By Jean Stratton

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Collectibles, Keepsakes and Kidstuff Help Celebrate the Holiday Season

Collecting can be a captivating year-round pursuit; for some, a passion. When the holidays arrive, even those who normally never give a thought to creating a collection are often caught up in the "presentation and display" mode. Santas, snowmen, angels, nativity scenes, miniature houses and entire villages, china, nutcrackers, carolers, and rocking horses – these are just a sampling of items found in prominent profusion in many houses between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Additions to collections are certainly welcome gifts.

"Once you know that a family member or friend has a collection, giving to them is a cinch," says a neighbor, who has recently become a collector herself.

"It's not just the holiday items," she points out, "although of course, they are always special this time of year. But serious tea drinkers like me require a number of teapots, for example. Teapots are for specific times, for specific teas. Breakfast tea needs to be kept hot for a long time, as I am the only family tea drinker and want it to last. So my morning orange pekoe and black blend is made and kept in a thermos pot.

"Should a friend drop by later, I want a cheery Italian ceramic pot (with a tea cozy) and bright mugs. Afternoon tea tastes best made in a china pot, served in china cups on a tray in the living room, with hot water ready to heat up the tea or dilute it a bit.

"A teapot that is used for a spicy tea is best reserved for that use," she continues. "One that usually contains lemon tea likes to be used for that alone. And, please don't brew mint tea in the pot reserved for ginger, or Red Zinger in the one reserved for 'Sleepytime'.

"For very special occasions, tea is served from the footed silver tray, with all the appropriate silver tea and hot water pots kept warm with a flame under them. As with any serious collector, when you get a new teapot, you expand your horizon to a new tea as well. It's wonderful!"

Precious Gift

Another tea-drinking friend, originally from Wales, has had a different experience with a special teapot. "My sister in London gave me this great teapot that lights up, displaying a charming picture inside, and plays music. The only thing is, you can't make tea in it!"

For some people, items that began as a holiday collection end up being displayed all year. One Christmas, a friend received a very precious gift of a Boehm porcelain lion and lamb.

"I had always wanted it," she says, "and now I can't bear to put it away. I keep it out all year." Angels are another specialty. A neighbor, who formerly collected all kind of angels, now collects only the glazed Lladros angels, and they are a presence in the house throughout the year. In a multitude of sizes and shapes, they recline, read, relax, stretch and play musical instruments – angels for all occasions and all seasons.

"If the gift you need is for an angel collector, be bold," she advises. "Ask if the collection is going in a particular direction, such as toward a single color, texture, use, origin, dimension, etc. Perhaps all the ornaments on the tree will be angels, and a perfect gift would be a silver or filigree angel addition."

Decorating the Christmas tree with a single category of ornaments can be the ultimate setting for a collection, adds a Princeton friend. "I have a lot of feathered bird ornaments, which I inherited from my mom, who collected them over the years. I have kept gathering them too, and there are white ones and lots of cardinals. Sometimes, I only put the birds on the tree, and it is really beautiful."

Another friend reports that her husband, who is a serious fisherman, has his own small tabletop tree, adorned with fishing paraphernalia: hooks, rods, reels, tiny fishermen, boats, and of course, fish.

"He loves it," says his wife, "and it is his great joy that we add to it each year. He is a race car enthusiast as well, and I also decorated a smaller tree with all kinds of tiny race cars, and this tree sits inside a red model Chevy convertible. He likes it so much that it is displayed on a shelf in his study all year long."

Trimmed Trees

There is no doubt that trimmed trees are collectibles in this family. They are everywhere! "One year, I put up 21 different Christmas trees," she reports. "Most of them had a theme, and one of my favorites was an artificial white tree about three feet high with tiny white lights. All of the ornaments were of paper with a Victorian motif. Many of my family and friends save their cards and wrapping paper with Victorian scenes and give them to me to recycle for this tree.

"It is filled with Victorian angels, Madonna and Child, children, dolls, toys, Father Christmas, and many other Victorian and Edwardian scenes. I love this tree because it reminds me of those who have been kind and thoughtful to me. Also, one of the best things about it is that, with the exception of the lights, all the paper ornaments fit in a shoebox and are so easy to store. I call it my 'Victorian Scrap Tree.'"

Santas are another very, very collectible item and are found in every possible style, material, size, and setting. My Honeybrook Drive friend, a Christmas devotee par excellence, has one of the largest collections I know of – 75 different Santas. It has been building for the past 25 years.

"I wanted to collect something for Christmas," she recalls. "I looked at a Santa in one store, and the price was $125. Too much, I thought. Then I went back after Christmas, and discovered it was a June McKenna Santa, a limited edition, signed by her. I got it for the next year.

"Then, I decided to collect, and every year after that, got one. People started giving them to me, too. They are all shapes and sizes, and made of everything. Later, I started buying very special, handmade ones.

"Also, along with the Santas, I began getting Santa needlepoint pictures and Santa pillows. I love to be surrounded with Santas at Christmas."

Conversation Piece

Once a collector, always a collector! She reports that she has also begun a collection of moose! (Soft teddy bear-type moose, that is).

"When we began going to Vermont in the summer, I started to love moose. I have about 35, and one year at Christmas, I had them all sliding down my stair rail. Someone asked me what their names were. So, I named them for everyone in the family, and even dressed them. They are a real conversation piece!"

Another collector adds her own Santa story: "The Shuffling Santa." "All our friends knew we liked to have Santas, and one Christmas, my husband's former room-mate was visiting from Detroit. He brought us a Santa which shuffled and played a Christmas carol medley – We Wish You a Merry Christmas, Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing, Joy to the World, etc. in that order.

"Santa was in our friend's suitcase, which was in the back of a hired van bringing him from the airport to our home. Perhaps the van went over a bump and activated the music, but all the way from Queens to Princeton, the carols played! We had the Santa for years. Eventually, the music wore out, but we still put him out at Christmas and remember this funny story."

Santa's Helpers

Antique dolls, often in holiday finery, and Byers' Choice Carolers, and Kindles are other very collectible items. The Carolers, who always have their mouths open in song, are available in various categories, including "Salvation Army", with figures playing musical instruments and singing, and "Donut Girl"; also, adults with skis, and grownups and children holding snowshoes. The company is celebrating its 25th anniversary, and in commemoration, there is a special "Victoria's Mother" caroler.

Kindles are small holiday sprites or attractive little troll and elf-like creatures. Categories include "bakerkins" and Santa's helpers, and they can be placed on a Christmas tree branch or mantel, or any other place you might find a sprite!

Another friend, who recently moved to Arizona and cheerfully admits she decorates her house "like Macy's windows!", is totally ecumenical in her collection of decorations – inside and outside.

"First, we decorate the yard. There are green lights on all the saguaros (giant cacti), and the saguaros wear Santa hats (which are difficult to get on and off because of the big thorns). There are lights everywhere, including a lighted reindeer, who moves his head and red lighted nose.

"Inside, we have collections all over: Christmas villages, angels of all shapes and sizes – angels trumpeting from the mantel, angels suspended from the ceiling. And I always let my friends know what I am collecting in case they want to provide an addition."

Sometimes, collections are thrust upon you, as a neighbor reports. "A friend of ours started a snowman collection for us, and she and her family send us one every year. At first, we weren't too sure about it, but now we look forward to getting them.

"We also started a collection of snow globes for the children when they were little. We have everything from carolers to Santa in his workshop to a mouse playing the organ! Some are music boxes too.

"Other things we unpack every year are the collection of Hallmark ornaments. We try to buy at least one every year. We have everything from baseball players to Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler to the characters in It's A Wonderful Life."

Village Scene

Another popular yuletide household display is the miniature village scene. Entire wintertime villages spring up, complete with skating rink, toy stores, houses, railroad station, shoppers, skaters, family pets, etc.

The popular Dept. 56 collectibles, as well as others, include a variety of theme villages: Christmas in the City, North Pole, Dickens Village, Original Snow Village, and Alpine Village. There are many buildings and accessories, such as lamplighters, busy elves, toy factories, etc., for each category.

A California friend sets up his Christmas village every year on a sideboard. It all started seven years ago, he explains. "I was visiting one of my favorite stores, called Allied Model Trains. Since I have a train set, I thought I'd pick up a few accessories. I entered a room called 'Dept. 56' and saw a Lionel train station. Then, I found out that I would have to buy one or two items in order to buy the train station. So I picked out a few things for a Christmas village – a church and a moose in a pond!

"Now, every year, I stop in and pick out a few more items. I have Santa on an Ice boat, a Dickens Village Christmas tree, and a holiday house, which has a wind-up dancing Santa inside. One of my favorites is the village Chocolate Shop, which has a Hershey chocolate syrup truck parked in front."

Sometimes, men may not acknowledge being collectors, but "just get them talking about HO gauge train sets, miniature John Deere tractors, and you'll see the collector glint," reports the wife of a serial collector. "Tools, baseball cards, Matchbox cars – you name it!"

In addition to the collections, treasured keepsakes are often an essential part of the holiday celebration. These can range from decorations and ornaments to special dolls, toys, or books, and without them, the holiday celebration would not seem complete.

Often they have been passed down through the generations, and the years have added the patina of "character" to their original charm.

"When my husband and I were first married, we lived in 'plush poverty, as we were both working 40 hours a week, and he was attending law school at night," recalls a Princeton friend. "For our first Christmas together, we went to a discount store and found a small nativity set with several different animals, including two small sheep. It cost $1.99 for the set!

Good As New

"When we had our daughter, Laura, we continued the tradition of our little nativity set, and when she was three, we placed the set on the coffee table so that she would be able to arrange the Holy family, the wise men, angels, shepherds, and many different animals that we had added to the set. While Laura was arranging all the animals around the Christ Child, one of the lambs fell off the table and broke his leg. Laura was devastated because she was very fond of the sheep. I found a tiny band-aid, we wrapped the leg, and he was as good as new.

"Laura is 30 years old now, and she has this nativity set, and, yes, the little lamb with the bandaged leg is still a part of our Christmas nativity tradition."

"We have lots of stuff that is traditional with us," notes a neighbor. "Some of it badly worn, and most of which would not make the pages of a decorating magazine, but it wouldn't be Christmas without it!

"In recognition of my husband's Danish heritage, there are always Jul Nisse (elves) and strings of Danish flags on the tree. The flags are always the last item placed on the tree and signify its completion.

"The cross-stitch runners made by his mom and also the cross-stitch Advent calendar – Danish style with blue background – made by his sister are very important to us. The kids used to take turns hanging a tiny ornament from each loop. And now that they're not always here, we continue the tradition.

"We also have three ornaments that were on my parents tree – a small pear and two small silver ornaments in old-fashioned shapes. In addition, there is a well-worn (and very cheap) ornament saved from my first Christmas tree in my first apartment when I was single, as well as the various ornaments made by the children."

Another friend of Danish heritage also trims her tree with Danish flags and small Danish hearts. "Some are really old from relatives in Denmark, and others I received from my Danish host family when I spent a college semester there. I also have my stocking made by my aunt. It is quilted with Rudolph on it with a sequined red nose. I will never give it up!"

Ornaments are clearly important keepsakes for many, and often, the older, the better.

Christmases Past

"Probably our favorite ornament is an old discolored purple ball," says another Princeton neighbor. "It dates back to the early 1900s and came from our grandfather's tree. It was one that survived a Christmas disaster long ago, when grandfather's beautifully decorated tree fell over, smashing most of the ornaments. The purple one remains as a survivor, reminding us of days and Christmases past.

"Two other special ornaments on our tree are delicate gold circles, each one holding a little angel, which rotates with every whisper of air. Each is engraved with the name of one of our sons. Our boys are grown now, but whenever they come home for Christmas, one of the first things they do is search for the angel ornament with their name."

Finding a meaningful ornament on the tree is very important to children, adds a grandmother of 13 – she should know!

"With young grandchildren, it is important to put all the ornaments they have made for us on the tree. I have catalogued them by name and ornament, so I am sure to get them all up. Because the children will definitely come and look for them!"

In addition to these hand-done specialties, other decorations she includes every year are angel chimes. "We've had them a long time. When you light the candles, the heat makes the angels spin around, causing the chimes to ring.

"I also have old ornaments that were passed down in the family. You can tell they're old because the tops are different and the glitter is different. Another special item is our wire-mesh card holder, with red ribbon, which my parents had used for many years."

Kids have very definite decorating ideas, reports another friend. "Our tree is divided into two sides. One side holds the ornaments collected by our son Jamie; the other is Jerry's. When the boys are home, they help to decorate the tree in this manner. If they are away, then Mom and Dad do it for them!"

Macaroni Wreath

''We still have the 'Macaroni' wreath which our daughter made in nursery school," says my Arizona friend. "It's a piece of cardboard cut out in the shape of a wreath and macaroni is glued all over it. There's a small red bow at the bottom – a collector's item!

"Another one we always have to display is the reindeer made of an old-fashioned clothespin, with pipe-cleaner antlers, and little felt eyes, also made by one of our kids.

"And we certainly can't do without our mechanical Santa and Mrs. Claus, which the kids absolutely love. When you push the switch, they rock in their seats, and Santa snores while Mrs. Claus knits and hums 'Santa Claus is Coming to Town.'

All these items, perhaps unremarkable by themselves, take on new dimensions because of the memories they evoke.

"We have three small ceramic carolers given to me when I was five, pastel china angels, which are 'sweeping' with small brooms – a baby present to me, and angels which spell out 'Noel' – a letter per angel," adds my friend. "Unfortunately, the 'e' broke a few years ago, so it's 'Nol' now. But we wouldn't think of not putting it out.

"We had another incident recently with our outdoor reindeer. He stood in the yard, and sadly a couple of years ago, vandals stole it. We got another, and this time locked it to a tree. After Christmas, we couldn't find the key to the lock, so the reindeer stayed put through Valentine's Day, when he wore a string of hearts, and right through to St. Patrick's Day, when we hung a shamrock around his neck."

Various Scenes

Special displays under the tree can make deep and lasting impressions on children, too. A neighbor, now retired, remembers such a scene.

"Beneath our Christmas tree each year of my childhood would magically appear a wonderful 'garden,' as we called it, with various scenes of Christmas portrayed in it. A plywood board about four feet square, it had a green granular surface and was bordered by a little red picket fence. Reddish-brown roads with toy cars traversed the landscape with trees, houses, and other buildings along side. A mirror served as a lake in one quadrant, with ducks swimming on it. Cows and sheep grazed in a meadow, and there was a little foot bridge and a well, with children drawing a pail of water from it and other miniature figures.

"That garden is a memory now, but many of those figures and farm animals, snow-tipped trees, and even that little well remain and are lovingly brought out each year. Similar scenes are created with them on piano and table tops, window sills and beneath our own tree, recalling those treasured childhood memories."

A Lambertville resident recalls a similar scene under his tree when he was a boy. "Every Christmas, we brought out a red wooden barn with a green roof, doors, and a cupola. It was filled with wooden animals and surrounded by fences and wooden trees. I can remember it as if it were yesterday!"

Keepsakes that prompt memories of special people are always a part of the holiday scene. A West Windsor resident recalls precious menorahs which were set in a place of honor each Hanukkah.

"I had two small ones when I was a child, which I then gave to our boys for their very own small candles. They have now given them to my two young grandsons. We also used a menorah that my grandmother had for many, many years. Then a few years ago, my husband and I bought a new one, made of heavy glass. We used it for Hanukkah, and then I broke it. Two years ago, as a surprise, my son and daughter-in-law gave us a magnificent glass menorah which we will always treasure."

Another cherished item is a small wall-hanging made for a Princeton neighbor by her close friend. "It's fabric, appliquéd with old-fashioned street scenes, a little gold quarter moon and a star, with little houses in a row, and it says 'All Hearts Come Home for Christmas," she explains. "It's really lovely, and has special meaning because my friend made it for me."

Unexpected Gift

She also mentions an unexpected gift which is now prominently displayed every Christmas. "It's a Christmas decorative plate, really an artistic piece, with Santa sitting on a polar bear, looking at the North star. It is truly beautiful. I was in a jewelry store with my husband, and when I saw it, I loved it and wanted to get it for my sister, but it was too expensive. Then, on Christmas morning, there it was for me. He had gone back and gotten it." Nearly everything in her home during the holidays has special memories, she adds. "We have wonderful large snowflakes – plastic, but which look like crystal – which my husband got many years ago. We have put them in different places – in windows, where they are beautiful catching the light, suspended from the ceiling, and on the chimney by the fireplace.

"I also love a small silhouette of a little boy hanging his stocking by the fire given to me by my mother-in-law. It dates to the 1920s, and is one of my favorite things. She also gave me the tablecloth I always use on Christmas Eve. It is beautiful – white, with red and green design. I think things that have been passed down have special meaning."

There is also special meaning in some of the rituals surrounding holiday keepsakes. A friend tells of a Christmas Eve tradition: "Every Christmas Eve, a well-worn, well-loved copy of The Night Before Christmas appears on our coffee table with its beautiful illustrations and familiar text. From the time our children were very young, Dad sat in the quiet of the living room with the tree lights twinkling and read the story to our sons – and to anyone else who happened to be in our home. It was a must, just before tucking in the little ones and turning out the light.

"The reading continued to be a cherished ritual through the years, as the boys grew from youngsters to young adults. When they left home it was done via phone. When one had a fiancé, both he and his special girl listened over the phone as Dad read the story and drew her into our family tradition. This year, the book will appear again and be read again."

Another friend remembers her mother making fudge every Christmas Eve, and now she continues that tradition.

Welcome Aroma

Food plays a big part in the holidays, of course. Baking Christmas cookies is a time-honored custom in many households. A neighbor remembers his mother's cookies with special fondness.

"Each Christmas when I was a boy, the aroma of cookies baking in the oven filled our home. With a recipe held only in mind, my mother baked 'sand tarts' in the various shapes of the season – bells, stars, sleighs, and more. They were paper thin and would fairly melt in your mouth. No others were quite as delicious. While she is no longer with us, the custom of baking sand tarts continues, ably orchestrated by my wife in our home here in Princeton. The welcome aroma and delicious result reminds me both of bygone days and those of more recent years as the tradition continues.

"Another 'keepsake of memory' is that of a Christmas scene that my father drew each year in colored chalk on a blackboard mounted in our kitchen. Different from year to year, it was always eagerly awaited and beautifully crafted and so appropriate to the season. A winter landscape with snow-covered houses and trees and skaters on a frozen pond off in the distance is one that comes to mind. It appeared on Christmas morning and was in a very real sense his 'Christmas card' to his family."

"Keepsakes of memory": all part of the magic of the holidays and the spirit of the season.

"This is my favorite time of year, says another friend. "If you're not rushed, it can be wonderful. I went to pick up a cake at the bakery recently, and I had to wait an hour in line. I actually enjoyed it! I was finished with my other shopping, and I could take time to talk to people and savor the moment.

"Another day, my daughter and I spent the afternoon walking around Palmer Square. It had just snowed, and I remember the icicles hanging from the trees like tiny crystal chandeliers. Just looking at the wonderful decorations and the displays of the stores, and enjoying this special time together reminded me of why I keep my antique wooden sign up all year, which says 'I Believe.'"

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