Decorating the Christmas tree has always been introspective for me. Aside from the standard ball ornaments, I have a special bag of sentimental ornaments I delicately wrap and unwrap each year, carefully peeling back the tissue paper to reveal the precious memories. Filled with stories of trips gone by and milestone occasions, the ornaments on my Christmas tree tell the stories of my life.
Growing up, my mom set the example early on. I can never remember our Christmas tree without the red stocking-shaped ornament I hand-fashioned in kindergarten with construction paper, yarn and cotton balls, my name written in glue and dusted with glitter. That ornament is well over 20 years old now, but looks like it was made just yesterday. A clay ornament in the shape of a little boy with hand-painted overalls and a yellow T-shirt hangs on a branch each year not far from that stocking, made by my older brother when he was in the first grade.
Decorating the tree holds a special place in my heart. I relish the moments when I hang those ornaments on the tree year after year, remembering the good feelings associated with each token of friendship or family tie. Each year, a few new ornaments appear with the others, continuing the story of a life well lived.
I took my first trip to New York City the summer I was cast in Season 14 of Food Network Star. I planned my trip with a few extra days on either end, to see the city with my good friend, Jay. From the Empire State Building to the double-decker bus tours, we did it all. One morning, Jay brought me a bonafide New York City bagel to begin my day, complete with a thick slab of cream cheese. I told him I’d only ever eaten bagels from a popular American fast-casual chain store, and he insisted I try one from Murray’s Bagels to make a real New Yorker out of me.
Before I left The Big Apple, Jay sent me home with a souvenir: A Christmas ornament in the shape of a bagel with sesame seeds to commemorate our time together in the big city. I couldn’t wait to hang it on the tree this year, laughing all the way.
Every summer when school would let out, my family spent the first week of May in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. I will never forget the excitement of that road trip — my cousin, Justin and I wide-eyed with our Walkmans in the backseat of my mom’s minivan, counting down the hours until we could ride the amusement rides at the Pavilion, jump in the pool and swim in the ocean. Without fail each season on our way to the beach, we would stop at the Cracker Barrel in Columbia, South Carolina. Later on in life, I got a job in the Cracker Barrel gift shop, and couldn’t resist purchasing an ornament of the Cracker Barrel itself. Resplendent with Christmas wreaths on each column, rocking chairs on the front porch and a snow-capped roof, I looked at it once, and there I was, an elementary school kid again on my way to the beach, but not before a bellyful of hashbrown casserole and pancakes made on a cast iron griddle.
A wedding photo of my husband, Kurt and I, just announced as man and wife while surrounded by friends and family in a whirlwind of bubbles is framed in a Hallmark ornament inscribed with “Our First Christmas — 2015.” I smile each time I see it remembering the start of our lives together. A large sand dollar with a handpainted deer hangs on the tree, marking the day Kurt shot his first buck. Two other hand-painted sand dollars adorn the tree — one with an illustration of Charleston’s Rainbow Row, and another of a carefree sailboat on St. Simons Island.
A bright red crab basket ornament filled with blue crabs hangs next to them — something to remember our lazy summer weekends crabbing on the Georgia coast.
After a special visit to Dollywood this month in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, I brought home a new ornament to adorn my tree: a Coat of Many Colors. Based on the inspiring true story of living legend Dolly Parton's remarkable upbringing, the back of the box included an excerpt from the popular song:
"My coat of many colors
That my mama made for me
Made only from rags,
But I wore it so proudly.
Although we had no money,
I was rich as I could be
In my coat of many colors
My mama made for me."
What a powerful reminder that what makes us rich isn’t monetary material things, but love! If ever there is a time to remember this, it’s Christmastime. May you celebrate the love of Christ and family, and create memories that will last a lifetime this holiday season. Merry Christmas, from my family to yours.
Rebekah Faulk Lingenfelser is a private chef and the author of the best-selling memoir “Some Kinda Good.” Featured in Forbes, on Food Network and ABC, she writes about Southern, coastal cuisine, locally sourced and in season.
Connect with her on social media by liking Some Kinda Good on Facebook, or follow @SKGFoodBlog on Instagram and Twitter. To learn more, visit RebekahLingenfelser.com.