I’ve been collecting Christmas ornaments from around the world for some time now. They make great personal souvenirs because they serve a higher purpose than merely contributing to clutter that amasses in my home. Once the holiday season is upon us, I pull several dusty plastic storage bins out of the crawl space and begin the lengthy process of extracting each dainty decoration from its 11-month-long hibernation. The ritual of placing each memento on the Christmas tree brings back a rush of memories from adventures of years past.
It all started with a shuttlecock. It wasn’t just any ol’ cheap plastic projectile from a badminton set. It was a replica of one of Claes Oldenburg’s four super-sized birdies that rest on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri. Scattered on the expansive lawn, the shuttlecocks make the museum’s class Beaux-Arts style facade look like the net for a giant’s game of badminton. I found the shuttlecock ornament in the gift shop on one of my trips back to Kansas City after moving to Cleveland, Ohio. The ornament was a Band-Aid for the homesickness I was feeling at the time, not to mention a conversation piece for new friends who may not have known about Kansas City’s progressive art scene.
Since then, most of the items I’ve collected represent fond memories from my travels. I can almost taste the limoncello while unwrapping the lemon-shaped ornament I found in Sorrento, Italy. The kimono-clad glass figurine that emerges next reminds me of spending the day wandering the streets of the Gion district in Kyoto, Japan, watching hundreds of tourists play dress-up in traditional geisha attire. The beaded angel from South Africa, at the top of the tree, caps off the shameless display of my global adventures.
I don’t specifically set out to find ornaments for the Christmas tree while I’m on a trip, but they often appear to me while browsing in bustling souks, street fairs, boutiques and airport gift shops. Sometimes the items I buy aren’t intended for holiday displays, but find their way onto the branches of the Christmas tree anyway. A traditional seed shaker musical instrument from Colombia hangs within reach for impromptu musical performances. The etched-metallic hamsa I found in a Moroccan market wards off evil, allowing only the holiday spirit to enter our home. A mobile phone charm depicting a dumpling from the famous restaurant Din Tai Fun at the base of Taipei 101 brings back memories of a cultural phenomenon that was all the rage in Asia at the time, but didn’t really catch on in the United States. Instead of taking up space in the headphone jack of my phone, the charm dangles between the Sydney Opera House and the tin-cut ornament of Frida Kahlo.
This year’s ritual will be no different. After the irritating task of unraveling the tangled lights and garland haphazardly thrown in that dusty bin, I will carefully pull out each of my travel treasures and start to hang them on the tree. Several ornaments will be missing, though. They are the ones I never had a chance to buy on the many trips canceled in 2020. Perhaps one of them may have been the fanciful alebrije I could have bought off a vendor on a Mexican beach in March or a Christmas elf with a sauna towel I might have picked up during my 50th birthday trip to Finland in May.
Despite the absence of new ornaments, I won’t have time to be bitter nor dwell on the memories I never had the chance to make. I’ll be too busy pausing to reflect on all the amazing experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have in my life. That said, I will also be daydreaming about new adventures to come and wishing for a Christmas miracle that puts an end to the pandemic once and for all.