On This ‘Tree Of Treasures’ There’s No Such Thing As An Ordinary Ornament

On This ‘Tree Of Treasures’ There’s No Such Thing As An Ordinary Ornament

Bonnie Mackay has written an unusual sort of memoir: Tree of Treasures is the story of her life, told through Christmas tree ornaments.

Mackay is something of an ornament aficionado — starting with the first tree she decorated with a friend from college.

“We called it the tree of disarray … ” she tells NPR’s Ari Shapiro. They adorned it with unconventional objects, including jewelry, scarves and kitchen items.

From those humble beginnings, Mackay went on to design ornaments professionally for Bloomingdale’s and the Museum of Modern Art. She now owns nearly 3,000 ornaments, which she divides into 67 classifications — with three different sub-categories (country, craft and formal) for angels alone.

For Mackay, ornaments are an art form. It’s the craftsmanship that makes them so special, she says. Having spent time with ornament makers in Italy and Germany, Mackay has developed a deep appreciation for the skill and intuition of these artists.

“Everything is really done by hand and it’s done by eye,” she says. “They know where to put the paint. They know where to put the glitter. … There’s a person behind it.”

Interview Highlights

On the oldest ornament in her collection

My oldest ornament is my grandfather’s carrot and that’s 115 years old. That was modeled after his dummy, Charlie Carrot — my grandfather was in Vaudeville. … It was the carrot that my father put on the tree every year. My mother wouldn’t allow him to do anything except for the lights, but he could put his carrot on the tree. That was a very special moment for me, watching him go around the tree, choosing which place he wanted to have it.

On the inevitability of broken ornaments

My elephant broke when we were setting up the shoot. … It was devastating. … But the nice part of this story is that I went back to Italy and gave my books to two of the makers and I … showed her the photograph [of the broken elephant] and she looked at it and she looked very sad. And then she looked at me and … ran downstairs and came up with this box of elephants — glass elephants — and she picked out an elephant that was almost like it and signed it.

On what her ornaments mean to her

My tree is my life. Each year, I sit down in a chair after the tree is completed and I see what it is that year. Because the following year it will be different. Some ornaments will have been broken. There will be ornaments that will have joined the tree from friends. It is an expression of my life.

Do You Have A Special Ornament?

We’d like to hear about your special ornaments and the stories behind them. Write to NPRcrowdsource@npr.org with “ornament” in the subject line. We’ll share some of your stories on air.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.