We asked readers to send us photos of their favorite Christmas ornaments and the stories behind them. And they responded - like crazy. Here are many of their stories.
My husband Tom's favorite Christmas ornaments were a set of wooden figures that were in his family since he was a child. They're Popeye, Olive Oil, Bluto, Humpty Dumpty, a fireman that says Ed Wynn and a court jester. Every year he made sure they were front and center on our Christmas tree. We lost Tom four years ago. Our two sons and I were so devastated we were unable to use our old tree or ornaments for a couple of years. Last year, we were going to try to use them. When I opened the first container, there was Popeye right on top. I closed the lid, had a good cry and thought, "Maybe next year." This year we decided to try again to use our family ornaments. Once again, when I opened the first container there was Popeye. My heart ached and I cried while I was doing it, but I hung his precious ornaments on the side of the tree. I know Tom is looking down from heaven and smiling that they're once again where they belong on our family Christmas tree. Maybe next year, they will be front and center again. Baby steps.
It is nighttime in mid-December 1984. We are in Hungary, in the process of crossing the border with Austria. The Iron Curtain still separates Hungary from the rest of the world. It is a repressive government-controlled society that doesn't think much of Christmas. We stop at a small, dimly lit "gift shop" in the "no man's land" between the two countries. Soldiers, guns, barbed wire, plowed ground and steel barriers still separate us from the lights in the distance that is Austria and freedom. We go inside and find a young lady and one small Christmas tree sitting on the counter with chocolate candies hanging from the branches. Our interpreter asks her if there are any Christmas ornaments for sale. "No," she replies. I point to the chocolates on the tree and ask if I can buy one. She quickly says, "No, they are not for sale." After a brief pause, she says softly, "but I will give you one." I ask her if there is a way she can sign her name on it. She looked around, then tore a piece of paper from the cash register, wrote her name on it, taped it to the foil-wrapped chocolate and handed it to me. I thanked her and left the shop clutching the chocolate. We passed through the final checkpoint to freedom. Today, 2012, I still treasure my special "Christmas ornament."
Forty-plus years ago, my wonderful cousin, Michael Greene, 22, was killed in an auto accident. He was coming home from spring break in Florida returning to Middle Tennessee State University. He would have graduated the following month. At his funeral, the family noticed a wreath with several white doves, and each person chose a bird to take home. Every Christmas I select "my dove" and place it near the top of my tree near a light. I instantly become filled with emotions upon seeing and remembering my love and memory of Mike.
My favorite ornament has to be my beautiful angel tree topper. When I built my house 15 years ago, I wanted a new tree and a special tree topper. I must have looked at hundreds of things. I just couldn't find THE one. On a trip to Gatlinburg right before Christmas, I had looked in nearly every shop and suddenly there "she" was. This beautiful china angel holds more significance for me this year, my beautiful 46-year-old daughter is spending her first Christmas in heaven this year. She has joined my 24-year-old granddaughter, who preceded her by four years. I know my two beautiful angels are together there and watch over us. Just like my perfect tree topper.
This light belonged in my late husband's family. The first Christmas after we married in 1964, his mother passed the strand to us with a zeppelin, lantern and this frog still burning. They both remembered the lights in 1930 on their tree. For 82 years this little frog and the lantern (the zeppelin burned out in the '70s) have graced a tree. This year, with my children and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren present, we anxiously plugged them in and waited to see if they still shone. They did! We use them as a moment to remember Great-Grandma and Grandpa. Each year I wonder if the cords will fail or the bulbs will burn out, but in 2012, they are shining in all their glory. My husband, Jack Freeman, loved this strand of lights and all the memories of his boyhood they brought forth for him. I hope my children and grandchildren carry on the tradition.
Long ago, as a single and relatively poor mom of a 4-year-old, I tried my hardest to create a "free" Christmas tree for my little girl. Having no artistic talents, I matched simple ornaments to the tree by using inexpensive styrofoam balls to make different shapes and sizes. However, the one I've saved for the past 41 years and which now hangs on a much larger tree with many beautiful ornaments is a cutout with a photo of my Beth pasted inside. Regardless of their beauty or price, none of the other pieces shine as brightly as this little styrofoam oval fashioned with ribbon and yellow push pins and filled with the memories of a small child who knew without a doubt her Mama could bring Christmas magic to her world.
This is one of three ornaments that I have left from my mother, who died in December 1998. She had not had a tree for several years, but back when she did put one up it was beautiful. That was when you used those silver icicles and she didn't just throw them on, she put then on every branch.
Many memorable, homemade children's ornaments fill our Christmas tree, but there is one in particular that brings a smile (and a tear) to my face. It is a cross-stitched Christmas tree made by our son when he was a second-grader at Bright School. A simple cross-stitch on gingham fabric that probably took him countless hours to complete when he would have much rather been outside kicking or throwing a ball. In my eyes it is perfection. I remember how proud he was of his handiwork when we unwrapped his gift on Christmas morning. It is a treasure of a time never to be recaptured. He is now our Christmas angel.
My family is in Idaho and my husband's family was in Georgia during the 17 years we lived in Washington, D.C. From the time our sons were born, we began saving special ornaments for them each year. Decorating our tree became a celebration and time of remembrance of family and friends, family events and special experiences. One year, my effort to design a new tree with a specific theme resulted in full-scale rebellion and a return to our traditional tree. This year, neither son could get to town in time to decorate the tree before we had a holiday gathering, so I did the only sensible thing. I decorated the front half of the tree. The back side awaits their arrival.
The ornament is about 40 years old and was handmade by my Great Aunt Ruby. She lived in Chattanooga, and I was raised in Johnson City. Every Christmas, Aunt Ruby would make special ornaments for her nieces and nephews and mail them to us so we could hang them on our Christmas tree. It was a big treat every year when her package would arrive. We couldn't wait to see what she had made. Now that my siblings and I are grown with families of our own, we have our own Christmas trees. It is so special that we each have some of Aunt Ruby's ornaments. It helps to keep her wonderful memory alive in each of our homes during the holidays.
In the spring of 1954 I was a 9-year-old boy living with my parents and my 2-year-old twin brothers in East Lake. It had been a rough year for our family but my mother -- the always positive thinker -- decided to start a Cub Scout troop. Scouting leaders discouraged her efforts, citing lack of interest or something like that. We were told also that we must be affiliated with a Boy Scout troop and the nearest was in Rossville. Mother would not be denied and soon we were in business. She even found a wonderful Boy Scout who agreed to walk from Rossville to our meetings. Crafts were a fun part of our meetings and that Christmas we made tree ornaments out of tin-can lids cut with tin snips and covered in sparkles. They were tied to the tree with ribbon. As the oldest child, I ended up with what mother called her "treasure balls" after my parents divorced. My Cub Scout ornament remains.
My friend/sister Bettye Selby collected these angel ornaments for years. Last Christmas, Bettye was having some health issues and didn't feel like putting up a Christmas tree. So she gave each person in our Bible study group one of her cherished angels. Bettye died on Jan. 16, 2012. Maybe in her spirit she knew she would be with us this Christmas. I can't look at the angel without a tear. Even though I miss her, she gave me this tiny treasure. The angel reminds me of Bettye's generous spirit and the wonderful blessing her friendship was to me. Then I can remember her and smile. Thank you, Bettye.
Adorned with a new striped hat and gift clutched in his hands, Elf sits safely tucked among other ornaments on the tree waiting for another rowdy Christmas celebrated with an array of visitors. Although safe now, Elf spent most of this past year in a variety of settings throughout my house, showing up in unlikely places such as in my granddaughter's toy box, underneath my bed and laying atop of an unused bookshelf. As I began to make several trips to the same location where I thought Elf was last seen, my husband asked, "What are you looking for?" I replied with a detailed description of Elf, telling my husband that he had been in my family for as long as I could remember and that Christmas would not be the same without him. Not too long after, my husband came into the house with Elf and said, "Is this what you are looking for?" He told me that he had thrown it away, having mistaken it for an old discarded toy that no one wanted, other than our lab, who had chewed off one of his legs. Needless to say, Elf was in desperate need of some quick repairs. I quickly hot glued some fabric around his head for a new hat. His hands were covered with mitts, and his leg was sewn back on. Finally, I could breathe a sigh of relief. There, at last, Elf was placed carefully in the tree where he has been for as many years as I can remember.
Hanging on our tree once again this year are three very special ornaments. They are not flashy, sparkling or musical; instead, the three are simply and lovingly made from a soft cardboard ladies' dress box circa 1960. When my husband and I were married in 1968, he was in college and working part-time and I was working at my first job, which required traveling each day to a large city more than an hour away. We had very little expendable income; it was our first Christmas together and my husband's father was coming for the holiday. My father-in-law was stationed in Vietnam and would be visiting us and other family members after being absent for several years and we wanted our tree to be special both for him and for us. Being a mechanical engineering major, my husband, Jim, has talent for creating and designing so he set to work to make ornaments for our first Christmas. We had several boxes that Jim thought would be perfect for his designs. His first ornament was a beautiful church with a steeple which reminded me of a small country church of my youth. The second ornament was a red and green barn to represent the barns in the nearby Amish countryside. The third ornament was of a small house depicting what we hoped would someday be in our future. This year marks the 44th year for the ornaments to be hanging on our tree.
This little angel did not start out life as a Christmas ornament. She was originally a decoration on the cake at the baby shower my wife's coworkers gave her. I attended and pocketed the little angel. Our daughter Sarah was born in February 1981. The next Christmas, I put the angel on the tree to surprise my wife and to see how long it would take her to notice it. The little blue sleeping angel has been part of Christmas ever since, and I always am the one to place it on the tree.
My father was an artist who worked in many mediums, not the least of which was "All Things Christmas." When I was a little girl in the early 1950s, he designed and made this small spiral tree out of wire and plaster of Paris. Mom bought a strand of Italian lights which Dad attached to the tree. Every year before plugging it in, my mother would tell us that the salesgirl warned her if just one light went out, all of the lights would go out -- so we would hold our breaths and hope the lights would come on. Many years later, when my own kids were growing up and we visited my parents at Christmas, they would run to see if the tree still lit up. My parents are gone now, and I have the tree. This year when I unpacked it, it took me a few minutes to gather the courage to plug it in. I got a bit weepy, missing my parents and wondering if this was going to be the year the lights would no longer work. When the lights came on -- as they have for over 60 years -- I imagined my dad looking down from some cloud, grinning and shaking his head in disbelief. Thanks, Mom and Dad, for one of our favorite holiday traditions that's now delighting my grandkids. I believe those lights will continue to come on long after I'm gone, and I'll be looking down, grinning and shaking my head too at the Little Tree That Could.
The last Christmas my dear Grandma was alive, confined in a nursing home was 1977. I told her it was so empty without her home with us. Grandma said to "put an ornament on the tree and pretend it's me." Since 1945 this ornament has been in my Christmas, reflecting Grandma's love every time I see it.
Our family tree is not a designer tree or for that part even fashionable. It is a tree full of memories. Other than the few ornaments from their grandmother's tree, all the ornaments are handmade by our children -- all now in their 50s. We have a formal tree but the family tree is where their memories and hearts go. The ornaments are yarn dolls that were made in the '60s Batmobile station wagon as we drove them back and forth to summer church youth camps from Savannah to Atlanta. The Santa dolls are made from scrapes of their handmade Christmas pajamas, while the jeans dolls are made from their recycled jeans. One named Robin -- with the R monogrammed on her -- came the year I got a Touch and Sew sewing machine and was practicing with my new monogrammer. Sitting in front of our tree, coffee in hand, looking at the pretty lights twinkling on the time worn ornaments are moments of sweet and dear reflections. I am thankful and mindful of the joys many Christmases have given to me. I even hum to myself ... O (Old) Christmas Tree.
I have two very favorite ornaments made by special family members, one made by our mother, Billie Bostain Dover, in the late 1960s, and the other made by my son, Franklin Daniels, when he was 5 years old and attending Ridgedale Baptist preschool in the mid-'70s. Mother's ornament is a white satin ball, covered with soft pink lace, pink sequins, pearls and crystals. The lace and sequins were from materials of a beautiful evening gown that she had made for me to wear to formal events. This elegant ornament brings back many memories of that gorgeous gown and the special occasions connected to it. My son's ornament is a simple piece of cloth, a cutout pattern of a clown-like figure that has been hand sewn around the edges with soft stuffing inside. Being his first handmade ornament to make for our tree, he was so excited and proud to show it off to everyone who came to visit that Christmas. Having his ornament on my tree still today, brings back reflections of that exciting Christmas so many years ago and the wonderful smile and sparkling eyes of my little boy that year ... priceless.
Each year my aunts and I would decorate my grandparents' Christmas tree. As we sorted through countless stars, bright bulbs and special homemade ornaments, I found a little wooden Santa Claus. I went to place it on the tree when one of my aunts took it and tossed it into a pile, stating it was broken. Santa's leg had fallen off. My Grandpa sat behind us in his chair, watching as I retrieved Santa. I stated that although he was broken, he was still beautiful. Reading his paper, Grandpa said "I'm glad one of you learned something from 'A Charlie Brown Christmas.'" We continued to place ornaments on the tree as Grandpa got up and disappeared through the back door. As we finished up, Grandpa came in with my wooden Santa. He had whittled a little wooden leg. He handed me the ornament and I victoriously placed Santa at the top of the tree. Grandpa sat back down and watched as we continued to sift through the remaining ornaments. I looked in the box and found Santa's broken leg. When I told Grandpa, he took my ornament and taped the leg to Santa's back, leaving the carved one. Santa has been at the top of my tree for over 30 years. I lost Grandpa in July. As I took out Santa this year, instead of my normal laughter, I started to cry. My loss is still new, but the memory he gave me will last forever.
My daughter, Sarah, made this ornament when she was about 5 or 6 years old. When she brought it home, we all looked at it and said it looked like her Granny Grace Copeland, who had pure white hair and Sarah was very close to. Her grandmother died a few short years later and the ornament became "our Granny Grace Angel." Sarah is 31 now and her Granny Grace ornament is getting fragile and brittle, but we put her near the top of the tree and from there she watches over us and our Christmas celebration. We miss Grandma but feel a little closer to her when we put the ornament on top of the tree every year.
As long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a mommy. I was the first to ask to hold babies at family get-togethers, church or anywhere else they may be. Their sweet, smiley faces thrilled me, and I have to admit that I could always get a giggle out of them. When it came time to start our own family, my husband and I had no idea what it was going to take to make that a reality. It was a very painful process both physically and mentally, but in early 2009, we welcomed our sweet baby Carden. When I hang this eager little angel with his fuzzy, blue hat, I'm reminded of that struggle but also of the glorious outcome. Our little boy truly is a gift from God.
Our sons made ornaments when they were in the second and fourth grades. Each year they still hang on our Christmas tree. The round one was made from a jar lid and depicts the character E.T. while the red and green one was made from yarn, wooden beads and an empty thread spool. It won second place in the ornament contest at the Read House in December 1980. Both our sons are very artistic and use their talents in their jobs each day.
We had been married six months and it was almost Christmas. We had no money for gifts for each other. We bought a small tree with a tin stand but had no decorations. She took some paper drinking straws and folded them into two stars, decorated hem with sequins and we hung them on the tree. Children have been born, we have moved several times, and Christmas decorations now fill several large boxes. Still, those two stars hang on the tree and are then laid away in a secure place. This will happen for the 55th time this year and the stars are still the most beautiful things on our tree.
I bought this angel tree topper in December 1962 in Lafayette, Ind. It was my daughter's second Christmas. We lived in an apartment across from a Schaff drugstore, where I bought the tree topper. I have never seen another one like it. I take her down every year, wrap her with care and pack her away. As the years have gone by, it is my favorite ornament and I hope to use her many more years.
In 2003, our son was on his first deployment to Iraq. Communication sites for soldiers to contact home were few with long lines when they were available. The Christmas season was coming up and we knew our only child would not be returning home until at least early spring of 2004. We had sent packages to him in hopes he'd be able to celebrate Christmas with snacks and other items. With the daily worry and concern we felt that holiday season, the Christmas decorations in our home were few. After coming home from work one day, we were extremely excited to find a package that was dented, crushed and dirty at our door step, but beautiful to us. It was our gift from Iraq. The gift was a simple ornament, a circular medallion attached to a cardboard background. On the medallion was a small painted wreath and the words, "Operation Iraqi Freedom 2003." After receiving the ornament, we put up a small Christmas tree. Using our son's carefully worded note, we attached the ornament high on the tree. He wanted to make sure his dog, Chopper, would not use the ornament as a toy.
I can't help but beam as the gingerbread house smiles back at me; it has been smiling since Christmas of 1964. It and other gingerbread houses, accompanied by smiling gingerbread men, covered my grandmother's Christmas tree during my childhood. They greeted us for many years as we returned to our hometown in Mississippi during the holidays. We participated in traditions of the time such as singing Christmas carols around the piano, listening to a reading of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" ("'Twas the Night Before Christmas") and watching the brand-new Christmas special "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer" in black and white. However, as we matured and life brought inevitable changes, we made fewer trips to my grandmother's home for Christmas. The smiling gingerbread houses and men were stored in the attic. After she passed away, we found ourselves, perhaps unconsciously, replicating the traditions she established. Not long ago, while visiting our old "home place," I was delighted to find both a gingerbread house and a gingerbread man, mostly intact. The house was smiling at me as I removed it from the box. Even now, each time I look at the cheery ornament, I am reminded of Christmas past, sans any ghosts, but with recollections of childhood innocence. The gingerbread house brings back memories of the smell of holiday turkey, dressing up for dinner with a red bow in my hair, perusing the Sears catalog for an Easy Bake Oven and the unconditional love of a grandmother.
"Daddy's coming home!" Daddy's coming home!"
The house rang out with our glee.
(WWII and the Marines had taken him far across the sea.)
Broken hearted when he left, I just was only three.
But then he came back in time for Christmas,
May daddy, who so loved me!
Carefully the lights were hung upon the tree he cut
On a hill on the farm above the house
Where we lived near a path, just a muddy rut.
He hung the ornaments one by one
Making such colors as glorious as could be.
Suddenly he bent down and placed in my hands
A tiny green bell with red and yellow bands.
He lifted me up, trusting my grip
On the tiny bell that I couldn't let slip.
It's value so huge in my childish eyes,
It's place so special now I realize.
Today it's the memory that I hold so dear
And seeing it hung on today's tree brings a tear.
He is gone now, but not the love he expressed that night
As he lifted me up into the tree's light.
It goes on a high branch, a place to gleam
As I think back as if in a dream
Of the father I had, so special and strong
A man of honor who could do no wrong.
I miss him at Christmas; he loved it so.
I miss his humor, his smile, his glow.
But I see the bell and it shows me love
That one day he will again lift me to the tree high above!
My holiday ornament memory may not be the classic Christmas story, no handmade decorations with Mom or baking cookies with friends, but it still brings back warm smiles and happy thoughts. I don't remember Thanksgiving 2002 for yet another argument with my brother, but rather as one of the few times in my adult life that my entire family got together and everyone was genuinely happy. My brother and I, along with our spouses, flew to Miami and met up with my folks. We then took a Thanksgiving road trip to Key West, driving the entire way in a rented minivan. We did a bunch of the tourist things and hit the bars and restaurants, had Thanksgiving dinner at the Naval Air Station where my Dad had reserved a condo for everyone to stay in, and just had fun. At some point we found ourselves wandering around the port area and discovered an amazing artist selling delicate handcarved wooden snowflake ornaments. I loved them instantly and bought one on the spot. Now every year when I unpack that snowflake ornament I think about a very special time with my family and am filled with lots of happy memories.