Holiday Ornaments and Other Traditions, by George G. Morgan

I have been collecting Christmas ornaments and decorations since I can remember. I helped decorate my parents’ Christmas tree and was responsible for decorating my father, mother, and sister’s tree in the early 1960s. As a result, I have listened repeatedly to the stories that were told each year about each item. The decorations have become an inherent part of our family’s holiday tradition, as have the stories about those special dishes, glasses serving plates, candlesticks, silver pieces, and other tableware and table linens that are only used once a year.

Your family has all of these important family stories and traditions in their head as part of the family lore. These are perhaps the most vivid—and possibly accurate—memories they have.

Preserving Heirloom Origins
Several years ago, I began a project to document all of these items and related stories during the holidays. We developed a routine; we took digital photographs of each ornament, recorded its picture number on the camera in a stenographer’s notebook, and then placed it on the tree. For each entry in the notebook, we simply entered which ones we had purchased or acquired from friends and such. It took a while with our personal tree ornaments and decorations.

We later uploaded all the Christmas ornament photographs and renamed them, such as Morgan001, Morgan002, Weatherly001, Weatherly002, Smith001, Smith001, Wilson001, Wilson002, etc. We then sorted the ornament photographs and printed each one onto a separate sheet of paper. Since I have collected several hundred ornaments and decorations over my fifty-five years of life as the “unofficial” family archivist, the printouts were prodigious.

Many of you may be taking down your Christmas decorations this week. Perhaps this would be a good time to document the origins of some of your decorations.

Learning More
When family members visited for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and then throughout the subsequent year, I pulled out the binder and asked the question, “Do you recognize that ornament or decoration? If you do, what do you remember?’ I used my digital voice recorder to record what each relative or friend recalled. Perhaps they remembered the purchase of the ornament, or maybe they remembered where it came from. Often there were special memories by aunts and uncles of decorating their own Christmas tree. One aunt remembered a set of tarnished jingle bells as having been salvaged from her own Christmas stocking when she was six in 1921. Another great-aunt recognized a pale green, frosted glass bell about 1”-high as having come from our great-great-grandmother, Rebecca Chapman Swords, and used on the family Christmas tree in Green County, Georgia, before the U.S. Civil War!

My Extended Collection
In the 1970s in Chicago, I had the distinct pleasure of working with a woman named Marcelle Andree Nowitt. Marcelle, born in 1900, was more than fifty years older than I was, and she was what you would call a “real pistol.” She was incredibly intelligent and more than feisty. She was an astute judge of character, a lover of arts and culture, and an incredible lady in anyone’s estimation. Marcelle took me into her heart as a friend and confidante. One Christmas she gave me a goose egg she had made, colored on the outside, mounted on a gold-colored filigree stand, and decorated on the inside with a winter forest scene of a doe and her fawn. It was magnificent! Little did I know that she worked on these eggs–and ostrich and duck eggs–to make such winter and holiday scenes that she would sell through the venerable Marshall Field & Co. for between $60 and $100.

The following year, Marcelle made a set of a dozen Christmas tree ornaments for me. They are magnificent, even thirty-four years later. Some are satin-wrapped ornaments with gold cording and glued-on golden cherubs. Two are clear with birds and a nest. Still others are satin covered, tiny faux-pearl rope decorated, with angels.

I collected other ornaments from the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago from their incredible “Christmas around the World” store, and as a collector, I have acquired pieces from hundreds of places.

This doesn’t include the porcelain Christmas village that often makes its appearance atop the five bookcases in the family room. Nor does it include the Christmas teddy bear collection or the wonderful Christmas snow globes, and the family’s hand-embroidered doilies, napkins, lave tablecloths, antimacassars, and other linens dating from the late 1800s.

Sharing
This approach to cataloging my holiday heirlooms got my family members revved up about family history and Christmas. Everyone now wants a copy of the family Christmas ornament and decoration book that I have. They are interested in our stories and family history more than ever before. And since they have learned so much from me at this holiday season, perhaps they will come back for the much, much more I can share with them.

What About You?
What holiday items are special to you and what steps have you taken to preserve their origins? Share your stories in the Comments section of the blog.

Click here for a printer friendly version of this article.

George G. Morgan is the best-selling author of “The Official Guide to Ancestry.com” and “How to Do Everything with Your Genealogy.” George and Drew Smith produce “The Genealogy Guys” podcast each week at genealogyguys.com. George is also now teaching online genealogical workshops for Pharos Tutors at www.pharostutors.com/ and for the Continuing Education Division of the University of South Florida in Tampa at cereg.usf.edu/WebModule/reg/index.jsp?categoryId=10062. Visit his company’s website at ahaseminars.com to view his schedule of upcoming conference events.

15 thoughts on “Holiday Ornaments and Other Traditions, by George G. Morgan

  1. Since we are closing my parents house, I now have the Santa Clause that my talented grandmother made. He was probably patterned after the Coke Santa from years ago and stands about one and a half feet tall. My grandmother loved making dolls and I have others that she made just for me.

    Santa has been present at all the Christmas I can remember in my 60 years. I will pass him on to one of my nephews along with my memories of Christmas at my grandparents. I just need to put together a the story to go with him. This story that needs to include all the variations of Christmas trees that my grandmother made such as my favorite — a tumbleweed weed with twinkle lights and red ribbon roses. A good project for this year.

  2. I have a cherished 7″ tall Christmas Angel, that my Grandma Wendorf gave me when I was about 6 years old. She is dressed in white crepe de chine, and she is strumming a cardboard guitar. She is a brunette, like me, and she has yellow wings with glitter and her nylon face is handpainted with felt dots for eyes. Her label says she is a “Dream Doll by R. Dakin-1962″

    My Angel was part of the ribbon and bow decorations on my Christmas gift. The present itself has long been forgotten, but not this little cutie! Each of Grandma Wendorf’s 6 grandchildren got one of these Christmas Angels; my sister and I still have ours. My Angel is getting old and showing her age, but she still holds a special place in my heart.

  3. In December of 2000, my husband and I purchased my mother’s house and at that time it came with my mom who was 73 and my gram who was 100. The house was built by my grandmother and grandfather when my mom was 7. The first Christmas that we owned the home, I put up three Christmas Trees. The smallest one was in our dining room and it had just angels on it. It was started the year we lost our second granddaughter at birth. The second tree was in our living room and it was all done with Swedish Ornaments and little swedish gnomes, straw goats and dala horses that came from Sweden. This was to honor my grandfather who was born in Sweden. The final tree was in my grandmothers apartment which was at one time the garage and was added on to. This tree had a collection of ornaments on it. Every ornament either came from my grandparents Christmas tree when they were first married in 1920 or belonged to their parents or my father’s grandparents. The newest ornament on the tree was a small card with a string on it that was given to me for my first Christmas in December of 1948. Back then childrens Christmas cards were made with strings attached to hang on the tree.

    My Gram is gone now but my mom has the Antique ornament tree in the apartment that was once my grams. Since each of my three children were born, as well as my nieces and nephews and 5 granddaughters they all get ornaments. In fact, if I forget to attach it to their gift they remind me that I did not give it to them. I always write their name and date on each one and they have the fun of hanging their own on their trees….and there is always at least one new angel for our little angel’s tree. Even my daughter in law and son in laws are looking for theirs now. I try to find ornaments that they can relate to….such as ballet dancers, sports, fishing, etc. This year was easy for the men because they all wanted World Series ornaments with their Red Sox on them.

    Christmas has and always will be a big part of our family because of all the traditions. My 13 year old granddaughter has heard the stories about every ornament so much that this year she was telling her 5 year old sister.

  4. In 1936, I was 10 years old, and I remember my Father received a bonus from the state for his service in WW1.Six hundred dollars seemed like a lot of money.My Mother bought a few new household things, including a set of aluminum cook ware. A few years ago I discovered the only surviving item from that purchase was an aluminum salt shaker. I wrote the information on a card,and attached a string. The card went inside the shaker,with the string hanging outside to catch the eye of someone about to dump it.

  5. We always went to my distant grandmother’s for Christmas so did not have our own tree until 1943 when I was 6. That year my parents bought a treetop angel with a halo lit by a Christmas bulb. She has been on the top of all of our trees ever since. At the age of 64 she is a bit battered around the foil covered cardboard wings but still crowns the tree proudly.

    All family possessions with a history should be recorded, not just Christmas ornaments. I was to inherit from my mother a mass of glass, china, furniture etc. etc. much of which came from earlier generations. Knowing that I would never remember where each piece came from, my mother and I sat down and she identified them all for me while I wrote the information on a catalogue card.

    It is now in a database sortable by kind of item, family it came from etc.and available as both a list and as separate pages for each item. Included information is: kind of item, material made from, date made, place made, makers marks, condition, original owner, location and any history. When not all that is known about an item I put in what was known. Pictures have been taken of all the things and will be added soon.

  6. My Uncle Stuart was taking a metal shop class in college the year I was born (1944) and made a little red sleigh with black runners. It is charming and I have enjoyed using it in a display in my kitchen.
    My Uncle has been gone for about twenty years. A few days ago I decided to send the sleigh to his oldest daughter, Beth and can hardly wait to hear what she thinks about the little package that her cousin sent from across the country.
    I doubt I would have thought of giving that sleigh away if it wasn’t for another cousin who has surprised me several times with treasures that belonged to our Swedish grandmother. A year and a half ago, for my birthday, Sonja sent me our Grandma Carlson’s engraved wedding ring. It fits me perfectly and warms my heart. At Christmas this year Sonja sent me a pin that had belonged to Grandma (who died in 1957)…how could I not pass along such kindnesses?

  7. I have a tablecloth belonging to my great granmother which is very worn & full of holes.Not wanting to throw it away,I use it for a tree skirt.Bunched around the tree the holes don’t show & I can enjoy having my ancestress with me for the holiday

  8. How timely it was to read about preserving Christmas ornaments. I had just finished scrapbooking my favorite ornaments. I took digital photographs of each ornament, decorated the page, and wrote the history of the ornament. I had also found some of my sons’ (now in their 30′s) paper stockings, cards, etc., they had made in school, some of which were tattered and torn. What’s left of their artwork and handwriting is now a photograph that is preserved on a beautifully decorated page of my “Christmas Memories” album.

  9. As a shortcut to documenting ornaments, we keep the original box. If it was a gift we write who the ornament was to and from on the inside flap of the box along with the year received. For sets ornaments that were purchased during travels, we write the year, where purchased, and occasion for purchase, (for example, “1998 from Harrods on a business trip to London”, or “1987 at Christkindlemarkt on vacation to visit so-and-so in Munich”).

  10. When I became disabled about 15 yrs. ago, it was suggested to me to study Norwegian rosemaling, and once I’d mastered it, paint an antique steamer chest (which belonged to my Greatgrandmother during the late 19th century.) My first rosemaling instructor quickly told me NEVER to decoratively paint an antique, because no matter how good of a job you do, you have destroyed the value of the antique. So instead, I started painting other wooden items I could buy at craft stores, rummage sales, etc.
    Over the years I also studied Swedish dalamalning, because my paternal ancestry is from Dalarna, the home of the quaint and colorful “dalahasten” (Dala Horses) that are representitive of Swedish folk art & culture.
    Because the time and labor required to prepare wood for painting was so intensive, for Christmas, instead of painting wooden plates or boxes, I started painting on Christmas ornaments (bulbs) and giving them as gifts to family members and close friends.
    Years later, when we celebrate Christmas eve lutefisk, Swedish meatballs, boiled potatoes and primost buttered lefse for dinner at my paternal cousin’s house, it is like visiting a
    Swedish gift shop or folk museum. Her house is filled with colorful holiday ornaments, painted objects and tiny “tomten” decorations that I’ve given her family over the past decade.
    It is my hope that one of my nieces or nephews (or perhaps a future grandchild) develops an interest in Swedish and Norwegian folk art and our Scandinavian culture and history, and can include the ornaments and decorative pieces I’ve painted in their genealogical/memorabilia collection.

  11. Isn’t it wonderful what Christmas does to our memories? Neither my parents nor my husband’s parents were “into” collecting–or saving ornaments, or anything else!–from the past, but both of us remember bubble lights, tinsel (the real stuff not this awful plastic stuff), flocking and “snow”, and “angel hair”. (For those of you too young to remember, it was spun fiberglass, it was pulled out real thin and draped over the Christmas tree–with attendent itching!) Every year since we’ve been married, 40 years now, we’ve gotten a new ornament; since the mid-1970s the ornaments have mostly been silver, silver-plate, or crystal. We’ve gotten ornaments from places we’ve been–the White House, the Tower of London, our colleges. Oh, yes–and we definitely count all the Santas we put out each year, and the Beyer Carolers. Our daughters have added their home-made touches and now our grandson is adding his. We all have our special things but, somehow, the most special always seem to be the ones from Christmas–or birthdays–or summer reunions–or…. Our daughters frequently call us pack-rats (they ought to read George’s collections!), but there isn’t a thing I’d willing get rid of; and I’d cry buckets if any type of catastrophe ever took them away.

  12. I have a collection of German ornaments that we bought over 50 years ago,for our first Christmas after we were married. Evey year after, I have purchased one ornament for each of my children & dated them. Even their Great Aunts who spent many Christmases with us got into the act & bought some for them each year. When they married I gave each one their collection to start their own tree. I still give each one an ornament every year and have now started ones for the Great-Grandchildren. When my Aunts passed away, we divided up their ornaments and now my children have some of them on their trees. They may be losing their color a little, but we wouldn’t dream of getting rid of them. So, now my children (3) and I each have some of all those ornaments plus some from my parents and their Father’s parents trees. The tree is getting pretty crowded but it is very difficult to try to decide which ones to let go. Of course, I have some my children made, and also my Grandchildren and, as you have said, many stories go with all.

  13. What a good idea! I think I’ll start this project this year with the ornaments on our tree (which are just a drop in the bucket of the ones we have.) We did an inventory a few years ago but have not added to it and of course new ornaments arrive each year. Two years ago my elder daughter gave us a beaded angel with hand-knitted wings she had made for the top of the tree, to replace the angel we bought in Berlin for our first Christmas and which had sadly lost its head! That one certainly needs to be photographed. Digital cameras make this much easier and cheaper to accomplish.

  14. I have some wonderful ornaments that I enjoy, but my favorites are the ones my children made. They feature snagle tooth smiles and football photos.

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