Holiday

The Feel-Good Stories Behind Our Favorite Ornaments

Our team gets sentimental about their Christmas decor.

December  8, 2020
Photo by Julia Gartland

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 one that 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.


Caroline Mullen, Assistant Editor

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.


Brian Mahoney, Director, People Operations

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 Vaccaro, Email Production Coordinator

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.


Rebecca Firkser, Assigning Editor

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.


Patrick Moynihan, Senior Social Media Manager

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?!


Erin Alexander, Brand Partnerships Editor

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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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Sheila
    Sheila
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    Caroline Nothwanger
Assistant Editor, Home52

11 Comments

Sheila December 25, 2020
I am a retired teacher and, over the years, I have received many Christmas ornaments from students. The collection became too large to fit on my tree years ago, but I have a tradition of each Christmas taking out my ornaments and praying for the child (some of them are now in their 50's) who gave it to me.
 
GenieMT213 December 24, 2020
The year I got a silver fox fur coat, my son told me it liked like a Cruella de Ville coat. My husband bought me a Radko ornament depicting her, which always had a prominent place on our tree. Perhaps 10 years later it fell off as I was putting it on the tree. I was heartbroken, but that Christmas my now grown-up son bought me a replacement on eBay. She is back to being front and center on our tree now, joined by his Scooby Doo ornament whose original nose was broken and replaced by a pom-pom almost as soon as we bought him. They are the first 2 ornaments on the tree and bring us much joy!
 
Marycooks December 22, 2020
I read your article with much joy knowing that there are people who hold dear to them reuniting each Christmas with their cherished treasure trove of ornaments. Growing up in a small town with rolling hills and green meadows 45 miles south of Chicago was the idyllic life especially at Christmas time. Mom and Dad would carefully pick out a large blue spruce tree with strong branches and nooks and crannies to hang beautiful glass Czech, Polish and German made ornaments are memories forever etched in my mind. It was family time decorating our tree with Shiny Brites and the precious glass ornaments. But the fondest ornament memory was when my sister and I would place our two favorite reindeer ornaments on the tree. It was if the tree became a magical forest and the reindeers were flying finding a new branch to land on each time my sister and would pass by the tree. Now that my sister and I are much older we still reminisce of our childhood during Christmas and the fun we had with those flying reindeers.
 
SonjaP December 21, 2020
We call our tree the ‘Memory Tree’, we have been very fortunate to have lived and travelled to many places and every trip I try to buy an ornament or two to add to the tree. Every year I smile thinking of trips & experiences past as we decorate. This year we moved home to UK for good (another experience in itself this year) so this year’s ornaments are hand made local ones, quite fitting for this year! Who knows about next year!
 
Caroline N. December 21, 2020
We have ornaments from years past, going back to some that belonged to my husband's grandparents, not fancy but still treasured. There are some that simply have to be on the tree but can go around the back (handmade by my husband or myself as kids) and others that have to be front and center. We could probably cover a 9-foot tree thickly if they were all put on, but we don't have room for one that big! Sadly some were broken last year as our tree stand failed and the tree fell over, but we did get some new ones to make up for it.
 
Donna December 20, 2020
Laura J. Cameron has created a beautiful book of ornament memories "An Abecedarium of Ornaments" covering more than 300 ornaments. It has become a holiday tradition in our household. (Art for Art's Sake Press
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. December 21, 2020
How lovely!! Will have to check this out.
 
viviancooks December 20, 2020
We usually get a tree at least 10' tall and have a huge tree trimming party each year. The tree has to be trimmed to get your dinner of hot chili with all accompaniments (never mind that people are already stuffed with apps). We have a gazillion ornaments.
This year we got a little 5'er and wrapped it with a gazillion lights and only decorated it with the handmade ornaments that our children have made over the years. It is a sweet, touching little tree in a sad Christmas season. But blessedly, we are all healthy and safe.
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. December 21, 2020
I'm loving my little tree this year, which I got so much earlier than usual. It's totally brittle by now but I'm glad I got the extra time with it... needed the holiday cheer this year!
 
Rowena December 20, 2020
I loved the article on favorite Christmas tree decorations!! I always love unwrapping each decoration and remember who made it or why we have it... many from kids projects or friends.. one is a painted shell given to one of our boys by their schoolbus driver, when they were in high school in CT!!
Such fun and fond (and funny) memories!
Thank you and happy holidays to all of you!!!
 
Author Comment
Caroline M. December 21, 2020
I'm so glad you enjoyed this! We loved putting it together :)