Marilyn Walden received her first angels in 1956. Gifts from her sister, the delicate ornaments were glittery and looked like finely spun sugar.
Eventually, other Christmas angels came to join those first six.
"We moved to California in 1964, and I bought an Italian papier mache one, and then I bought another one, and eventually I had enough angels for one tiny tree all done in angels," recalls the 82-year-old Santa Rosa woman.
That was 1977, with enough angels to cover a 4-foot tree. Then friends and family began giving her angels, and the collection kept growing. Now they completely cover a 7-foot tree.
The retired nurse said she never set out to have a tree devoted only to angels. It just evolved out of necessity.
Ornament collections typically are acquired over many years, becoming vast and eclectic medleys representing a lifetime of memories. Some people, like Walden, use their trees as a way to show off their collections or to express a special passion or hobby.
She is fascinated by how varied her angels are.
"I like how people can take something we wouldn't think of and make a beautiful angel out of it," she said. "I have glass ones and little wooden ones. I have porcelain and straw and balsa wood and dough. I have angels my daughter did in counted cross stitch."
Carl Ray and Mark Short of Sebastopol love their dachshunds, so much so that about 10 years ago, they started collecting ornaments in the likeness of the short-legged little hounds with bodies like Bratwurst.
"It became an obsession to collect them," said Ray, a marketing manager for Oracle.
"A Christmas tree full of dachshunds is funny. A tree full of German shepherds, not so much," he adds with a laugh.
They added about a dozen ornaments a year, many purchased off eBay and Etsy, and by 2005 finally had enough to devote their entire tree to their dachshund obsession. It's topped by a star emblazoned with a black and tan dachshund reminiscent of their dear departed Dylan.
They now have about 500 ornaments. Don't ask which is their favorite. That, said Ray, is "a wee bit like asking which is your favorite child." But forced to choose, he and Short, who got married in November, are especially fond of one ornament with a Santa Claus walking two doxies, one with the colors of Dylan and another all red like their other dog Axel.
As a recent retiree, Marcia Williams is having a ball creating silly themed Christmas trees, one of which she is calling Monkey Business. The onetime financial aid adviser for College of the Redwoods now has in her Fort Bragg home a big tree adorned with her growing collection of sock monkeys.
"This is the first time where I put all of them on the tree like this," she said with a big laugh. "My trees are usually always eclectic. But I think I'm attracted to the silliness of them and the uniqueness. They just have this whimsy, and I've always enjoyed that kind of thing."
She figures she has about 18 or 19 in all, with the tree topped by a well-loved Lamb Chop puppet who is awaiting presentation to her youngest grandchild.
And then there are the sports fans who turn their trees into shrines for their favorite teams.