Remembering the memories tied to Christmas ornaments

Tsau’s favorite ornament in her collection: a unicorn standing on ice surrounded by pine trees.
Tsau’s favorite ornament in her collection: a unicorn standing on ice surrounded by pine trees.
Anika Tsau

Nat King Cole famously caroled, every mother’s child is going to smile to see if reindeer really know how to fly. What he neglected to mention is that every mother’s child will also bring home a handmade Christmas tree ornament that smells like Elmer’s glue with their name written on it haphazardly in Crayola marker. It’s a rite of passage for any self-respecting seven-year-old. Of course, the ornament is hung on the tree with pride amidst the other keepsakes. That child will look at that ornament years later and say, “How has it already been ten years since I made this?”

An elementary-school ornament handcrafted by Tsau. (Anika Tsau)

Christmas ornaments as we know them have roots in Germany, where trees were decorated with fruits and nuts to represent the spring that would be soon to come. Naturally, when this reached America, we got real creative by adding popcorn garlands, foil, and candles. Looking back on it, adding open flame to our trees probably wasn’t the best idea. Now we have LED Christmas lights and rotating trees, and while it may not seem like it, ornaments have evolved quite a bit too.

Around the year 1800, ball ornaments made their way into the picture. Shiny, perfect orbs that add just the right amount of spirit and charm to any Christmas tree. Personally, I believe that generic ball ornaments—or baubles, as I like to call them—walked so that vacation souvenirs, miniatures, and handmade ornaments could run. Baubles, to me, are the middle of the ornament-change-of-meaning-spectrum. We started out with decorations that symbolized what was coming as winter ended. We started out celebrating the promise of the future. Now, ornaments are milestones; They’re inscribed with words like Baby’s first Christmas and UW Madison: Class of 1991. They’re markers of the past.

An ornament on Tsau’s tree that celebrates her parents’ alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (Anika Tsau)

In-between these two extremes are the simple, shiny baubles that reflect the glow from Christmas lights and add a little pizzazz to the tree. They’re complimentary. There’s nothing wrong with baubles. However, they just aren’t special enough to be the only type of ornament on my tree.

In my household, Christmas ornaments are an integral part of our annual celebrations. After picking the tree and hanging the lights, we make a whole evening out of decorating it. Boxes upon boxes of ornaments make their way out of the basement and into the living room. We sing along to our favorite carols and reminisce upon the history of each ornament.

A baby photo of Tsau in an angel-shaped frame hangs on her Christmas tree.
(Anika Tsau)

To me, the ornaments are more than just adornments to brighten up the room. Each one is a time capsule. We have ornaments that represent my parents’ alma maters. We have ornaments that are from different countries that we’ve traveled to. Hell, one of our ornaments is a sand dollar from the beach with a cartoon drawing of Santa Claus playing tennis in a bathing suit. It’s sitting right next to the ornament that has a baby photo of me in a frame shaped like an angel. Our collection is eclectic, but it speaks to the range of memories we’ve created.

Tsau’s sand dollar ornament with a cartoon drawing of Santa Claus playing tennis in a bathing suit. It was a gift from a family friend. (Anika Tsau)

One of my favorite Taylor Swift songs contains this line:

How’s one to know

I’d live and die for moments that we stole

On begged and borrowed time?

That song was written in the context of forbidden love, but couldn’t it apply to more in life? We don’t have unlimited time with anything or anyone. Everything exists on begged and borrowed time. It’s easy to forget that you often don’t know you’re doing something for the last time until suddenly you realize that you’ll never do it again. You graduate high school and realize you’ll never sit in those desks again. You get a new car and realize you’ll never drive the old one again. Your cat dies and you realize you’ll never pet her again.

My cat is dying. She’s fifteen years old, and her kidneys are starting to give out. She’s been around since I was a baby, and she’s just as much a part of our family as I am. I forget that she won’t live forever. In light of this, I have come to realize that so many of my ornaments are monuments to what I’ve lost. In the tree hangs a photo of my cat when she was a kitten that is lit by the incandescent glow of the lights. I will always have that piece of my cat to remember her by. It’s not a reminder that she’s gone, it’s a celebration of her life. Each and every ornament is a celebration of life, of human connection, of time spent together.

The version of me who made that elementary school ornament no longer lives in my house. She was a different person than I am now. By putting that ornament on the tree, we celebrate her. We celebrate who I was. And it makes perfect sense to me that we place these pieces of ourselves in the very tree under which we place our gifts. In a way, Christmas trees are a shrine to the very concept of human connection. Ornaments are one of the best ways to honor that connection. I give them five out of five stars.

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  • K

    Kathleen C PierottiDec 21, 2023 at 4:39 pm

    So beautifully written and filled with emotion!
    My views of Christmas decorations, exactly! Each ornament holds special meanings and memories!