas, 1974, in front of my parents’ massive Christmas tree. Dad had designed and built the house to have an enormous cathedral ceiling (not really done back in the late 60s), and that meant that every year we had anywhere from an 18 to a 22-foot tree.

Ornaments aren’t just things we hang on our trees. They help us understand the people we love and the people who came before us; they provide a window into cultures past; they’re a means for keeping our memories alive.

The sad truth, though: they get broken. They get lost in a move. They’re destroyed in flood or fire. When there are no ornaments to hang, there are no longer stories to tell.

Or, someone dies. A grandparent, a parent. We inherit their ornaments—but the stories that person told about them are taken to the grave.

Last year, as part of The Goodbye Project, I was jettisoning objects in my house—but carefully photographing them, recording the memories that go with them before I let them go. I decided it was time for me to start a log about my ornaments.

This way, when they go (or I do), something will be left behind.

Below, some of the ornaments on 2011’s tree—and a trip down memory lane.

04 French Horn Christmas Ornament

My mother would usually bake cookies for her friends and associates, but some years, she made other things, like ornaments. This French Horn was part of her cookie platter gifting in 1977—it was one of many instruments that came in a “crafting” kit with colored markers: the purchaser used the markers to color the plastic ornaments, creating a “stained glass” effect. The horn is clear now, because over the years, the color has faded.

05 Rescuers Christmas Ornament 1

Bernard from Disney’s The Rescuers—my favorite of the Disney cartoon films when I was a kid. This Bernard is actually from the second film, The Rescuers: Down Under, and was issued as part of McDonald’s Happy Meals in 1990. I did not, however, get him back then; I’m pretty sure I found him at a tag sale in 1997—that year would have been my first Christmas in Charles’ house. He was on the tree every year except for 2010—although I was sure I’d packed him, I suddenly couldn’t find him. The fact that I’d somehow lost him haunted me—every time I held him in my hands, I’d remember how I dressed up as Bianca (and my brother was Bernard) for Halloween in 1977, the poster of The Rescuers I used to have on my closet door, which came in the mail with the Disney book when I was in 2nd Grade and I was home very sick from school. It was like having lost the ornament I was losing a piece of my childhood. But as we were taking down last year’s tree, I found him! It turns out he was still wrapped up in tissue paper in my ornament box; somehow, he’d gotten missed and never made it to the tree. I was so thrilled. I’ll be sure to never lose him again.

06 Grand Hotel Ornament

A prop from New Fairfield, Connecticut’s Gateway’s Candlewood Playhouse production of Grand Hotel. I worked at the theatre running spots and/or props from September through November, 1993. I didn’t deliberately keep this key—there were several hotel keys because they’d often get lost or actors would bring them back to their dressing rooms and forget to return them. After the show had been loaded out, our costume mistress Karen found this in the dressing room and returned it to me, since I was in charge of props. The show had already left, so I ended up keeping it in my desk drawer. At the end of the season, I threw everything in the drawer in my box, so the key ended up coming home with me. Still, I’m proud to hang this on my tree as it’s the one memento I have left of that Fall. Gateway’s Candlewood Playhouse, in fact, no longer exists—after 35 years in business, it shuttered in 1998 due to lack of area interest–you can read about that here: http://www.backstage.com/bso/esearch/article_display.jsp?vnu_content_id=692416.
The property was sold, the buildings were razed, and a Stop & Shop now stands on the spot.

07 Kristi Gateway's Candlewood Playhouse

Me in the backstage area at Gateway’s Candlewood Playhouse, October, 1993. They used to call me the Prop Tart.

08 Kissing Birds Ornament

This ornament is one of my most treasured possessions. I was married for almost three years back in the early 1990s, and our first Christmas was 1994. It was, up until that time, the best Christmas I’d ever had—but Chris and I never had a tree; our apartment was too small. Someone gave us this as a wedding gift, and I just threw it in a drawer and kept it. It didn’t actually see its first Christmas tree until after I was divorced in Christmas 1997. I doubt Chris even knows I still have it. But I still put it on my tree, because it brings back nice memories of the fun times in my first marriage.

09 Our Old Apartment Bethel

My apartment with my first husband Chris in Bethel, Connecticut, 1994. The place was really too small for us to have a decent-sized tree, so we never had one.

10 Disney's Polynesian Ornament

Every year between 2005 and 2008, I visited Walt Disney World. I wish I had gotten one of these resort ornaments for each of my trips (2005-2007 I stayed in the Port Orleans Riverside). 2008, however, was a special year. My father had died in 2008, and the Polynesian resort was his favorite place to stay (as well as mine). I took a trip with my friends Rob and Jen Winston Mayette. Rob and Jen got engaged on that trip.

11 Disney's Polynesian Gardens

Me, Rob, and Jen in the Polynesian Resort’s gardens.

12 Disney's Contemporary Ornament

In August of 2008, my friend Meghan and I went to stay in her late parents’ favorite Disney resort—the Contemporary. We had a ball on that trip. All I remember is sitting on the balcony drinking wine and watching the fireworks and waking up to the thrum of the monorail coursing through the A-Tower building.

13 Me and Meghan Contemporary Check-in desk

My friend Megan and I check in to the Contemporary, August, 2008.

14 Happy Feet Christmas Ornament

This Happy Feet Hallmark Keepsake Ornament was a gift from my co-worker, Linda, in 2006. Before my office shrank to a third of its workforce, a couple of days before Christmas was a magical affair—we’d all exchange gifts and then have a party after hours. Those days were lots of fun! This ornament also brings back the fond memory of that year in which Nathan was my hero: I really, really, really wanted the Mumbles Build-a-Bear, but they were in such high demand they couldn’t keep them in the stores for more than ten minutes. Nathan ended up paying off a store employee to call him the second one came in—and Mumbles arrived!

15 Happy Feet Hallmark Ornament

Here is the Keepsake Ornament on my desk. As you can see, I couldn’t wait to unwrap it! I still keep it in the original box.

16 Three Penguin Tree Ornaments

My co-worker Linda gave me this Keepsake Ornament in 2005. Every time I see it, I fondly recall those old office celebrations and some of the funny stories that went with them—like the time somebody had to run out and get more wine.

17 Party at Work

Here’s a shot of the table during our after-hours gathering in 2006. It was always like Christmas all day long when we used to do that. Some years we’d do Secret Santa; other years, a swap auction.

18 Al's Woodworking Snowman Tree Ornament

My friend Al is one of the most amazing woodcrafters you’ve ever seen; one of his passions in life is to work in his woodshop, in which he makes Christmas gifts for friends year-round. In 2007, Al gave each of his friends a cellophane bag of hand-made wooden ornaments. This is one of them. Every time I hang these on my tree I remember the many great parties Pencils! Writing Workshop used to have at his home—in 2005 the Mexican Fiesta, the countless Rejection Slip burning parties, the Christmas parties—there were so many. A party at Al and later Al and his late wife MaryAnn’s (see their wedding, below) was always a magical weekend in Norwalk, Connecticut. I’d leave on Friday after work and not come home until Sunday.

19 - Al and MaryAnn's Wedding

Al, who fashioned the robot ornament, and MaryAnn on their wedding day, August, 2007. The ornaments bring back fond memories of that day as well—they were wed in their back yard.

20 Me and Vance dancing

Here, I cut a rug with fellow writer and friend Vance at Al and MaryAnn’s wedding, August, 2007.

21 Penguin Christmas Tree Ornament

2007 was a big penguin year for me. Nathan went out and bought me all of these penguin ornaments, as well as statues for the mantel. Every time I look at these or hang them on the tree, I remember what a strange year that was—it was the year my father was dying and, in fact, was Dad’s last Christmas, though we didn’t know it yet. Nathan was very supportive of me during that year, so hanging these on the tree always makes me think of the good times we’ve had together and how lucky I am—it also reminds me of how magical it is to use my penguin dishes, which I also got that year for Christmas (see below).

22 Penguin Dishes

Nathan and Charles bought me this complete set of service for 2007.

23 Penguin Crystal Glass Ornament

In 2008, Nathan bought me this crystal penguin ornament. It reminds me of that Christmas season—I spent every night, almost, down in the basement at the Tiki Bar, wrapping gifts and listening to Christmas music. That was an awesome Christmas.

24 Angevine and Beach Tree Ornaments

Almost every year, we visit Angevine’s Tree Farm in Warren, Connecticut, where my family has been cutting down its own Christmas trees for forty years. Angevine’s has a small shop with ornaments, and in 1997 (the first Christmas I lived in Charles’ house), we made a tradition to buy an ornament that represented whatever the “theme” of the prior year had been. At the time we’d planned on moving to Florida, so not only was that the last time I was going to see Angevine’s, it was the first time I’d be spending a Christmas in the warmth (supposedly, 2012). These ornaments, then, were the ones I selected for 2011.

Video: A brief tour of the shop at Angevine’s Tree Farm, November 27, 2010. This is where we purchase our annual ornaments. Enjoy the organ!

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About kristipetersenschoonover

A ghost story writer who still sleeps with the lights on, Kristi Petersen Schoonover’s fiction has appeared in countless magazines and anthologies. She has received three Norman Mailer Writers Colony Residencies, is a co-editor for Read Short Fiction, and co-hosts the Dark Discussions Podcast. Her work Skeletons in the Swimmin’ Hole is a collection of ghost stories set in Disney Parks; her horror novel, Bad Apple, was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She’s also a member of the New England Horror Writers Association. More info: www.kristipetersenschoonover.com

Posted on November 29, 2012, in Deep Thoughts & Fun Stuff, The Writing Life and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.

  1. Wow, wicked awesome post. I never realized that ornaments could mean so much. I did not grow up with them because we did not have a Christmas tree. We were Jewish and were not allowed to utter the name of Jesus or sing Christmas carols in our home. We could not even say, “Geez.” When I left home, I had Christmas trees just to be rebellious. When I was in my late 20’s, I made some stockings out of scrap material. One was for me, one was for my alcoholic/drug abusing/people abusing roommate, and one was for her husband. Boy was I glad when they moved out. Now, 25 years later, the three stockings hang on my wall, one for me, one for my dog, and one for the rare guest (in Jewish tradition, the Prophet Elijah), who most likely will never come. They say that because Elijah, in general, never shows up, someone should kick the table when no one’s looking, making the wine go up and down in the glasses, so it looks like some mysterious visitor has come…and gone.

    • Julie,
      First off, that is an AWESOME story about the “visitor who never comes” and kicking the table. I have a few Jewish friends (and had some growing up, too), but no one has ever shared that story with me. That is really interesting, almost on the edge of ghost-like. Thank you SO much for sharing that!

      I think back when we were growing up, there was much more division about which “religion” you were. I know as your parents kept Christmas out of your home, so did many of my friends’ parents who were also Jewish. I have talked to many our age who had the same experience. In our house, though, we were encouraged to hang out with our Jewish friends, go to their homes, and learn about their culture and religion. Which wasn’t much, of course, we were kids, but at least I learned a few things. We also had one family with which I was very close and they celebrated BOTH holidays. Back then, that was a rarity and just wasn’t done.

      You made stockings for people who were hurting, and who did a lot of hurting to you. THAT is what the spirit of the season is about, no matter the religion to which you prescribe. That is a good heart. And just so you know, we have a stocking for our cats. I think they get more spoiled than anyone!

  2. Kristi, People don’t know this, but there are different types of Jewish, just like there are different types of Christian. Sort of like denominations or sects, but not quite. You know how you have Catholics, Lutherans, Prebytarians, and the like? Well, we have Orthodox and Reform, and we also have Conservative, which is sort of in the middle. The Orthodox Jewish services tend to have more Hebrew in the ceremonies and are less likely to allow women to be rabbis. Some Reform ceremonies are all done in the vernacular and many families in the congregation have done away with the Kosher kitchen. There is also Hassidic and a group that follows Kaballah, and a group that does a lot of dancing, but I forget what they are called. But this is a matter of choice and what you study. I grew up in a Conservative synagogue where some families kept Kosher and about 2/3 of our service was in Hebrew. Many families were quite strict and kept themselves isolated. My dad wanted us to be like that and wanted to send us kids to a Jewish day school to make sure we did not mingle, but it didn’t turn out that way. There are other ways that the Jewish community is varied, according to ethnicity, for instance my lineage, for whatever reason, is 100% Ashkenazi Jew. Of course this you don’t choose. These Jews are all from Eastern Europe and had certain genetic traits (and defects) because there was so much inbreeding. There are a lot of jokes, some not so nice, that we end up like me, short with glasses. Better that than to be born without eyes.

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