Ornamental origin stories Readers share tales of beloved family ornaments

Precious family heirlooms. Kindergarten crafts made from Popsicle sticks and glitter. Keepsakes from a baby’s first Christmas.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/12/2021 (403 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Precious family heirlooms. Kindergarten crafts made from Popsicle sticks and glitter. Keepsakes from a baby’s first Christmas.

The ornaments that are hung on fir boughs with care are more than mere festive decorations. They are tissue-wrapped memories brought out once a year, which is what makes them so very special.

We asked Free Press readers to reflect on their most beloved baubles. Some responses have been lightly edited for clarity.

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MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSRae Ritchie Chalmers’s ornament which she received in 1954 from a pen pal.

“It was December 1954, close to Christmas. My Mom said, ‘Rae, you have a parcel.’ A parcel? for me? I had never received a parcel in my 10 years on this earth. I opened it and this little Santa peeked out at me. It was a present from my pen-pal in LaCrosse, Wis. I thought it was the best Christmas ornament ever. It hung on my parents’ Christmas tree and then went with me when I got married and left my parents’ house. It then followed me through three subsequent moves. I still love it and it brings a smile to my face every year when I open the box of ornaments. I have no idea where my pen-pal is today (I did try unsuccessfully to locate her many years ago) but I am sure when she bought this Christmas ornament, she had not thought that it would still be on a Christmas tree in Canada 67 years later.”

— Rae Ritchie Chalmers

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“When I was around five, if I remember correctly, my grandma knitted these real simple dogs/bears out of leftover wool of different colours. She presented them to all the cousins to pick the one we wanted. I was the youngest so I got to pick first. I picked the purple one. I remember my mom saying something like, ‘Oh no, not that colour — pick another,” but I was like, ‘No, I like this one.’ So I put it on the tree all proud.

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSCameron Fay’s favourite Christmas ornament is one that his grandma made.

I noticed later that it had moved. I asked my mom and she said it was on the backside of the tree. I said why and she said, ‘Well, it’s a dog so it likes to look out the window.’ I was five and complained a fair amount but eventually said OK, thinking that made sense because that’s what our dog did when the tree wasn’t in front of the window.

Years later when decorating, it slowly dawned on me that my mom just really didn’t like it and was trying to hide it. So I would pull it out and say, ‘Oh, I think this year he needs to be out front and centre.’ She would say no and my dad would laugh, and I would knowingly smile and place it in its spot at the back of the tree. I would move it sometimes and she would catch it and move it back. Or I would cheekily mention something like, ‘How did that get there?’ if she hadn’t noticed and she would move it back.

When I moved out, I took my ornaments with me and my purple dog proudly goes at the back of our tree, window or not. It’s a memory of my grandma, and my mom still asks most years when looking at the tree if it’s at the back.”

— Cameron Fay

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Supplied Trish Steadman’s mother knitted her a nativity scene and left a note explaining why it was incomplete.

“I may be cheating here, as this is more of a decoration as opposed to an ornament. It’s my favourite and most treasured as it was knitted by my dear late Mum. Mum created many of these nativity scenes in her 70s. In the families of my four siblings and I, there is at least one set to be passed along to the next generation — and more than a few more have been donated to the church Christmas craft sale. As you can see from ‘Santa’s’ note to me, Mum was a little behind on her knitting the year I received my nativity scene. No worries, it’s all complete now and, each year, is lovingly unpacked from the liquor store box whose compartments are perfect for safe storage of the figures. Mum sure knew what she was doing.”

— Trish Steadman

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Supplied David Halstead’s favourite Christmas tree ornaments were painted by a friend’s late quadriplegic daughter.

“Two of my favourite Christmas tree ornaments are not family heirlooms but rather I hold them dear because of their story. About 40 years ago, Jack, one of the instructors at my place of work, the Saskatchewan Technical Institute in Moose Jaw, was selling Christmas ornaments which had been painted by his daughter. Sure, you may say, parents often are conned, as it were, to do such things. But these were different. You see, the daughter, Jill, was a teenage athlete who had broken her neck and was now a quadriplegic. She had painted these by holding the tiny paint brush in her mouth. The father was selling these out of love but also out of pride. The artistic craftsmanship is incredible. Two Christmases ago, I was able to speak to Jill’s mother in Regina. Unfortunately, Jill had passed away as a young woman but not before she had gone on to hold a number of administrative and leadership roles related to assisting others who were living with disabilities. The ornaments are out of my storage box and are ready, once again, to adorn my Christmas tree.”

— David Halstead

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Supplied These glass-blown Christmas ornaments were brought from post-revolutionary Russia by Dorothy Keizer’s parents, who fled in 1924 as their village burned behind them.

“My parents fled from post-revolutionary Russia in 1924 as their village burned behind them. They only brought a few precious things with them, including a few glass-blown Christmas ornaments which now are uber precious to our family. The green pine cones are favourites. Displaying the ornaments prominently on our tree almost 100 years later is a testament to their bravery, determination, sense of tradition and sentimentality.”

— Dorothy Keizer

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Supplied Raeanne Donaldson’s Baby’s First Christmas ornament for her baby girl who was born on Christmas Day.

“Two years ago, I was nine months pregnant and with a Dec. 10 due date. I thought that there was no chance I would have a Christmas baby. So I went ahead and bought a wooden Baby’s First Christmas ornament from a local maker to match our other kiddo’s first Christmas ornament. As Christmas came closer and closer I got more worried that my 2019 Baby’s First Christmas ornament wouldn’t be used, but I wouldn’t put it on the tree for whatever superstitious reasoning my brain came up with. The more time passed, the more I thought I’d jumped the gun by buying the ornament before the baby had been born. I ended up being induced on Christmas Day and having my daughter that day, just in time to squeak in her first Christmas. All the nurses had Christmas bows in their hair on the labour and delivery floor. I couldn’t have imagined that her first Christmas would also be her birth date but that is exactly what happened. Now I can’t help but smile when I look at that Baby’s First Christmas ornament when we set up our tree.”

— Raeanne Donaldson

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Supplied Heidi Bock's father made this crèche.

“I’m not a real Christmas lover and am not sentimental in the least, but there is one decoration that always goes up in our house. It’s got to be over 55 years old and my father, Walter Langelotz, made it. He was a German immigrant who was the only one in his family to come to Canada in the ’50s, so we had an Oma and Opa Deutschland that sent us a Christmas parcel every year. Not sure when this wood-working kit was sent over, but my dad, a Winnipeg Transit driver for almost 40 years, made this for us one year. He was not a handyman or artistic in the least, but we all loved this crèche.”

— Heidi Bock

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Supplied Leslie Badger’s ornaments are from the 1950s and belonged to her cousins’ grandparents.

“I was born and raised in Winnipeg (St. James) but moved to the U.S. in 2002 with my husband who grew up in Fort Richmond. Our entire family (both sides) still lives in Winnipeg so we visit often. In fact, our pandemic purchase was a townhouse condo in Lindenwoods in August 2020. I have several ornaments that are probably from the 1950s. They are my cousins’ grandparents though, not my own grandparents. My mother was given them from Baba Novak sometime in the late 1960s as she was downsizing her home. For the longest time we never used them — my mom was worried my brother and I would break them — but I looked at them with deep admiration every December thinking, one day I want to put these on my tree. We finally did start putting them on the tree in the early ’80s. A few have broken over the years but we still store them in the original packaging. I will now put them on my “Canada” tree in Winnipeg, just like I planned so many years ago. We will be back in Winnipeg to visit this Christmas and the vintage ornaments will be going on the tree in our condo, just as they have in one place or another for many of the last 70 years.”

— Leslie (Zegalski) Badger

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Supplied Katharine Langille's favourite ornament features her son, William, dressed as an elf in kindergarten about 32 years ago.

“My favourite Christmas ornament features my son William when he was in kindergarten, about 32 years ago. At school, they dressed each child in an elf hat and vest and took their picture, then the kids made an ornament using Popsicle sticks to frame the picture. The day the picture was taken, he wore a shirt that matched the colour of the vest and hat. This is special to me as he was an imp in more ways than one, and his expression in this photo relays what he was like as a child. This little Popsicle ornament is valued more than any other in my collection. Ask any of my family — they know that is my favourite.”

— Katharine Langille



Twitter: @JenZoratti


Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and author of the newsletter, NEXT, a weekly look towards a post-pandemic future.

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