Every year, unpacking Christmas ornaments is like an annual treasure hunt, only I know exactly what I’m going to find, I just don’t know when. I look forward to this because it allows me to relive some of my most memorable travels. “Oh look, these are from Denmark… I said Georg Jensen, not George Jetsen.” “You’ll like these, they’re from Germany.” “Last year I couldn’t find the one from the Dali museum in Florida…”
The collection started with the pink flamingo marked “Key West 1993” where I did a two-week temporary duty assignment during my four-year Army enlistment. I had never been to Florida and it was an easy assignment compared to the rigors of the 82nd Airborne Division. The other souvenir from that trip is a picture of me with the “90 miles to Cuba” marker located at the southernmost point in the USA. This year, my JD asked, with a hint of skepticism, “Does this flamingo go up?” Of course it does! You always love your first the best.
That is the first time I bought a Christmas ornament as a travel souvenir. Although I have collected dozens over the years, there are a few that stand out, and every year when I unpack them, I tell the story again.
When I spy the corners of two red plastic boxes that I know are labeled “Georg Jensen”, I remove the others on top to get to these first. These dazzling gold ornaments hang by long, red ribbons labeled “Christmas 1994” and “Christmas 1995” and were made by Danish artist Georg Jensen. They were gifts from my father following our visit in 1993. We were returning from Riga, Latvia with a one-night layover in Copenhagen which was the only way you could return from Riga back then. We decided to spend two and had the time of our lives exploring the city’s holiday markets, visiting Hans Christen Andersen’s “Little Mermaid” and going to the movies.
As I carefully unfolded the ribbons to hang the sleigh and the mistletoe, I told my JD the funniest memory that I have with my dad. On our first night, I talked my dad into going to see a foreign film. We decided to see Bleu, a French film by a Polish director. There were several things we didn’t know or realize about seeing a foreign film in Denmark; that the subtitles would be in Danish, that seating would be assigned, and that the start time meant the start time of the movie, not of the previews. We were late, but even with the Danish subtitles, decided to stay, so took our seats in the middle row in the middle of the theater.
By this time, we were already laughing at the absurdity of the situation, surrounded by a theater full of Danes who had come to see a film that they, unlike us, would understand. I had had a working knowledge of French, so understood bits and pieces, and was trying, in hushed tones to give my father the gist of the plot. Whispering isn’t my strong suit, so we were “shhh’d” when I leaned over and in my infinite wisdom, during a particularly dramatic scene whispered, “I think she’s mad”. My dad laughed out loud. The next night, we saw the only available American option, Demolition Man. We have been laughing about that for years.
The two hand-painted pewter ornaments (snowman and angel) came from Munich. They were a splurge and along with a Hofbrahaus mug, the only souvenirs I have from that trip. I never tire of looking at these; although they are two dimensional, they are painted on both sides and look as if they are three dimensional. I was visiting a friend, and because we were broke college students, we did a lot of walking and free activities. The most vivid memories I have are of going to the Hofbrahaus and, for some odd reason, listening to Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy” over and over… and over again in her dorm room.
Sometimes I can’t remember what is in a particular bag or box. This was the case with the bag labeled “Pewabic”. Once I open it, and see the beautiful, sturdy stamped pottery disc emblazoned with “Detroit” and a skyline below, I remember that I got it around 2008 when I saw Bon Jovi. I had really wanted a souvenir of the trip, but it seemed nearly impossible to find one, let alone a Christmas ornament. After some searching we found the Pewabic Pottery Studio, that I now know was started in 1908. My JD is an amateur potter, so he examined its craftsmanship with great interest. Another trip to Pewabic may be in my future.
Two special acquisitions, bought years apart, come from downtown Chicago. The first is a Christopher Radko from Marshall Fields from 2001 that is shaped like the Fields clock. I was doing some last-minute Christmas shopping and happened to see it. I hadn’t planned to buy a $40-Christmas ornament that day, but was in a sentimental Chicago mood. This was soon after my parents had come to visit; we had visited the State Street windows, photographed the tree at the Walnut Room, and strolled along Michigan Avenue. Despite the seemingly endless debate in my head, “Do I or don’t I?” I handed over my credit card, telling myself that I was investing in future Christmases. It turns out I was right. A few years later, Macy’s bought out Fields, and with the exception of the clock on the outside corner of the building, quashed any evidence of Chicago’s beloved department store.
I had almost forgotten about the second Chicago ornament until I saw the box that is labeled “Christkindlmarket 2015”. It is a gorgeous hand-blown glass ball with a glittering and shiny rendering of the Chicago skyline in relief. This was the first year that my JD and I went to the Christkindlmarket together and we told the story a couple of times this year. We got there early and there were already upwards of 1,000 people waiting to get in. By the time we left at noon, it was impossible to tell which lines went where and who was waiting for what. But, we completed the mission; we got the mugs, our first mugs bought together.
This weekend, it is time to take down the tree and pack away these mementos for the year. When I bought that flamingo in 1993, I had no idea that I would create such a travel diary. I’m eager to see what 2017 holds and have already started a list of potential destinations.