Our sentimental attachments to old things might seem a bit silly, yet for American expat MELINDA MURPHY, old things are the bridge to Christmases past.
“You’re bringing all that?” my husband asked when he saw the crates of Christmas decorations I had packed to bring to Singapore. “Really? I mean, that’s a lot of stuff!”
To be fair, it was only four big crates – the best four crates of stuff we carted across the ocean, if you ask me. The way I look at it, this is our children’s one childhood; their one time to experience the magic of Christmas. And all these baubles are a way to connect them to my own childhood. Yup, they were a must-bring, plain and simple. Nine years later, I’m so glad we have them with us. More so, the decorations are a way for my children to know my parents.
This is the twentieth Christmas without my mother – unthinkable, really. She loved Christmas, spending days baking goodies for us and decorating. So, as I gently unwrap each ornament and hang it on the tree, she springs back to life. I can hear her laughing and – for just a bit – my mom is with me again.
My mother’s snow globes are now the centrepiece of our dining table. Most of them were gifts and have a Christmas theme, but a couple are different. As a reporter, I once covered the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade in New York City and the parade director gave me a special parade globe complete with moving parts. One is of the pre-9/11 New York City skyline, where I lived for most of my adult life.
For years, my kids were too little to handle the globes and, yes, they broke a few. But now, they gently wind each one up, eagerly listening to the various tunes, debating which one is best. Last year, I gave each of my kids their own snow globe to add to the collection.
I always give our kids an ornament on 6 December, Sinterklaas. My husband is Dutch and so, long ago, I started giving him ornaments on the day the Dutch version of Santa comes to visit. The idea was to balance out the zillion ornaments I have so that Christmas wasn’t just mine, but ours. And now the Sinterklaas tradition has expanded to the kids. My daughter’s favourite is a wolf ornament (though I like her My Little Pony ornament – Pinkie Pie – because she loved it so when she opened it). My son cherishes his soccer ball and NY Giants helmet.
My husband has his holiday memories too. We have several of his mother’s speculaaspplanks, traditional wooden moulds the Dutch use to make yummy speculaas cookies. And there are a few Dutch ornaments on the tree and around the house that we picked up in the Netherlands, such as a burlap Sinterklaas bag.
The ornaments I gift them join the many ornaments we have picked up on our travels over our 20-year marriage. Some, such as the blown glass ornament of a gondolier from Venice, are beautiful; others are a bit odd, like the weird papier-mâché ornament from Myanmar. Many are handmade, capturing the handprints of my babies or a fun afternoon at Girl Scouts. Several were made by my grandmother too. So while our tree isn’t breathtakingly beautiful like the many I admire, it’s beautiful in its own way: a tree of beautiful memories.
Our Christmas dinner table is also full of memories. It always includes our wedding china, my parents’ Waterford crystal, my grandmother’s silver and my mother-in-law’s beautiful crystal bowl. This year, I added some greenery and candle holders picked up at Ji Mei, my favourite flower wholesaler. The candle holders are the same ones three of us bought for my friend’s surprise 40th birthday. We all liked them so much that we each bought the same. So now when I look at them, I’ll think of my friends, too – they are my Singapore family.
Mr and Mrs Claus turn 75 this year; they were my parents’ very first ornaments as a married couple, and I always hang them up last, together. But the old couple aren’t the oldest decoration. That honour goes to my dad’s Christmas stockings – very simple red socks that his grandmother knitted for him when he was a little boy. He would have been 98 this year so the stockings are almost a century old now.
My father grew up quite poor, getting only an orange every year, hidden in his stocking. The stockings are as plain as they get, but they mean a great deal to me. My dad was really affected by his childhood poverty, so every year he bent over backwards to make sure we had a special Christmas. It was my father who stayed up past midnight, wrapping gifts, putting together bikes, making a Barbie house with working lights for me. He loved Christmas as much as my mother did. He was the one who put the lights on the tree, too – a job he hated. In fact, he hated it so much that he came up with an idea to pre-light fake trees and he even got a patent for it. He was on his way to China to get them produced when we had a death in the family. He never made it to China and, by the next Christmas, the pre-lit trees were being sold everywhere.
Collections mean memories
My father’s sister lived in Washington DC and for years she sent me White House ornaments, each one incredibly intricate and beautiful. Aunt Ann was an amazing woman, moving as a trailing spouse to Hong Kong more than 60 years ago when it was unusual to be a Western expat in Hong Kong, living there long before email and Zoom calls. I always felt a special connection to her, made all the stronger when I found myself a trailing spouse in Asia decades later.
And then there was my father’s best friend, Louis, who was a bachelor until his sixties so he spent every Christmas with us for most of my childhood and travelled with us across the globe. Each year, Louis gave me a Wallace silver bell and now I have a small tree of nothing but silver bells. They remind me of him and his wife Jane who continued to send the bells after he died. Last year, Wallace issued the 50th anniversary bell. I bought one for my daughter so she could start her own bell collection too.
My son also has his special pieces. He fell in love with nutcrackers in Germany when the two of us were travelling alone. He now gets one each Christmas and they all remind us of our special mother/son vacation.
Making new memories
When my daughter was one, my sister-in-law gave her an Elf on the Shelf that we named Zirkle. The kids love flying around the house each morning to see where he’s landed when he’s returned from his nightly visit to the North Pole. Zirkle has done a few naughty things over the years. Once, he even drew a moustache on my face with eyeliner! Overall, though, Zirkle is a pretty easy-going elf, mostly just hiding and leaving little presents in our elf advent calendar each morning.
A few years ago, we took our kids to meet Santa in Lapland (Expat Living, February 2018).There, we picked up a beautiful glass Santa candleholder as well as some gnomes, each one representing our family. My husband is a big guy and his gnome is gigantic, standing about a metre high. Otto is his name and I spotted him in the airport when we first arrived. As we travelled, I looked for another one I liked better, but didn’t find one, So, as we were leaving, I literally ran through the airport to buy Otto. I love him. He’s so big that we can’t store him, so the gnomes sit out always and we have a bit of Christmas throughout the year. I don’t mind: they just make me think of that magical look on my children’s faces when they met the man in the big red suit.
There are so many ornaments from Singapore too. The Santas from different countries are such fun – we bought them from a pop-up booth at Cluny Court. We have one representing the US, the Netherlands and even Texas. There’s also “Merry Christmas, Lah”, a cheapie ornament I picked up at an ornament exchange. And, when I was chair of USA Girl Scouts Overseas (Singapore), one troop made me a wreath that I still adore.
One incredibly special Singapore decoration is a gingerbread house made by the “Joss-Stick Man”. My friend and I took our daughters to his shop years ago as part of a Girl Scout badge. Turns out, they make these incredible gingerbread houses so we both bought one, picking out the decorations we wanted on our own houses. Mine is an incredibly personal memory of Singapore. And it makes a really great little village when added to some houses we bought in Germany, in the cute town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Our banister now has greenery that I bought at Kinex Mall, a great place for picking up fake trees, wreaths, greenery and lights. In the US, we got lots of cards from our friends with photos of their families and stories of their past year. Here we tend to get email cards so I now put our own family cards up attached to the greenery; it’s a fun way to track how the kids have grown from Christmas to Christmas. My favourite is a photo of my kids on Santa’s lap: my daughter is beaming from ear to ear and my son is hysterical in tears.
Funnily enough, some of my favourite ornaments are cheap strings of paper stars I picked up at IKEA. They’re magical at night. IKEA has great extras and the cheapest candles in Singapore. I’ve also picked up candleholders and table coverings at Lim’s, another great source for inexpensive decorations. We usually get our tree at Far East, though one of our best trees was from Prince Landscape. Here’s a tip: order your trees in early November to get a better price and ensure stock.
Keeping the religion
Of course, Christmas is a religious holiday, a point that sometimes gets lost in all the fun. I was mortified years ago when my very young son (who knew a lot about Buddha from all our travels) said, “What does Jesus have to do with Christmas anyway?” We doubled down on reading the Bible and I bought a special advent calendar of small books that tell the Christmas story. We read one book every day in December.
Our most religious ornament is our nativity scene, which we bought in Jerusalem. We travelled there when my daughter was one and I was pregnant with my son. It’s made out of olive wood and is one of my daughter’s favourite holiday decorations. Every year, I watch as she carefully places each character in the manger scene. I also have my parents’ manger, a simple piece with just Jesus, Joseph and Mary. But Mary shattered as we took down the decorations in January of 2020. I should have known it was going to be a bad year.
On the hunt
Another sad 2020 omen? Our tree topper broke, a topper my husband and I bought when we were dating more than 20 years ago. I remember thinking, “Wow, this guy likes me enough to buy a tree topper together!” No worries; we’re keeping our eyes open for the right one. Making Christmas special is a job never done. We’re always adding to memories past to make sure our Christmas future shines bright.
International Santas Cluny Court, 501 Bukit Timah Road
Christmas decorations and fake trees Kinex Mall, 11 Tanjong Katong Road
Fresh flowers and greenery Ji Mei Flowers, 5 Joan Road
Fresh trees fareastfloral.com
Special gingerbread house Joss-Stick Man, facebook.com/TGHwoodclay
This article first appeared in the December 2021 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe, so you never miss a copy!
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