The Secret Ornament: A 36-Year Christmas Tradition Lives On

I’ve always considered myself a sentimental and nostalgic person. 

Christmas is an especially memorable time for me. My parents have made a big deal out of it since I was a kid.

Christmas mornings as a kid were so special. I was ready to go in my first kitchen at a young age!

Christmas mornings as a kid were so special. I was ready to go in my first kitchen at a young age!

When I was little, my dad convinced my brother and me that my grandfather was a “personal friend” of Santa Claus.

We had no reason to doubt him.

We also had LOTS of Christmas traditions.

Each year, we would drive out to the “country” to cut down our Christmas tree.

Then, we’d come home and decorate it with dozens of ornaments – none of which matched – and strings of colorful lights.


I spent the days leading up to Christmas baking cookies with my mom and packaging them in baggies to give to friends and neighbors.

My special job was to type up the little sheets of paper that would go into each bag to identify all of the treats.


My mom baking her sugar cookies…and my dad’s “ornament” – a replica of her famous Christmas cookie plate.

On Christmas Eve, we would go to church together and then have dinner at Burger King afterwards, mainly because that was one of the only places open on Christmas Eve.

Christmas Eve has another special memory for me. It’s something I look forward to every year.

Since 1979, my dad has made an ornament for my mom each year for Christmas and given it to her on Christmas Eve.

The ornament was always “top secret.”

My dad would spend hours in his workshop in our basement. From the time he started, the basement was off-limits.

“Dad, what are you making this year?” we would ask.

“You’ll see,” he would say.

We were never given so much as a hint. It was always a mystery.

Finally, on Christmas Eve, the time to unveil the ornament would come.

We waited with anticipation in the kitchen as my dad emerged from the basement, his creation in hand to share with my mom.

He gave my mom her first ornament in 1979. It was a manger.

Ornaments of the 80s (and the first one from 1979!)

Ornaments of the 80s (and the first one from 1979!)

But he didn’t have any straw.

So, on Christmas Eve, he went for a drive, and on the side of the road was a bale of hay. Mission accomplished.

When he was making what I think is the most incredible ornament – a replica of my parents’ house in 1981 – he didn’t have any gray clay to make the front steps.

Off he went to a hobby store.

All of the clay was gone…except for one opened package of gray clay.


My dad calls these finds “Christmas miracles.”

He usually uses scraps, so the ornaments only cost him a couple of dollars to make.

90s all

Ornaments of the 90s

Each ornament has some significance related to that year.

1984 – A mama and baby reindeer to commemorate my first Christmas.

1991 – A wreath with two hearts to mark the year my parents renewed their vows after a temporary separation.

1994 – A replica of our (then green) mantlepiece to include my one-year-old sister Jane’s stocking (all of our stockings were handmade by my grandmother!).


The past decade has been full of memories, too.

Each year, I’m reminded of them as I look at the ornaments.


2003 – My parents realized their dream of buying a home in The Adirondacks in Upstate New York. The ornament is a mini version of a larger sign that hangs at the house in NY.

2007 – A dolphin symbolizes the year our family went on a trip to the Bahamas and swam with the dolphins.

2013 – Our Godson, nephew, and my parents’ first grandson, Braxton, was born. The ornaments come full circle since my dad’s first cradle creation in 1979.

Tomorrow, we’ll witness the unveiling of this year’s “secret ornament.” I’m eager to see what my dad has created. As usual, I have no clue what to expect.

He always stumps us.

This year I decided to give my dad a special ornament. He has always called me “Peanut” since I was a baby, and I found a symbol that captures that nickname.


Bill and I have started our own Christmas traditions, one of which is giving each other an ornament each year that symbolizes something memorable about that year.

Now, I look forward to seeing my husband’s creativity come through as he thoughtfully picks out an ornament for me. I love that we’ve preserved the concept of one of the most special Christmas traditions in my life and made it our own.

Last year and this year, I’ve even taken a stab at making my own ornament for Bill, inspired by my dad and the incredible tradition he started 36 years ago.


Traditions like this have a special way of nourishing us.

Each time we celebrate them, we’re reminded of something enduring, something that connects us to each other, something that makes our hearts happy and our souls smile.

What are your favorite Christmas or other holiday traditions?



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  1. Such a cool tradition! Love it! Thanks for sharing.


    Rachel, you are something! This was so special to read. It made me tear up, too. So glad we created that environment for you so you can pass it on, honey. Looking forward to spending Christmas with you again! Love you soooooo much!

  3. Lindsay Martin

    This is so cool! What an awesome tradition your family has! Thanks for sharing 🙂 Merry Christmas to you all!

    • Thanks, Lindsay! I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s such a neat tradition, and I really do look forward to it every year. Hope you and your family had a great Christmas!!

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