'Act of faith'
Christmas 1999 was a scary time for Joan Hause of Lake Elmo. Her infant daughter, Anna, born that July, was facing major surgery. There was a hole in Anna's heart, and if it wasn't patched, she risked disease and premature death.

Joan had known since Anna's birth that her surgery was coming, but that didn't make it any easier. As the date neared, Joan felt more fear and dread. "I was pretty worried," she said. "It feels weird to think of your baby getting open-heart surgery."

Joan was shopping at a mall when her eye fell on a holiday ornament. It was a pink pillow, made of satiny cloth, with "Baby's First Christmas" and a Jack-in-the-Box stitched in blue.

Joan wasn't looking for an ornament, but she bought this one. "It was an act of faith," she said. Immediately, Joan felt that her baby would be OK.

Anna had her surgery two weeks before Christmas at Children's Hospital in St. Paul. The operation, which lasted six hours and required a medical team of 20, was a success. Anna did come home to celebrate her first Christmas -- and to grow up to enjoy a healthy childhood.

Now 13 and a seventh-grader at Stillwater Junior High, she's a busy, active girl who likes to play ping-pong, tennis and the viola. And every year, her mother hangs that little pillow on their tree.

Anna says she first became aware of the ornament around the time she started school, but didn't know what the ornament meant to her mother until this year. "It was always one of my favorite ornaments, but when she told me about it, I almost cried," Anna said. "It means a lot more to me now."

Labor of love
Steve Peck’s ornaments include one his mother made years ago using petrified carrots from his college-apartment fridge.Over the years, Madelon Peck has given her three grown sons many lovely Christmas ornaments -- and one extremely ugly one. But that's the one her youngest, Steve Peck of Minneapolis (right), treasures most.

He was a sophomore in college when he first unwrapped it. His older brothers had already opened their ornaments. "They were more traditional," Steve recalled. His looked like two gnarled gray fingers, capped with festive ribbon trim and a loop for hanging.

"What is this?" he asked his mother. But she was silent. He had to figure it out for himself. Finally he flashed back to a couple months earlier, when she'd come to visit him at the University of Colorado Boulder.

At the time, Steve was one of six teenage guys sharing a filthy apartment. "It was our first apartment out of the dorms, and it should have been condemned," he said. "She couldn't stand to see her son living in a place like that, so she started cleaning."

The refrigerator, in particular, horrified Madelon. "I opened it to get something and thought I was going to die," she recalled.

So she rolled up her sleeves and turned into a one-woman haz-mat crew. Underneath the vegetable crisper, she discovered two dark, shriveled things that had once been carrots. "I knew right away what I was going to do with them," she said. "This is sort of how our family operates."

After Steve figured out the origins of his new ornament, they all had a good laugh, and Steve forgot about the carrots. Until three years ago, when he and his wife moved into a house with room for a big tree, and Madelon, who lives in Pasadena, Calif., sent them a box filled with Steve's ornaments -- including the carrots.

Every year, Steve, now 33 with a 2-year-old daughter and a clean house, hangs the fossilized veggies on a prominent spot on their tree. "My wife has grown to love it, although I don't think she loves it as much as I do," he said. "When we unwrap it, she hands it to me with a roll of her eyes."

Yes, it's disgusting, he said. But he cherishes it because it reminds him of "that magical year in college" and, more important, his mother's "unwavering love" and "fun, creative spirit. She can take something so gross, that 99 percent of people would throw away, and turn it into something I'll have for the rest of my life," he said.

Help from some elves
 Tom Midtbo helps grandchildren Celia Midtbo, 8, and Sam Skanse, 9, make up to 100 wooden Christmas ornaments in his basement workshop. On Christmas Eve, Tom Midtbo's extended family gathers for their annual holiday celebration. They eat lasagna, then grandkids pass out handmade ornaments that they helped Midtbo make in "Tom's Magic Shop," the wood shop behind his Minneapolis home.

For 14 Christmases, Midtbo has been creating his wood-cut ornaments, a project that started modestly but has grown into a tradition that involves multiple generations making up to 100 ornaments a year for relatives, friends, kids' teachers and anyone else who could use a little holiday cheer.

"It keeps getting bigger," he said. "People see them and say, 'Gee, I'd like one.'" So Midtbo has increased his production.

His initial inspiration was seeing an ornament in a gift shop and thinking, "I could do that." So he came up with a design, took a 2-inch tree limb, sliced it like refrigerated cookie dough, then used a scroll saw to carve a design into the slices.

Midtbo's daughter helped him the first few years. More recently, he started enlisting some of his grandkids. Midtbo sets out paints and brushes, and the grandkids paint the backgrounds for each ornament (Grandpa adds the finishing details).

"I swear 'em to secrecy," Midtbo said. "Their parents ask what this year's design is -- they just shake their heads."

This year, the grandkids were involved from the beginning, voting on the design: a fireplace hung with four stockings.

"They have a lot of pride -- they're pretty excited," Midtbo said.

While Midtbo enjoys the time he spends with his grandchildren in the workshop, he also recognizes it's a way for them to learn firsthand what the holiday season is all about. Instead of just opening presents, "this gets them involved in making something -- and sharing it with someone else."

Kim Palmer • 612-673-4784