On Travel, Tradition and Christmas Ornaments

Another year, another holiday season away from home. One of the downsides to being a frequent nomad is that you are constantly missing out on the family togetherness and traditions that cluster around this time of year. In the past five years I’ve missed four thanksgivings, and  this will be my third christmas morning spent far far away from the people I love. It’s the ransom I pay to live the way I do, and while I’ve found lots of ways to cope with being away from home for the holidays, it never really stops sucking.

Being in Australia during Christmas-time makes this year especially weird. Instead of chilly air it’s just getting warmer and warmer and the only christmas decorations I see are the ones I put up in our van, the only christmas carols the ones I play on my own ipod. Instead of chilly London or even tepid DC, my Christmas day will probably be spent knocking back beers in the heat of the Sydney summer. There are far worse fates for sure, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t lacking a bit in holiday cheer this year.

Like everybody, I have my own favorite holiday traditions. When I am lucky enough to be home I love decorating the Christmas tree. In a way I think it’s a part of why I love travel so much. You see, for as long as I can remember my family has been collecting Christmas ornaments from our many road-trips. Instead of generic glass balls or tinself, our tree is an eclectic hodgepodge of souvenirs from all over the US and Canada.

This makes decorating the tree so fun and memorable. Each ornament evokes a specific time and place. They all have their own story and meaning. Like this bell from Yellowstone, where our entire family was almost trampled but a herd of bison because my Dad was messing with his video camera :

Or this tipsy Santa on Bourbon street from when my parents rode on a Mardi Gras float:

Or this Union Jack ball from Harrods: a result of our one family trip abroad to England. Even now, years later, I can remember picking this ornament from the wonderland of Christmas ornaments in the epic store.

We’ve got dozens of them. Even after my parents divorced and the ornaments split into two camps, it was still fun to reminisce about the great trips we’d taken together as a family. As the traveler of the family, I always make an effort to add to the collection with hand painted eggshells from Hungary or woolen angels from Iceland.

One of the things I love most about travel is looking back on my past experiences and finding the meaning in them. This christmas ritual is essentially a distilled version of that- memories made manifest in funny little trinkets.

When you are away from home from the holidays, so much of what you miss out on is the togetherness, and the traditions of the season. I’m certainly pining for those things now, but what this family ritual has taught me is the importance of both creativity and tradition. If I can’t be home to partake in these things myself, then it’s up to me to pioneer my own continuity.

I bought some Christmas ornaments the other day- a wooden kangaroo and a platypus- both wearing Santa hats. They aren’t for my Mom’s christmas tree, or my Dad’s either. They are for me, for the future, for some day when I’m more settled and I can carry on this tradition myself.

15 thoughts on “On Travel, Tradition and Christmas Ornaments”

  1. It’s my first Christmas away from home and I am also in the Southern Hemisphere. It’s hard to feel Christmasy when it’s so hot! I’ve been trying though. I decked out my apartment with handmade decorations and bought a cheap little tree. I miss my ornament collection. My mom has bought me a couple every year since I was little.

  2. It’s nice that you’re carrying on the tradition on your own.

    I’ve never been away from home for a major holiday (unless you count New Year’s, which I don’t, since that’s not a big “family” holiday at my house), but I can imagine that it would be tough adjusting.

    I’ve kind of always wanted to spend Christmas somewhere warm, though. Hopefully you can make the most of it in OZ!

  3. Hi Steph-
    You were right. I love this post. I have always loved our tree full of memories and I can’t tell you how tickled I am to see you carry on the tradition.

  4. My mom took it one step further and started an ornament collection for each of us to take when we moved out of the house. So now I have lots of quirky random ornaments on my tree too! As we were decorating the tree the other day, Mark commented that some of these ornaments were like old friends. One of my favorites is the Shrinky Dinks ornament I made with my cousin, circa 1978. 🙂

    1. This is the tradition my family had going too — each year we got an ornament. Now I”m on my own with my own (itty-bitty) tree, full or ornaments. Even though I can’t be with my family this year, I got to decorate the tree and remember all the years tied into those ornaments.

  5. i love this! My mom is exactly the same–we never did family trips much much, but she is the queen of quirky christmas decorations. Instead of generic glass balls we have tin chili peppers, disco balls, an Eiffel tower, and a zillion more (and, of course, the requisite collection of bizarre ornaments handmade by me when I was four).

    Travel souvenirs always come off as so cheesy, but I love them in the same way as Christmas ornaments. You’re so right when you say they are a distillation of the memories garnered through travel.

    And PS: Hand painted eggshells from Hungary sound amazing!

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