Early in my adulthood, one of my first big vacations was to Ireland. While there, I stumbled upon this shop with gorgeous handcrafted wood pieces. Most were far out of my fresh-out-of-college price range — save for a tiny wooden harp ornament. It was beautiful, semi-affordable, and small enough to tuck in my carry-on. With that, a tradition was born: every destination I'd travel to, I made sure to find an ornament — or at least some trinket on which I could attach a ribbon and hang from a Christmas tree — emblematic of that locale.
A decade later, my Christmas tree is filled with reminders of all the amazing places I've been: a Venetian mask from Italy, a miniature red telephone booth from London, a little Adirondack chair from Maine, a guitar with real strings from Nashville.
I loved that once a year, I dusted off the box of decorations and trimmed the tree while recounting my adventures. My husband soon joined the fold, and we talked about how it'd be so nice to share these stories with our children some day.
Her wide-eyed expression, "oooooh, pwetty!" response, and too-eager grasp were proof that this was a tradition worth keeping, for her wonderment and for my nostalgia.
But shortly after our first baby was born six Novembers ago, when we were decorating our tree, I had a sudden, sad realization: we wouldn't be acquiring new ornaments at the pace we had before. Our journeys to exciting new cities would quickly be exchanged with staycations and Friday-to-Sunday trips to see grandparents. Our tree would grow stagnant without fresh new ornaments to add to the collection.
About a year later, I was chatting with a friend and the topic turned to, as it so often does (it doesn't, I swear), ornaments.
As I was lamenting the tempering of my tradition, she shared how one of her long-awaited family ornament traditions was just getting started: every year, she gives her daughter a new, unique ornament.
Yes, but it's also profoundly meaningful for anyone who, like me, cherishes mementos.
The idea behind it is that my friend is steadily building up her child's ornament collection. One day, when that little girl is all grown up and living on her own, setting up her first tree, my friend can bring over that box of 18 or so personal ornaments so that her daughter doesn't have to start from scratch.
I loved this idea, and there are so many ways to do it. The yearly ornament could be handmade — a different craft the kiddo "helped" create, like the classic clay handprint or popsicle stick snowflakes or pine cone snowmen. It could also be something simple and classic, a silver keepsake engraved with the child's name and current year. Or, it could be an ornament based on their interest at that time in their lives — if they started playing a musical instrument, for instance, you could mark the experience with a clarinet tree-hanger.
I went with the latter option and immediately got to work back-ordering ornaments for the years of my toddler daughter's life I missed: a personalized "Baby's 1st Christmas" ornament, an eBay-haggled Rocky & Bullwinkle figurine (she'd dressed up as the flying squirrel for Halloween that year), and a wooden monkey, which was her favorite animal for most of 2016, that I found on Etsy.
Just as a memorable story accompanies the hanging of each of my travel ornaments, I'm beginning to see my children's stories unfold every Christmas, too.
Several Christmases ago, after a year of her only wanting to wear the same pair of striped "rainbow" pants and an unhealthy obsession with the technicolored Trolls franchise, I knew a painted glass rainbow ornament was the perfect choice. The next year, I opted for a Saturn ornament, as she'd had a space-themed birthday party. Then came a miniature painter's palette for my budding artist. Last season, for her seventh Christmas, she got a laptop – fitting considering how much time she spent on one during remote school. Meanwhile, her nearly four-year-old sister has gotten a glass ketchup bottle after her favorite food group, a few found rocks glued together on a string, and a glittery ambulance, which was a we-can-laugh-about-it-now reference to the amount of ER visits she sent us on that year.
For the first several years, this had been a ritual more for me than for my kids, but I was hopeful. After all, my oldest was quickly entering an age where she had greater understanding for the things she likes. I still remember when it came time to decorate the tree a few seasons back, the glimmering painter's palette was the first ornament I handed her.
Her wide-eyed expression, "oooooh, pwetty!" response, and too-eager-oh-god-she-is-going-to-break-it grasp were proof that this was a tradition worth keeping, for her wonderment and for my nostalgia.
Just as a memorable story accompanies the hanging of each of my travel ornaments, I'm beginning to see my children's stories unfold every Christmas, too. And I look forward to the holiday 12-odd years from now, where I pull out a hefty box filled with each one of my daughters' ornaments. I'll tell them about their lives and who they were, and I'll hand the box over to them, so that they may continue the tradition.