For most people, the box of Christmas ornaments that comes out of storage each December is a box of memories. Each ornament has a story and, hung together, they are the narrative of our lives and the history of our families.
For many people, one ornament or group of ornaments stands out from the others. It's the one that goes on first or last and gets special placement and special treatment. The act of unearthing it each year and hanging it on a secure bough connects us to a cherished person or an especially tender time.
When a firestorm in July 1996 tore through the Sonoma Valley, Sharon Ponsford and Craig Jones were tragically in its path.
The Glen Ellen couple, then owners of Sonoma's Artisan Bakers, lost their home and everything in it, including their beloved Wheaten terrier Henry, and cats Zoe and Rufus.
Friends and community showered them with necessities. But it wasn't until much later that the couple realized they had also lost all of their Christmas ornaments.
One December day an employee entered Sharon's office with a small box that had been dropped off by an anonymous stranger. Inside was an unsigned card with the message, "I made these for you in memory of the three pets you lost earlier this year. Merry Christmas."
There were three golden eggs, one hand-painted with a picture of a dog and two with cats. It brought Ponsford to tears.
"Somehow the very fragile eggs have survived now for 15 years," Ponsford says. "We are always misty-eyed when we hang them on the tree, as they remind us of a very painful period in our lives and of our three lost friends. Now after 15 years our ornament box is full again, but none are quite as special as the three golden eggs."
Susan Dunphy Mall said before her mother died, she gave her an egg carton filled with her grandmother's glass ornaments, some almost translucent from wear.
But the heirloom decoration that truly captured the Healdsburg woman's heart is a string of glass beads that her grandmother brought with her when she emigrated from Switzerland in 1907.
"My mom said when she was growing up those were the last thing that went on the tree," says Mall, who with husband Jeff owns Healdsburg's Zin Restaurant and Wine Bar. "I remember watching her as one of the glass beads would break. She'd get teary and tighten up the string that went through them."
Now the once 10-foot long glass garland has shrunk to five or six feet. But Mall, like her mother, treats the century-old beads with the same loving care.
"They give me a feeling of connection to those people, imagining that my grandmother carried those with her and celebrated her Christmases with them until she married and my mother growing up with her brother and seeing them and now Jeff and me having them on our trees. It's a line of continuity and connection to who you are."
For some 20 years Joyce Wieck would send her father a tiny tool for Christmas. They were part of a line of miniature Craftsman Tool ornaments put out by Sears.
"Tools were my dad in every essence," says Wieck says of dad Ed Doty, a contractor who built the Redwood Empire Ice Arena and later moved to Hawaii.