On December 12 at 12:12 a.m., the final full moon of the decade lit up the early morning sky, and stars twinkled like Shiny Brite ornaments from Christmases past. That night, I thought about my mother Alice who celebrated 100 Christmases during her lifetime. My first Christmas memories are of the dazzling trees she created throughout my midcentury childhood from 1945 into the 1950s and 1960s. Until now—the first December my sisters and I will spend without her—I hadn’t fully appreciated the stories my childhood Christmas trees had to tell.
For years, I’ve stored our Salter family ornaments in Harry & David holiday fruit boxes once filled with individually wrapped Royal Riviera pears. Large and sturdy, the boxes contain colorful glass balls, sparkly stars, red metal bells, stuffed bears and cats, glass pears, glass birds, nests, crystal icicles and glass candy canes—treasures from our Christmases past. Each December as they reemerge, they trigger a nostalgia for my childhood past, my present family, and renewed hope for a future that of late has not appeared bright.
This year, 3 vintage glass ornaments hand decorated by my mother sixty-five years ago have been added to our tree. Following my mother’s passing in her home in San Antonio last February, my sisters and I came upon a collection of her vintage ‘Shiny Brite’ Christmas tree ornaments from the 1940s-60s, stored in their original boxes in a cupboard in the garage. In the 1940s, Shiny Brite glass balls, tops and bells were silvered inside and out to “keep their shiny brightness” for decades. Produced by New York-based Corning Glass Works in Wellsboro, they were sold in Woolworth’s in the 1940s for a few cents each.
Seventy plus years later, these store-bought Shiny Brite ornaments have become collectibles. But none compare with the one-of-a-kind glass ornaments my mother hand-decorated in the months before my sister Kelly was born in November 1955. That year, Dad had been transferred to Westover Air Force Base in Massachusetts after being stationed at numerous bases in Texas and New Mexico during the first decade of my life. December 1955 was literally my first snowy Christmas—one filled with ice skating, snow drifts reaching up the center post of our outdoor clothesline, and a Christmas tree that I’ve never forgotten.
The tree was a tall, Fraser fir strung with blue lights that glowed like aquamarine jewels. Open spaces between the pyramid-shaped branches were hung with large glass balls and dangling oblong ornaments in shades of pastel pink, turquoise and gold. Each one was a unique masterpiece encircled with hand-glued pearls and clusters of tiny seashells. And like frosting on a cake, the tree had been lightly flocked with canned Christmas snow.
My first Christmas away from home took place in 1967 while I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Thailand. That December, I put up an artificial tree and sprayed it with canned snow. Somehow, celebrating Christmas in the heat of Bangkok just wasn’t the same.
A decade later, Kit and I bought our first Christmas tree at a Westwood parking lot in Los Angeles. Full-bodied and smelling like Christmas, it took up a quarter of the living room in the canyon cottage we shared with our son Hayden, daughter Heidi, and two cats. Lit by white Italian lights, its branches supported colorfully clad cardboard bears, plaid bows, red glass balls, and adorable animal ornaments that Heidi meticulously handcrafted with Sculpey clay as a child in the late 1970s.
Forty Christmases later, a miniature tree in our living room at Boomerang Creek features Heidi’s expressive clay animal ornaments. Little brown bears with ski poles decked out in plaid scarves and red gloves, a grey kitten dangling perilously from a festive green wreath, and an elephant on skis with a cat hanging onto its head continue to delight and remind us of our ten happy Christmases in L. A. as a newly blended family all those years ago.
During my childhood when my family moved frequently from one home to another around the country, mother’s handmade ornaments provided a needed sense of continuity and stability during the holidays. That gift recalled through the story of her ornaments will live on for Christmases to come at Boomerang Creek.
Cathy Salter is a geographer and columnist who lives with her husband, Kit, in Southern Boone County at a place they call Boomerang Creek.