My Ornamental Journey

Christmas tree ornaments are a reminder of the lives we’ve led.

Each year we pull out the big plastic box in our basement that serves as our Museum of Family History. Within its many cardboard galleries are Christmas tree ornaments that serve as four-inch tour guides, speaking warmly, knowledgeably and nostalgically about our past. Each is an essay about moments in our history, years that were good and not so good, people who’ve come and gone.

I’ve never understood why people wanted a tree with matching ornaments. I remember being at relatives’ homes each Christmas and seeing their tinseled trees filled with ornaments that all looked the same. I looked in wonder because they were dazzling and showy – especially the all-aluminum trees with lights that kept changing color – but as cold as an icycle. I remember being at my Aunt Betty and Uncle John’s house, where our cousins would join us in stealing tinsel from the tree to lay across the tracks on the model train set, making delicious sparks whenever the train ran over them.

Whatever happened to tinsel, anyhow? Is it even sold anymore?

When we were little my parents wouldn’t decorate the tree until we all were in bed. It was something they did with Santa. The ancient, brittle blown-glass ornaments came out of boxes, dusty from their year in the basement, with the brand name “Coby” on it. As years went by we added our own homemade ornaments to my parents’ collection. At 16, I made a swan from white felt; I think it’s still around here somewhere, more than 40 years later.

Don’t know what ever happened to those early ornaments, but my Mom gave up having a tree many years ago. Now she pulls a fully decorated tabletop tree out of a box and sets it on her dining room table. I can’t see myself ever doing that, but you never know.

My first tree as an adult was at age 26. I was newly engaged and we bought it at a hardware store near Spruce Street in Philadelphia. The apartment-sized fake tree had no ornaments, so I made some, clothespins decorated as members of my first husband’s family. When we divorced I kept some of them because I still loved his family. I got to keep my mother-in-law and sister-in-law; he took his Dad and himself.

When I was a single mom and then a remarried woman with a blended family, decorating our own tree was something that the family did together, sometimes accompanied by our kids’ boyfriends and girlfriends. But over the past few years our grown children have had busy lives in far-flung cities. So this weekend Bob and John and I will place the ornaments on our tree, and we will enjoy a journey through Christmases past.

It’s funny how each of these mute baubles can bring forth enough memories to fill a long essay. For that reason I seldom throw an ornament away, even after it’s broken. Instead, it goes in the back of the tree, away from public view and the need to explain, tucked away like a hidden, private chapel. The bottom of one of my Christmas storage boxes still has shards of spray-painted ziti, broken off from a cardboard tree that one of my children made decades ago.

Here is a timeline of just a few special ornaments. I hope that when you decorate your own tree – or if you’ve already done so – you will take a moment to meditate on these markers from your past, and to remember the people who’ve shared your life. Please upload photos and share memories of your own!

1978, self-portrait as clothespin. I was editing the employee newspaper at The Evening Bulletin at the time. My “dress” here was from a real evening gown I had sewn for myself.

1980 – My in-laws, Susan and Ita Flynn.

1985 — My daughter Rachel’s first Christmas. Ornament from brother Dan and wife Elena.

1987: Business trip to Park City, Utah. Pregnant with Ryan.

1986 — First Christmas in our new home in Broomall, PA.

1987 — Conrail ornament, from when I worked in their Public Affairs Department. Another version showed a steam engine, which some people felt was bad for the company’s image.

1988 — Bell by Jesse Buday, age 6.

1990 — Gift from my Aunt Chick, a woman of great faith and one of the kindest and bravest people I know.

1990 (Approx.) — handmade ornaments by Rachel and Ben Buday

1992 — Wreath by Rachel Flynn

1994 (approx) — From my husband’s former girlfriend, Jan.

Mid 1990s — Ornament by son Ryan, my worldly guy now living in London.

2006 — Ornament by John Buday. Very fragile and hard to hang but we find a way.

2007 — From my wonderful husband, Bob

2011 — Our newest ornament, a gift from my dear Aunt Marilyn. Bought at Martha Clara Vineyards in Long Island, owned by the Entenmann’s pastry family, where we spent a pleasantly buzzed afternoon.

9 thoughts on “My Ornamental Journey

  1. Such great memories! Even though they were store-bought, I love the little ceramic houses. I also love the macaroni Christmas trees that Ryan and I made when we were in kindergarten. I don’t have many memories of when I was that young… but I specifically remember making that tree.

  2. Cath,
    I am reading your article right after decorating our tree. Only Maria, Tom, and Dave participate with Dan Sr. hanging on some of his special ornaments. But we hold fast to the tradition of decorating with the light turned off and then….the big moment!

    You are so right about Christmas ornaments creating a time line for us. I smiled when I saw the one we gave you for Rachel’s first Christmas.

    I just put some of our more tired ornaments in the trash and felt sad about it.

    Thanks for sharing your writing gift! You put into words so many of the things I was feeling tonight as we decorated the tree. And I’m with you—I don’t think I’ll ever give up this tradition!

  3. I’ve been researching and wrote a few entries on Christmas ornaments and came across your blog when I tried to look up Coby Ornaments. I LOVE this entry. This is EXACTLY how I feel! I too have all the old ornaments that I made as a child and my mom has given me a lot of other ornaments that hung on the tree as well. They mean so much to me because they are a tangible reminder of my childhood. Bravo!

  4. I love it, especially about hiding the broken ornaments in a secret place.Some of mine have gotten too far gone to hang, so they show up as decorations on the cookie trays or to hide the tiny grease spot from Bobby’s sad encounter with the gravy boat. Somehow, it seems that the ugliest, strangest things bring back recollections of the minor disasters, which, of course, make the funniest memories if you just wait long enough.

  5. Ooooh, I love the pics of the ornaments. I too have a “mismatched” tree that lacks a theme or monochromatic color scheme but is full of love, memories & precious (but messy) handmade ornaments. Sometimes I find myself admiring those “matchy-matchy” trees, but they just don’t seem quite right to me.

  6. Reblogged this on The Sandwich Lady and commented:

    A very Merry Christmas to all of my WordPress followers. Thank you for your inspiration, your kind words, your advice. This blog was an early one, when I had only a handful of followers, who I hope won’t mind my re-blogging!

  7. I loved reading about your ornamental history! We do that in our house every year when I pull the box out. I have given my daughter an ornament or 2 every year for the past 18 years! Each one brings a fond or fun memory of an event in her life!

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