When I was twelve, my church, First Covenant of St. Paul, sponsored several families who had escaped the bombing of Saigon in Vietnam. We pooled resources, found a house to rent, supplied it with furniture, stocked the pantry, and welcomed thirteen refugees who were extended family to each other. Among them was a girl my age. On her first Minnesota Christmas she gave me an ornament she had made out of toothpicks—it was a small, Vietnamese house on stilts. It was her way of inviting me to be her friend. She learned English quickly, attended church and Sunday school with her family regularly, and became my friend.
We were confirmed together, went to CHIC, and eventually we both attended North Park University, where she shared her infectious laugh and ability to charm everyone. She was successful in business, married, and had two beautiful daughters. I visited her in their new home one day and when I told her I still had the little house, she couldn’t believe it. Yen Nguyen Allen died of breast cancer several years ago, but I have a loving reminder of the friendship I had with a brave girl who left her home in Vietnam and made the U.S. her own.
A hunk of metal I retrieved from a burned-out neighborhood following the Oakland Hills fire in 1991. It’s a reminder to me of what matters most during the Christmas season—relationships, not things!
Possessions (even the most priceless ones) are vulnerable to fire, theft, breakage, collecting dust, or being thrown away. Gifts that keep on giving are those we embrace who embrace us back.
Mercer Island, Washington
A Nativity set we picked up on vacation in Florida at the Holy Land Experience. I remember walking through the Bible museum marveling at the colorful drawings and writings. As a family, we enjoyed seeing the Bible come to life through the architecture, costumes, and stories acted out by the cast. I like that the Nativity focuses my attention back on Jesus especially during the busiest of the holidays.
Brooke Ann Tang
I grew up in a place where Christmas was an unknown, but that changed when we immigrated to Oakland, California. Our first exposure to Christmas in our home came some years later when someone gave us a four-foot tall silver tinsel tree. But it wasn’t until Immanuel was in my heart that we began to celebrate Christmas and start Christmas traditions. My favorite ornament is a simple manger carving, reminding me that the infinite God became human and dwelt among us. God with us!
Missouri City, Texas
When I was in kindergarten, our teacher took our pictures early in the fall. Then we made cardboard wreaths and decorated them and she stapled our pictures so the wreath framed them. Mom hung mine on the door handle of the grandfather clock every year. The clock now stands in my house, and every year when I hang up the wreath we say, “Okay, now it’s Christmas!”
As a transplanted country girl from Eufaula, Alabama, to the big city of Miami, Florida, I never really had a tradition that revolved around the Christmas tree. Then about twelve years ago, my eldest son presented me with two ornaments that encased pictures of my eldest grandchildren, Christiana and Nathaniel. It changed the entire meaning of Christmas ornaments for me. These grands now are sixteen and seventeen years old, and I yearly hang these precious balls on the tree to turn and reflect life and light.
My favorite decoration is an Advent candleholder from a Norwegian pewter factory in 1972. It is inscribed with the text from Luke 2:1 and reminds me that God uses world powers to fulfill his promises. The first illustration shows Caesar issuing the decree for a census to be taken. The second depicts angels appearing to the shepherds. The third is of Mary, Joseph, and the baby Jesus. The fourth shows the wise men following the star to Bethlehem.
Lighting a new candle each week and reading the Advent Scriptures became a family tradition. I live alone now, but I still love to honor Advent by lighting the candles and reading the text each week. A Savior is born, good tidings of great joy!
Santa Barbara, California
I didn’t grow up with Christmas decorations. In fact, I bought my very first Christmas tree with my first paycheck. One of my favorite ornaments is a snowflake one of my kids made out of sticks when they were in Head Start. Snowflakes remind me how unique and special we are to God. No two snowflakes are alike. Even though Christmas celebrations and traditions are different, Jesus is the reason we celebrate.
Last Christmas a friend asked me to make an ornament for friends in Israel. Her friends are Orthodox Jews who celebrate Christmas. She requested that I use indigo blue, red, gold, and leather. Initially I could not see how this would all come together. I found blue fabric and then some ornate red and gold beads. I decided to use leather to cover the bottom button of the ornament and to sew an ornament bag. At the leather shop, I flipped through hundreds of leather hides looking for one soft and thin enough to cover that button. When I finally found one that was perfect, I asked the shopkeeper what type of hide it was. He answered, “Lambskin.”
Later, as I was creating the ornament, it dawned on me that this ornament was the Christmas and Easter story all wrapped up in one. Blue for Jesus’s royalty. Red for his shed blood. Gold was one of the gifts the three wise men brought to Jesus. And that beautiful lambskin represented Jesus, the Lamb of God. Merry Christmas and Happy Easter!
Ann “Fred” Zwanzig Downing
In thirty-four years of marriage, my wife and I have only once put up a Christmas tree but I’m not a total Scrooge. Nativity scenes adorn our home during Advent. We have a growing collection, acquired from a diverse assortment of people and places. Not all would pass a test of historical accuracy (was there really a little drummer boy by the manger?), yet they do keep Jesus front and center. With all the hustle and bustle of commercialized Christmases, I always want Jesus at the center.