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Our Family Tree: A Yearly Trip Through Time

by Ashley
Published: Last Updated on 0 comment 128 views 5 minutes read

This past weekend, we set up our Christmas tree. Yes, it’s a little early — we’re still days away from gorging ourselves for Thanksgiving, after all – but we bought our first full-size tree and I wanted some holiday cheer to distract me from the increasingly cold weather, so we turned up the Christmas tunes and decked the halls.

Because we’ve only ever had a tiny 2-ft tree, we have a minimal collection of ornaments, most of which had either been taken from my parents’ collection (#sorrynotsorry, you’re never getting them back) or were just glorified framed photos of our cats. So this past weekend, one of my goals was to create some new ornaments. I just wasn’t sure out of what.

My husband has a large collection of shot glasses; he’s not entirely sure how it got started, and I definitely contributed to it over the years, buying them as souvenirs wherever I traveled. At our old house, they collected dust in a pretty row on this weird shelf we had in our living room. In our new house, they’ve been collecting dust in a box under a bed, which is a shame because some of them are kinda cool!

So I whipped out my hot glue gun, some ribbon, and experimented. Turns out, a little ribbon and a lot of glue will turn a shot glass into an ornament! And not just some meaningless store-bought ornament, but one with a history, a personal significance, a story for us to remember every single year when we decorate our tree.

My family never really got into the cookie baking, we aren’t church-going, and only mom would be any good at caroling, so our Christmas traditions look a little different than other families’. For one, you always get a new toothbrush in your stocking, and because we couldn’t wake our parents up until a reasonable hour on Christmas day, like 9 or 10 am, we were allowed to only open our stockings while we waited for the festivities to begin. Opening presents on Christmas day always took like six hours because we did one at a time, and each non-Santa gift is accompanied by a clue that the recipient is required to spend at least a couple mintues trying to crack. I can’t think of many pre-Christmas traditions, besides re-watching our favorite festive flicks, and, my favorite, decorating the tree.

Unpacking ornaments and choosing their place on the tree has always been one of my favorite holiday activities. Now, I’m not talking about assembling the tree (what a pain in the ass), or stringing the lights (super duper pain in the ass… boy, am I glad we bought a pre-lit tree this year). What I loved was carefully unwrapping each ornament (often wrapped in years-old tissue paper or napkins), and picking an appropriate branch on which to hang it. I loved seeing old art projects from my brother’s and my youth – things my mom should have well thrown out by now, flimsy pieces of paper with our handprints or hideous stick figures. I loved my mom’s collection of angels, all in different styles from different times in her life. I love rediscovering ornaments that had been given to me, like my beloved Aladdin, Lion King and Ninja Turtles orbs. I loved my Grandmother’s ugly collection of nutcrackers, and the hand-painted ornaments from other deceased family members, and the hand-made collection of mailboxes my Granni made for everyone in her family (sometimes we’d find Christmas day dollar bills in these). And every year I laugh when we put a hook through my brother’s pacifier and hang it on the tree.

I can’t remember all of the specific family lore associated with each piece (I know there’s a story about Madeleine L’Engle that I can never remember and have to ask about every year), but that’s half the joy in unpacking them – hearing your family history over and over. “Who did this one belong to?” “Who gave you this one?” “Where did you get this?” These are questions I will continue to ask, and questions that I hope, one day, my own future offspring ask me, because decorating the tree is not just a fun Christmas activity but a yearly journey through our family narrative.

Many of our family’s Christmas ornaments are, to me, of the same value as any other family heirloom; something to be treasured and passed down. So when I sat down to turn Justin’s shot glasses into ornaments, I didn’t do so just so we had something to hang on our tree. Each one came from a specific place, gifted to him by someone he knows, or purchased by one of us as a souvenir of a trip. Many of our most precious memories together are tied in travel, so it’s only appropriate that our Christmas tree, the bearer of our family history and teller of our family story, include so many travel-related decorations.

Some of my favorites from the Schwannema family tree?

Justin’s grandma gave us these as a wedding gift. After spending a month living in Holland in 2016, I think he felt a little more in touch with his Dutch heritage, and it's important that we celebrate our families' cultures.
From a beach on the big island, this will always remind us of our honeymoon in Hawai’i, and how we both learned the true power of the ocean during one of our beach days; I still have a faint scar on my arm from landing on coral when a wave knocked me down.
Justin’s mom made us this card for our wedding, and I just loved it. She always puts so much time into these handmade cards, so we keep a lot of them. But no one can enjoy them when they’re in a box! So onto the tree this one goes.
We have a couple from our 43-day European extravaganza, but Paris is special because I was weirdly nervous about sharing my most favorite city in the world with my husband, and vice versa. What if they get along? (They did, and it was fabulous, and we will go back one day.)
A friend of ours gave this to us a couple years ago for no reason. It wasn’t a special occasion. She just saw it, thought of us and bought it. And I love it, and her, and the fact that she understands our love for our cats.
Just before we got married, we went to Chicago with my mom and my friend Tina to attend the wedding of my college friend, Bryan. Tina, Bryan and I were really close in college, and Bryan’s parents used to be close to mine, so it was special that we all got to be there for his wedding. Plus, Chicago is awesome.
Cosmo the Easter Kitty: My friend Tina made me this several years ago in honor of Easter 2011, when she drove me and my dad out to Crossville to pick up the fuzzy little farting kitten who is one of the loves of my life.
Lake Tahoe Bear Glass: I bought this for Justin when I spent Christmas with my family visiting my brother in Lake Tahoe while he visited his family in SD. Tahoe is one of the prettiest places I’ve ever been, and it was the first time I spent time with my ADULT brother, who impressed me with his adultness.

In case it’s not clear, these are not my favorites because they’re necessarily beautiful. None of them go together, many are just cheap souvenirs, and you can clearly see strings of hot glue from my handiwork on the newly created ones. But then, my ideal Christmas tree has nothing to do with how aesthetically pleasing it is. I’ve been to many homes filled with the most beautiful, color-coordinated and richly decorated trees, with some truly gorgeous ornaments. However, my family’s Christmas tree has never, and will never, look like that. Our Christmas tree bursts with mismatched colors and a rich history, stories spanning generations…. Or rather, it will. The Schwannema tree is in its infancy. Heck, I don’t even an ornament for our newest furfamily member yet!  I can’t wait to fill this tree with ornaments representing special moments in our lives, adventures we take together, and the people we love most.


What are your favorite holiday traditions? How do you decorate your Christmas tree? How do you display your favorite family treasures or travel memories? What is your favorite Christmas ornament and why?

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