We asked readers to share their favorite holiday decorations, and the stories behind them. They made us laugh, cry and marvel at the many ways to celebrate the season. Here's a sampling.
Sue Davis of Minneapolis and two friends in Sioux Falls, S.D., created a holiday tradition that has grown for more than two decades. It started as a gag gift after they saw a costume-jewelry Christmas tree in a frame at an open house. "Shannon told me it was the ugliest thing he had ever seen," Davis wrote. "I knew right at that moment I had to make one for him the very next Christmas." She did and presented it to him with one rule: He had to add to it and give it back to her. The two households have exchanged the expanding shrine every year, adding family photos, more jewelry, lights, music, seashells and googly-eyed Santa heads. "What makes it so special is the memories of each added item, pieces of our pasts and memories of those no longer with us who are still part of this unique piece of art."
"Energy and enthusiasm for holiday decorating was not in abundant supply at the Rico household during my wife's childhood," writes Barry Johnson. Janet, the matriarch, called for volunteers to haul up boxes of decorations, but her five children resisted. Until she cleverly "devised a tradition to motivate her army of couch potatoes." She found a ceramic Santa bank, and every year, when the decorations were taken down, she filled it with a pocketful of change. The following year, the family member who offered to carry the holiday boxes out of storage would earn the coins. Teresa, the youngest Rico and now Johnson's wife, inherited the bank, which sits on their mantel every christmas.
Over the years, Kathleen Hughes collected school photos and homemade ornaments from her two children, now 18 and 20. She displayed them on her Christmas tree until she ran out of space -- and came up with a creative solution for the overflow: her "Behave" wreath.
Donna Leviton of New Hope remembers the day in the early 1950s when her family rescued a beautiful brass menorah from the scrap heap. Her father owned a scrap-metal business, and the worker who sorted the scrap came into the office carrying the menorah and saying, "Mr. Cohn, I think I found something Jewish." Her family added it to their collection of menorahs, and when Leviton married in 1965, her parents allowed her to select one. She chose the scrap-heap survivor, which has illuminated her family's Hanukkah celebrations ever since.
"Meet Devil Doll," wrote Scott Zosel. She belongs to a collection of dolls from around the world that his wife displays every Christmas. When Zosel first encountered the red-haired, freckled doll, believed to be German, about 30 years ago, he wondered: "Is this Chucky's little sister? What kind of demented decoration is this?" "But she has grown on me," he wrote. "She will surely be passed on to our daughters, whether they like it or not."
The skirt that Janna Nord made for her family's tree started out plain white -- but now it's a family history. Every year, since 1996 when her youngest was born, her family has added something personal to decorate the skirt: handprints, footprints, thumbprints, inspirational words and signatures. "We decide on our theme for the year, everyone does their 'artwork,' and then we write the year next to it," she wrote. "It has become a fun tradition and a priceless piece of our holiday decorations."
Cory Gunderson's Nativity set, handed down from his mother, is filled with childhood memories. He remembers squabbling with his six siblings over whose day it was to move the three wise men an inch closer to the manger, which is lined with a corner from a 1970s-era dish towel. It "reminds me of the maternal instinct and attention to detail that defined my mother's care for us," he wrote.
Kathy Chirhart grew up in a family where nothing was wasted. Her Santa's sleigh is actually the bones of a turkey carcass, boiled until the meat was gone, then coated with red spray paint, covered with gold glitter and harnessed to plastic reindeer. "All the members of this generation are now gone, but I keep their memory alive by proudly displaying Santa's sleigh in my home every Christmas," she wrote.
When Cathy Meyer was growing up, her family tradition was to put up the tree the morning of Christmas Eve. "As young kids with very little money, we didn't buy gifts for everyone," she wrote, but they bought half-price ornaments at the local hardware store that morning and presented them as a family gift. In 1955, they found a beautiful globe with scenes of Venice. "I fell in love with it and always dreamed of going there one day," she recalled. In 2008, her dream came true. When she first saw the city, "I fought back tears as the whole scene from my Christmas ornament unfolded before my eyes: the canals, St. Mark's Cathedral, the gondolas, were all there just as the magical ornament had promised."
Wendy Wustenberg has a kindergarten art project that she can't throw away. Her snowman, made of styrofoam and construction paper, always sat on her mom's kitchen windowsill in Faribault. When Wustenberg grew up, she was embarrassed by the homemade ornament, but her mother cherished it. Wustenberg lost her mother to breast cancer seven years ago. By then she had two children with art projects of their own. But she displays the homely snowman in memory of her mother, "who was a master at loving school art projects, children, learning and life. May your homes be cluttered with the gifts of young artists this holiday season."
When Linda Krienke's husband, Howie, was a child, his family's holiday decorations included a plastic church that lit up and played "Silent Night." "After his parents died, the family decided he should have it, since he became a pastor," she wrote. Krienke keeps the little church up all year in her Minnetonka home, inspired by a sermon Howie once preached: "that we should leave one decoration up to remind us of Christmas all year long."
Stephanie Yant's most cherished ornament has a tragic story. In 1976, Yant was a college student on her way to Key West, Fla., for the holidays. Her parents met her plane in Miami, but on the way back down the Keys, their car was hit head-on by a drunk driver. Yant's mother was killed instantly, while Yant and her father were severely injured. Both spent weeks in the hospital. When they returned home, there were gifts waiting under the tree, including a colorful bird ornament, chosen by her mother, along with a note reminding her to never forget Christmas 1976. "This note and ornament has become a cherished, but sad piece of my past and is the first ornament to be placed on our family's tree every year," she wrote.