Holiday decorations keep families close
A decades-old German feather tree decorated with glass ornament reproductions, a nativity scene made up of porcelain figures, a counted cross-stitch scene of international Santa Clauses and a pair of worn moccasins hung on a wall from string — these are just some of the Christmas decorations near and dear to some of Altoona residents’ hearts.
Some of the holiday decorations have been in families for generations, others memorialize loved ones no longer here and a couple are items families hope to pass on for years to come.
The 5-foot German feather tree is a decoration that has been in Jeff Adler’s family for years, most likely dating back to the 1920s. It belonged to his grandparents.
The branches of the tree, which have more space in between them to hang ornaments, are made up of feathers dyed green.
Reproductions of German and Polish glass ornaments adorn the branches of the tree that was tucked away in an attic collecting dust for years until Adler discovered it one day. Adler, owner of Adler’s Landscape Nursery, brought it down from the attic and hung it for display in his store this year.
Rather than having numerous themed trees as people often expect, Adler said he just has one Christmas tree at home, filled with decorations of family memorabilia including ornaments his daughters made.
A little bit of everything
Unlike Adler, Patty and Jay Burlingame have four different Christmas trees along with hundreds of decorations throughout their house.
The trees are decorated with ornaments handcrafted by family members and ornaments from places the couple has traveled to including Ireland, Scotland, Cape May, Chicago and San Francisco.
A collection of about 450 Santa Clauses are also displayed around the house.
At the center of the living room lies a nativity scene made up of porcelain figures underneath a wooden creche Jay built. Jay said he built creches for both of his sons, who have started collecting parts of the same porcelain nativity scene.
To the right, the counted cross-stitch Christmas decoration Patty made for Jay, which depicts Santa Clauses from around the world, is propped up on the dining room table. Some of the counted cross-stitch ornaments she made also hang from the kids’ tree in the basement.
Of the four trees — a Santa Claus tree near the front entrance, a Penn State University tree, the main tree in the living room and the kids’ tree — Jay said his favorite is the main tree where the gifts go under.
“It’s the one we usually set up first and usually take down last,” Jay said. “And I think that room is where we’ve made the most memories on Christmas morning. That’s where the kids unwrap their gifts.”
Patty said she likes the main tree but also has a soft spot for the kids’ tree.
“I’m very particular to this one, too,” she said, referring to the kids’ tree and her sons’ decorations. “Just because when you get those out, you get to see them in various stages of their lives and remember that.”
A model of a miniature snow-covered town that lights up and jingles sits close to the main tree, with toy soldiers that rang bells to wake the Burlingame’s children on Christmas mornings.
Among the wooden carvings of Santa Claus, hollowed, painted pheasant-egg ornaments, multiple Nativity scenes and tinsel hangs a decoration not typical of Christmas in Dene Schaut’s home: a pair of worn moccasins.
The moccasins belonged to her father, William Saylor, who suffered from an autoimmune disease and died of a brain injury in June 2016 when he fell in his garage.
“Love him dearly. Miss him dearly,” Schaut said, as she grabbed the moccasins off the wall hook. “These were his old slippers, and I just took them and hung them just as a memory.”
Schaut decided to tie a string around the moccasins and use them as a decoration after his death.
The moccasins along with other family decorations make her feel closer to family members who have passed, Schaut said.
Other family decorations include a 1930s tinsel tree and plastic icicles from Schaut’s grandmother, wooden-carved ornaments and Santa Clauses from her husband and a nativity scene from her parents.
“There’s a lot of stuff I can’t put away because it’s so meaningful,” she said, adding the family decorations make the holidays more comforting for her.
She said she has a hard time saying no to accepting decorations from family, adding that one day her kids might want them to pass on for generations.
Similar to Patty and Jay, Schaut also started buying pieces of nativity scenes five years ago to give to her son and daughter, who are both recently married and expecting children this summer.
Passing down tree
To keep a memory of his grandparents alive, Adler said he wants to one day give the German feather tree to either of his adopted 12-year-old daughters, Emily and Stella.
Adler said he only knew his grandmother for four years until her death and didn’t know his other grandparents who all passed before his birth.
“There was no recollection of a German feather tree at that point,” he said. “It’s almost like that attic was a time capsule from the twenties that no one ever disturbed.”
“It has value for two reasons,” Adler said of the tree. “It’s something that really shouldn’t have been there. It should’ve been thrown out because who in the ’40s, ’50s, ’60s would look at that tree and think it has value. And also to be in the condition it is for that long, think about that — 90-year-old tree is still kicking. “
“The second thing is that knowing my grandparents bought that tree and sat there and looked at it at Christmas time and 90 years later, their grandson of 55 years old has their tree. And not only their grandson, but their great-great granddaughters, also.”
He and his wife, Kelley, adopted Emily from Philadelphia and Stella from China. While sitting in his store office, Adler asked Emily if she would want the tree to which she replied with a quick, “No.” He laughed in response and commented on how Emily tends to speak her mind.
Adler then asked Stella if she would want the tree when she’s older. She hesitated a moment, before joking she needed to see it first. Her father next directed her to where the tree stood in the corner of the store and told her to have a look.
But instead of looking at the tree, Stella chuckled and assured her father she would take it off his hands, a response which made him smile.
Mirror Staff Writer Shen Wu Tan is at 946-7457.