Keeping Memories Alive
Decorating with Heirlooms
by Laurie Alice Eakes
One of the most pleasurable aspects of the Christmas season is decorating the house in all its festive glory. Yet, like the joys of seeing people one misses throughout the year, or entertaining and gift giving, figuring out how to bring a sense of personal style and warmth to the commercially produced ornamentation can fill the enjoyment of the season with anxiety. So let us take some of the decorating stress out of a time of year meant to be a celebration of Christ’s birth. Chances are, you have the answer to making your home Christmas décor stand out without a great deal, or really any extra work with the use of heirlooms or by gathering the materials to create your own family decorating traditions.
Special dishes seem to be the most common form of heirloom usage at Christmas time. Of the dozens of women, most of them historical authors, I surveyed, at least a third mentioned that they have special dishes they inherited from a grandmother or great-grandmother. Ann says the only item she has of her paternal grandmother is a cut glass bowl. She brings this out for Christmas dinner, when she fills it with a special salad. Deb has three dishes she inherited from her grandmother. Again, these only come out for Christmas dinner. Each one has its designated contents that rarely make an appearance on her dinner table the rest of the year—at least not all at once. Amber glass, so popular during the Great Depression might grace Golden’s table only for Christmas dinner, and yet all these dishes can also be incorporated into ornamentation throughout the whole season.
A cut glass bowl filled with shimmering balls and flanked by candles will highlight the beauty of this heirloom while making a lovely center piece for the table all through the season. Likewise, one can take a divided relish dish and fill it with nuts in their shells, or even small ornaments, “jewels” in traditional Christmas colors. Let those heirloom dishes shine all season instead of just one day.
Nancy does this with doilies that have been in her family for many decades. She doesn’t know if they were intended for Christmas or not, but they are edged in red and green, so she takes them out at Christmas and uses them to lend a sense of family history and tradition to her living room furniture.
One heirloom allowed to showcase Christmas is an antique pie cupboard in which Karen sets up her Christmas village. Adding to the special aspect of this background are toy cars with which her husband played as a boy.
Christmas and toys being rather synonymous, Karen’s idea of using her husband’s old cars works on many levels. So does the use of an antique doll. Alice’s doll belonged to her great-grandmother born in 1900. Dressed in late Victorian garb, the china doll looks like a child, eagerly awaiting the special day, as she sits beside the Christmas tree and the gifts beneath.
With a family from Michigan, winter sports have always been a part of Debbie Lynne’s family. Now, still in possession of her grandmother’s skates, she hangs them on her door each Christmas to symbolize the coming of winter and keep a childhood memory alive, now that she lives in the rarely icy south.
Pam’s replica “dog trot” log cabin isn’t quite an antique, but it is a special toy from her own childhood she is making a family tradition. A local man made the replicas, and, as a child, she saved her money until she could buy one. Now she uses the cabin as a focal point for her nativity scene, creating a memory for now and the future.
Annette has a unique memory piece she brings out at Christmas. Her grandfather was an auto mechanic and created a nut cracker out of “some auto part.” One turns a screw and the nut is cracked. It’s more a useful device than an ornament, and Annette brings this out at the holidays when simply talking about it makes her feel good.
Who would ever consider that old keys could be made into Christmas ornaments, but Susan’s family has done just that, again, creating their own heirlooms of the future. Her father sold antiques and thus possessed a number of antique keys. When he died, her sister bought ribbon that said “Remember.” She divided this up and strung some keys on each piece of ribbon, thus creating ornaments.
Other new creations of old items include brooches and other jewelry no one wants to wear, but which are too old or full of sentimental associations to get rid of. String them, pin them on ribbons, or sew them to pretty fabric to create ornaments. Linda’s family celebrated each family member’s rebirth into Christ by hanging a cross with the person’s name and date of salvation onto the Christmas tree.
Whether a decades old cut-glass bowl or antique hutch, a toy belonging to a grandparent, or something new made of the old, creating ornaments and decorations with personal, sentimental, and aesthetic appeal are within your reach.
Laurie Alice Eakes is the author of Lady in the Mist, Heart’s Safe Passage, A Necessary Deception, A Flight of Fancy, and several other novels. She won a National Readers Choice Award for Best Regency in 2007 for Family Guardian. Laurie Alice writes full-time from her home in Texas, where she lives with her husband and sundry dogs and cats.