Saturday, December 28, 2013

Auld Lang Syne

To Matt, Josh & Lauren,

Christmas 2013 is nearly a week in the wake now and the deconstruction process has already begun.  It seems that the kitchen was just now kindled hot over and over as I worked my way through a long list of cookie recipes, but already the empty tins and Tupperware containers are piling on the cold stovetop, waiting to be put away on the basement shelves.  We’ve already gathered the gift bags and bows, smoothed out the tissue paper that could be salvaged and flattened the multitude of cardboard boxes that are destined for the recycling bin.  The strand of lights around the door is half-burned out and Daddy decided against trying to fix them this year, so we’ve turned them off and the house looks a little less cheery against the wind.  Next week, when you return to school, I’ll begin the process of taking down the mantle nativity and send the wise men back east, or south as it may be.  The Santas will give way to the snowmen and the tree boughs will sigh and bow to relinquish their troves.  

At the beginning of the month, as I was assembling the yearly magic, I realized that there are so many efforts involved in creating Christmas that you’re not aware of yet.  The dozens of cards to write and send. The gift buying for teachers and the bus driver and the mail lady.  The lights that Daddy strings along the bushes at the front of the house and the decorations that I haul out from the basement and set up late at night while you’re deep in sleep.  

It’s not really important at 8 years old to appreciate it all.  I’m just delighted and somewhat confounded that you still write wish lists to Santa and believe that our elf has nanny cams throughout the house so he can accurately recommend you to the naughty or nice list.  My plan is to keep you in the shoals of Christmas strain as long as I can.  

In time, you’ll each discover the full scope of how Christmas unfolds in a home.  Some aspects will be jealously guarded and carried on.  Perhaps it will be a cookie tradition.  No matter how many dozens I’ve made, there still must be a batch of butterscotch oatmeal for me and a tin of Great-Granny’s lace cookies for your Daddy.   

Other traditions will seem an ill-fit to your families and you’ll store them away in the boxes of faded memories, coming across them when digging deep into a back corner of recollection.  In your Grammy’s house, we weren’t allowed to decorate ANYTHING until December 14th because Uncle Jason’s birthday was the day before.  Now, our tradition is to start putting up lights on Thanksgiving weekend.  I wonder what indispensable part of our holidays will draw to a close in your homes?  The angel food cake on Christmas eve?  Santa’s red wrapping paper?  
Today, I want to write about a few specific boxes of decorations that I faithfully bring up from the basement each year.  The ones that have extra-special meaning and a family history behind them.  One day, they’ll be divided among your homes and I’m delighted to think of their stories continuing to flourish on the tender branches that you’ll be adding to the family tree.   


I keep most of my heritage treasures in the dining room.  Before you were born, I had spectacular dreams of turning that space into a museum of sorts, a place where I could display all my genealogy artifacts that I’ve collected over the years.  Then came triplets and the heirloom cherry table became a diaper changing station.  8 years later, it’s an art and Lego center, but I’ve managed to press my treasures around the edges of the room like a flower pinned flat between pages of a heavy book.  Some day I’ll write about the George & Martha plates from the mountains of central PA and the rounded glass cabinet from your Irish great-great-great aunt in Philadelphia.  But those are tales for another telling.  This letter is all about our Christmas antiquity.

The china cabinets are brimming with places to nestle all those shiny glass ornaments that have been handed down to me over the years.  Most of the brightly colored ones came from Granny Gunning when she was moving out of her house.  I group them by color:  blues with greens, reds with golds.  Granny showed me how to use an old wire to stack the pinks and silvers in a tree shape.  A lot of those balls have the old fashioned etching or flocking on them.  They’re starting to yellow and crackle, but I think when placed all together, they make a lovely display.  Granny also gave me a most special glass ball ornament.  Do you see that silver one lying on it’s side, sitting on the pink glass stand?  That belonged to your great-grandfather, Doc Gunning, when he was a child.  It’s coming up on 100 years old and is very heavy.  I wouldn’t dare try to hang it since it’s made of thick glass and the metal hanger is very loose. I handle that one with great care.

Bringing out these old pieces is like unlocking an old trunk for me.  Each December as I peel back the tissue paper, I get to revisit a little memory from my childhood and so often, one that is connected to my grandparents’ houses.  

After my Grandpa Durandetta passed away and we were cleaning out the attic crawlspaces, we reached the Christmas boxes.  A lot of things had missing or broken pieces or were just not salvageable.  Like the box of old fashioned C7 lights with the big, fat, colored bulbs.  I remember Grandpa stringing them on the bushes outside the front door and they would get so hot!  The wires were covered with a cotton braid and I always thought that was an accident waiting to happen.  But I couldn’t bear to see them thrown in the trash so I unscrewed the bulbs and later glued them into a wreath that I hang on the wall by the kitchen.  Likewise, I also rescued a box of tree ornaments that included Grandma’s yellow and gold masterpiece.  It used to be fashionable to take silk-covered balls and decorate them with elaborate stick pin and bead designs. I remember seeing it hang under her dining room chandelier each Christmas.  As a child, I fancied that it surely must have fallen from one of the wise men’s crowns.  

I also rescued a tiny vintage German angel and a blue plastic Jewelbrite from the box of ornaments that was headed to the trash.  A few years ago while I was browsing through a thrift store, I found a whole bag of the bright prisms….red, yellow and blue….and, of course, I had to buy them to go along with the single one I had from Grandma’s house.  Today, I hang them on the curtain in the window and they sparkle just like they did back in the 1960s. 

And what retro Christmas display would be complete without one of those ceramic trees with the plastic light-up bulbs?  Imagine my delight, while on a trip back to Grove City this summer to visit family, coming into possession of one of those trees that belonged to your Great Grandma Frisk!  I recall her having one on the kitchen windowsill and knew that my mom was now using it at her breakfast nook.  But I didn’t know there was a spare in the closet that no one had spoken for.  Today it’s on the little table just below the bulb wreath, casting about its cheer for another era to enjoy.  Grandma would be tickled, I’m sure.  

Over the years, Grammy has been handing down decorations to me as well.  When we first got married, she made sure I had a box full of ornaments for our tree and when she and Grandpa moved off the farm, she gave me a lot of the decorations that she no longer had room for.  See the Santa with the silky beard?  He’s the oldest and most special one I have.  My great-grandpa Frisk gave him to me on my first Christmas in 1974.  If you look back at old pictures of our trees, you’ll see him hanging on a center branch.   And those rainbow foil balls?  Grammy always hung one on our dining room chandelier.  I found these ones at a thrift store and had to add them to my collection.  

In the 1970s and 80s, it was popular for ladies to take ceramics classes and make holiday decorations.  One of Grammy’s friends made us that gaudy Frosty with his light-up rainbow belly.  We always kept him on the secretary desk near the front door and I was delighted when Grammy turned him over to me.  The elves came from the same lady and I remember them standing on the piano like little staring bookends, watching me practice my lessons.  

See the frosted reindeer ornament?  Grammy bought that set the year Uncle Jason was born.  And the little plastic trumpeting angels?  Those are some of the earliest ornaments that I remember hanging on the tree.  I’m sure I was allowed to handle them since they’re pretty much indestructible.  Today, I hang them alongside the Jewelbrites on the curtain.  And along the kitchen windowsill, I set up the stained glass nativity panels.  I was probably about your age when I made them and can still remember trying to decide which colors to use on the wise men’s robes. 

There’s one last collection of ornaments that I want you to know about.  They’ve all been purchased by me sometime in the last ten years.  They didn’t belong to anyone in the family tree and I don’t have any specific stories or memories to share about them.  Once I finish acquiring them, they’ll represent the 4 major heritages of your family tree: British, Northern Irish, Italian and Swedish.  As of now, I have 2 branches covered. 

The straw ornaments are traditional Swedish crafts.  Look carefully and you’ll see an angel, a pinecone, a heart and a bell.  I love that your Great-Grandpa Frisk was a farmer and spent so much time in the fields, among the stubble and folds of the earth.  Bended straw is a perfect nod to his Swedish roots.  

And the beautiful bauble ornaments are from Italy where artisans are famous for their skill in glassmaking.  There are ribboned blue and green hearts and gold candies with tassels and filigree.  I love that your Great-Great-Grandpa Durandetta was a quarryman and spent so many years cutting through the sandstone ridges of central PA, culling heavy blocks that found their way into some of the state’s most beautiful architecture.  Ornamental glass is a perfect nod to his Italian craftsman roots.  

By next year, I hope to have the collection complete with a set of tartan cloth ornaments to weave you in to your Atkinson Northern Irish roots and a set of Royal Doulton teacups to toast your Gunning British lineage.  

The best part of gathering these artifacts and memories, these stories of those gone on for you who have just begun, is that there is always more to discover, always another memento to stumble upon or a photograph that shakes a forgotten memory loose.  I love to think of the future and imagine where it will lead each of us.  But sometimes even more, I relish thinking on our past, honoring its significance in the construction of our family’s identity and remembering the beautiful, inimitable, vanward journey we’ve joined.  

Should auld acquaintance be forgot 
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear, 
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup of kindness yet
for auld lang syne.  


  1. Jen, This is a wonderful tale and beautifully told. Your children will cherish all the detail when they're old enough to appreciate it. You're giving them the gift of story - their story. Hazel

    1. Thanks, Hazel :-) I've always loved to gather the past and have a hard time letting it go. Now that we have the kids, it has fresh purpose and I figured I'd better start writing about it so it continues to be known :-)