Old glass Christmas ornaments

O, Christmas Tree: The Stories You Can Tell

My favourite part of holiday decorating is The Christmas Tree.

No matter what other decorating may or may not get done, the Christmas tree is a must.

So recently, when a bereaved friend mentioned that she still cannot bear to put up the tree at Christmas, it struck me as particularly sad.  Even in my darkest Christmases, (and many of us have had them) when it has been a struggle to do anything else, the tree – a real tree – is the one bright light for me.

And that got me thinking about the Christmas tree.

Every Ornament tells a story

Mercury glass balls for the Christmas tree

Faded, with colour chipping, the glass ornaments of my childhood fill me with joy

Decorating the tree is re-visiting the story of my life.  In recent years, I’ve combined my (rather extensive) ornament collection with my mom’s. Putting her decorations on the tree keeps her with us at Christmas. The pretty glass balls date from my childhood.  Mercury-type glass, some are chipping, but no matter.  I love the way they reflect and amplify the lights of the tree.  And the colourful “glass” garland that gracefully drapes the boughs was, and still is, a must.

Old and new for the Christmas tree

Old and New: My little pilgrim ornament alongside my mom’s mercury-glass balls.

Through the years I’ve made and collected lots of tree ornaments. It is what I always look for when I travel.  This year I’ve had the good fortune to add a few.  New are the hand-made Icelandic horse created by a local artisan in Reykjavik and the porcelain bauble from Mt. St. Michel in Normandy.  France had too many beautiful places and I was so taken with Monet’s home that I had to add a glass ornament from Giverny as well.

Commemorative Christmas ornaments

Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee and an Icelandic horse

Christmas Tree Ornaments from France

Mt. St. Michel, Normandy, France

Each decoration has some special significance:  the 2016 White House Ornament commemorates this year’s visit to the White House.  The little pilgrim is a special gift from a friend the year I first completed the Camino de Santiago.  I acquired The Queen’s Jubilee Ornament on my last trip to London.

White House 2016

White House 2016 Commemorative Ornament

Bought or Handmade?

I love handmade ornaments as well.  I dedicated an entire Pinterest board to them!  Each year I try to make one (or a few!) to add to the collection:  cross stitch, embroidery, Hardanger, or just something cute and crafty.

Embroidered Christmas Ornament

Embroidered Cube

Cross Stitch Christmas tree ornament

Cross Stitched teddies

Hardanger Christmas tree ornament

A Hardanger poinsettia

I’m not sure exactly when I began collecting ornaments, but I know that I have been doing it for a long time.  Opening the boxes and taking out the delicate, tissue-paper-wrapped treasures, time is erased and recollections of people and places flood the memory.  Seeing each is like re-acquainting with an old friend.  I carefully unfold the tissue, gently turn the item in my hand and reflect on the circumstances – the story – around the acquisition of that one. Where were we?  Who was there?  What was the story?

Handmade Christmas tree ornament

Holiday Pinwheel – 2016

Christmas tree angel

Christmas Angel – 2016

Few Christmas moments give as much pleasure as the late night eggnog, sitting in the darkened living room, contemplating the lighted Christmas tree.  Amid all the bustle and clamour of the Christmas season, the Tree provides me the greatest comfort and joy.

Merry Christmas to all and to quote one of my favourite authors, “God bless us, every one!”

What holiday tradition do you like the best?  Tell us about it in the comments.  Merry Christmas!

Christmas at the White House

Nobody gets in to see the wizard.  Nobody.  No how.

That’s how it feels trying to get into a post 9-11 White House.

White House East Door

There is considerable ‘hoop jumping’ involved.  However, if you can get past the procedural challenges, the reward is worth it.  Especially at Christmas time.

Yesterday, after literally months of planning, we were able to do just that.  Beyond clearing two security checkpoints, we were able to walk virtually unimpeded up to the East Wing entrance where we were greeted by a giant red bow-topped “package” leading up to the doors

Red Garland White House

Garlands everywhere!

Garlands of every colour and style graced the doorways throughout the House.  Balls, baubles, leaves, fruit, ribbons, bows and raffia!  Whatever you can imagine – in every color!  Simply gorgeous!

White House Pups

Down the hallway to the East Landing giant furry replicas of the First Dogs, Bo and Sunny greet visitors.  Volunteers are standing by to take guests’ photos in front of the dogs – normally I don’t like to be in the pictures, but who could resist these two cuties?

East Wing Colonnade

Draped from the ceiling along the colonnade, thousands of sparkling crystals danced among the ribbons.  It is such a simple decoration –  lengths of ribbon hanging in streamers – but it created a dazzling effect.

White House Christmas

The real White House Pups

It was at this point, while looking up and admiring all the ribbons, that I heard a commotion behind me.  I spun around just in time to see the two Portuguese Water Dogs, Bo and Sunny, come trotting by with a handler no doubt on the way to an event.  I managed to snap a quick photo – not the best, but certainly a keeper!   After having just stood next to the giant ones, the real Bo and Sunny were surprisingly small!

Christmas, and more!

Even though the point of our visit was to see the White House dressed up for Christmas, seeing the portraits of past Presidents and First Ladies was quite a thrill.

White House First Lady


White House Library


decorations detail


Christmas decor


East Room Window Wreath

Entering the East Room is breathtaking!  Decorated in traditional colors of red, gold, burgundy and silver, it also contained a nearly life-size crèche prominently placed between the fireplaces in the center of the room.  Here, again, volunteers were conveniently waiting to take photos for all who ask.

White House Christmas

White House Gingerbread



Nutcracker in East Room

The tour is self-guided and so during the course of our visit, our group had become intermingled with a group from Gettysburg, PA who were dressed in Civil War Period costumes.  Their presence added a certain mystique to the White House, as if transporting it back in time.  I admit that I tried to photograph them whenever I could!

Christmas White House

Gettysburg Ladies at White House

Red Room Christmas

Very limited photography

As you can imagine, security is very strict.  While photos are allowed, they can only be with a camera phone or a small camera without a detachable lens.  I took mine with my phone which was kind of disappointing.  However, it is only recently that photography is allowed inside at all, so no complaints!

Red Room Bow


Green Room Fireplace


White House Foyer


White House Foyer

For more information

All tour requests must go through the office of a Congressman and may be made 3 months to 21 days in advance of your visit.  The Secret Service is very strict about what is allowed inside so it is important to follow the instructions.  Everyone goes through a security check before being allowed to tour.  Complete instructions are available here.

Do you have a favourite place to visit during the Christmas Holidays?  Tell us about it in the comments!


Christmas Traditions

Christmas Traditions.  What images does that word conjure up for you?

Courrier & Ives Sleigh At Christmastime, the word tradition takes on even more meaning.  We all have our Christmas Traditions.  Activities, rituals, even smells that create a special warm, fuzzy feeling.  Perhaps it is a particular meal (turkey, ham, goose?), always going to the home of a special someone (Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother’s house we go…) favourite tunes (Andy Williams, “Do You Hear What I Hear?”) or baking cookies (how much butter have we used???) that creates that special Christmas feeling.


I think each of us has our “traditions”, those things that mean something important at the holidays.  For me, The Tree is the big one.  It must be real, and every ornament collected with great care over the years gets special attention.  As each is carefully unwrapped, there are the inevitable ooohhs and aaaahhhs; “Ohhhh, I remember this one!” or “Awww, remember the year that …”. The ornaments each have meaning and particular memories – the one received from a friend after completing my first Camino de Santiago; the one commemorating a happy visit to Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home;  the special handmade ornaments made over the years, dated and initialed.


As children, we kind of take the traditions for granted.  We just get used to what happens to our world around the holidays and kind of ‘fall in’ with it all.  We come to expect it and perhaps never really take notice until something expected is forgotten or left out.

I felt that way when my mother, after we were grown and gone to our own homes, decided that a real tree was just too much trouble.  “What?”, I cried.  “You cannot be serious!”, in my best John McEnroe imitation.  It mattered not at all that I had my own real tree.  It was still home and no fake tree, no matter how life-like, would do.  I was totally oblivious to the fact that it was a pile of work for my mother – I just didn’t want change.  Eventually, I got over it.


As a young wife and mother, I wanted to begin my own family traditions.  I decorated to the nines, with ribbons, bows, wreaths, garlands, twinkly lights.  I worked the entire year on cross-stitching heirloom tree ornaments and special Christmas stockings to be hung by the chimney with care.

Family recipes were tried, perfected, rejected or accepted and tucked away for use next year.

Some traditions worked, others not so much.  I tried, unsuccessfully, to read Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol aloud to my son, a little each day, leading up to Christmas.  Whether the story was too long, the time too short or my idea simply too ambitious, it never got done.


One that did work rather well – I’d be lying if I said I got it right every year – was the Christmas Ornament Box.  When my son was small, I got a large, round, red hatbox.  Every year, there was one special ornament added (or maybe two, in case I missed a year).  The fireman boots and hat for the year he wanted to be a fireman; the lifeguard stand complete with life ring and whistle when he became a lifeguard;  the Joshua Chamberlain Ornament from our first visit to Gettysburg.  The idea was that by the time he was grown, he would have his very own box of Christmas tree ornaments to carry on to his own home, tree and new traditions.

Plum PuddingThey say that the only certainty is that things will change.  And that is true of our traditions as well.  Life, circumstances, people and situations all force us to adjust our plans.  We must adapt and move forward.  I don’t make the Christmas dinner anymore.  My son is grown but not married.  My sister has small children so it’s their turn to be at home for Santa in the morning. We go to their house now.  For years I made the traditional Irish Christmas cake – filled with fruit and nuts and whiskey.  But as fewer and fewer people wanted to eat it, it became a huge undertaking for naught. So there hasn’t been one for a couple of years.  The Plum Pudding and hard sauce was SO rich that no one could eat it after the huge meal.  That too, is gone.


But the Christmas Tree.  That is still a must.  My real tree.  I miss the gorgeous smelling Balsams of New England, but they are not available here, so I settle for a Fraser Fir.  First the lights, then the colourful beaded garland.  Then, one by one, the ornaments are placed gently among the boughs.  Many are nearly antiques now. (Hmm, I remember them from my childhood, so what does that make me??) The fragile glass ones that belonged to my mom hold places of honour alongside the newer, or handmade ones – but each with special meaning.  There used to be silver tinsel, placed (as I was taught) one strand at a time from top to bottom so that the tree shimmered.  For the past few years, I haven’t put silver tinsel on the tree – I think it has gone out of fashion. (Another tradition changed?)  But it is still just as beautiful without it.

Christmas tree 2014

I’m usually the first one up on Christmas morning.  My favourite time comes in those early hours of the morning alone with the Tree.  There is nothing better than sitting in the quiet living room, all dark save for the twinkling lights of the Tree, sipping a glass of eggnog.  That’s when the Ghost of Christmas Past makes its appearance.  A little nostalgia.

Merry Christmas

Do you have a favourite tradition that makes Christmas…well, Christmas!  Please share it in the comments below!