The Gift from the Angels

My parents had at long last decided to move from the house in which I grew up. The home they had shared for 51 years.  They had bought a smaller condo but planned to live most of the year in their nice vacation home.

It had been a stressful process.  Fortunately, they had been able to use the Pareto optimizing principle: What do I like the most? (It is the same one I also use for choosing chocolates from a new box.)

Unfortunately, it meant that what was now left in the house was generally things they didn’t have room for and certainly didn’t have need for. In other words: Heaps of you know what.

I had flown back to ye ole country to help them – as I had done many times over the years I have lived on another continent. And this time I was helping them get their stuff organized in their new home, making a list of “where the H… is it?” and giving a farewell salute to the heaps.

What I initially saw were things that I for years and years had tried to convince my parents to give away to charities. And then in one heap, I spotted a familiar box:  My parents’ Christmas ornaments!

For the last 30 years, Christmas had been celebrated in either my home or my sibling’s home. The week between the holiday and New Year, my parents were usually in the vacation home where a few ornaments and lights already rested in a box.  Or they were in California visiting us.

The box held the ornaments for the tree; unused for a generation.

Carefully I opened the lid and took out the old angles that had hung from the top branches throughout my childhood.  The old nativities that my sibling and I each have gotten from our aunt and uncle in America when we were 4-5 years old. The shiny silver bell I remembered from my grandparents’ tree…  When we were small, the three had been a source of awe for two younglings, and as we had grown older, we had been allowed to decorate the tree. I knew these pieces intimately.

Carefully, I packed a box of the things that I had loved the best for as far back as I can recall.  Together with some bigger items, my father and I shipped the ornaments off in a crate bound for the USA.

A month or two later the box arrived and I brought out a box of ornaments.  Full of anticipation I opened the lid to show my children the sweetest ornaments the world has ever seen.

“What a heap of old trash” my daughter declared.

I was in shock.

Then I stepped into her shoes and took a closer look.

She was absolutely right.  My angles were some old bent-wings and flaking-paint disfigured nothings.  The stable with Mary and Joseph were 2x2x3 inches of gaudy plastic and glitter. The angle on the roof had even broken off.  And the tarnished old bell was printed with a company name inside that made it an obvious advertising gimmick.

All her life, my daughter had looked at different ornaments and she absolutely loves some of the things my mother has bought for us. With these old things, the magic was my magic, not hers.

After the initial deep breath necessary to live down this experience, a great sense of relief washed through me.  Understanding that my truth needed not be my daughter’s truth set me free.  It made it OK if I didn’t share my mother’s reverence for some of the things that had moved with my parents to the new home.  Mom had an emotional connection to them that I didn’t because of who had given the things to her or because she had seen them in her home when she was a little girl.

Eventually, I will help cleaning out my mother’s home. I am not ready for that yet, but the day will come.  And thanks to my daughter I will not feel guilty because there are some things I really don’t want to bring with me.  They may be valuable to Mom, but to me they are old…

And when the day comes that my daughter wants to decorate her own tree, if she asks nicely, she may even take her favorite ornaments with her from my box.  I just possibly may have a couple of broken angles and a gaudy nativity scene lying around somewhere to take their place.


Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp
Charlotte Wittenkamp is an organizational psychologist who counsels international transfers, immigrants, and foreign students in overcoming culture shock. Originating from Denmark, where she worked in organizational development primarily in the finance industry, Charlotte has lived in California since 1998. Her own experiences relocating lead down a path of research into value systems and communication patterns. She shares this knowledge and experience through speaking and writing and on her website Many of these “learning experiences” along with a context to put them in can be found in her book Building Bridges Across Cultural Differences, Why Don’t I Follow Your Norms?. On the side, she leads a multinational and multigenerational communication training group.

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  1. Charlotte, first, your name brings sweetness to my heart as I recently lost my foster cousin named Charlotte to cancer. Secondly, this story is so touching. I have 4 grandchildren, and for the last several years I have put up 4 miniutre trees, one for each of them with their own ornaments to give them someday to remember me when I am gone. A precious moments tree, an Old Fashion ornament tree, an angel tree and a star tree. This year I won’t put them up as we are in the process of selling our home. Thank you for your story. Have a blessed Thanksgiving

    • Happy Thanksgiving back, Lynn, and I am so sorry for your loss.

      Reading your comment, the saying of “They May Forget What You Said, But They Will Never Forget How You Made Them Feel” comes into my mind. It transfers somewhat to things: it may not be the ornaments in themselves but the spirit of Christmas that one feels so strongly as a small child that gets hardwired in the brain attached to whatever kitsch represents the feeling. I hope your grandchildren will carry that warmth inside them when they later look at their granny-trees.

      Here are a couple of ideas for your star-tree:

    • Thanks, Cynthia.
      I am in the process of decluttering myself this week, getting ready to move after Thanksgiving. I haven’t yet gotten around to the box in the garage where I know these old ornaments still reside. IT will be in interesting experience to open the box.