A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

You’ve got a special box for them, right? No, no, not the box with the shiny, breakable balls. Not the one with the carved wooden reindeer, the metal choo choo,

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

You’ve got a special box for them, right? No, no, not the box with the shiny, breakable balls. Not the one with the carved wooden reindeer, the metal choo choo,

You’ve got a special box for them, right? No, no, not the box with the shiny, breakable balls. Not the one with the carved wooden reindeer, the metal choo choo, the tin star, the porcelain cardinal, or the clear icicles of glass. Not even the one with the leg lamp from A Christmas Story. The beautiful, professional, perhaps costly, factory-manufactured tree trinkets. Little hands and stubby fingers can’t make those kinds of ornaments.

Decades ago, or maybe just last year, a little person sat in a small chair at a kindergarten table, or a Sunday school class, or a Scout meeting, and made an ornament. Careful as they could, they glued red rickrack on a white Styrofoam ball. They circled it with stick-on stars that usually went on good behavior charts, and added bright sequins stuck through with straight pins. They brought it proudly home, for you, and picked the perfect branch on the tree from which to hang their creation, front and center.

A decade later, or maybe just last year, they pronounced their handiwork “pathetic” or “embarrassing.” Yet there it is, saved by you, front and center on the tree. There’s the brown construction paper triangle of a reindeer face, with off-center googly eyes and a red pom-pom nose hanging literally by a thread. Wouldn’t you know those antlers anywhere, the 10-finger handprints of a 4-year-old, pressed to a puddle of paint? There’s the gold Mason jar lid doing double duty as a picture frame, from which an OshKosh-overalled nursery schooler shyly grins. The snowman that’s more cotton-balled blob — less fluffy than stiff with paste — than front-yard Frosty. The pinecone clumsily smeared in peanut butter, rolled and crusted with birdseed, has long since been devoured by feathered friends outside, and attic mice have gnawed at the painted pasta “stars” and “berries” on the construction paper Christmas tree and wreath. The candy canes that served as runners on the sled whose reins were made with licorice whips barely made it home from carpool.

But you’ve got the paper chain with interlocking red and green rings, which spans about a foot of fir. And the toy soldier made from a clothespin dipped in black paint for his boots, whose position on the tree that first grader changed daily. And pipe cleaners last forever, thank goodness, so the angel made of bunched and rubber-banded gold tulle still has her halo. A felt gingerbread man whose front and back are sewn together with thick red yarn in irregular, oversize stitches is still as plump with batting as he was when the teacher helped your youngest thread the blunted needle. Never mind the missing button eye.


As a crafty child, I was always envious of classmates who could accordion-fold and snip-snip just so, producing a paper chain of hand-holding angels or lacy, connected snowflakes. They probably grew up to be engineers. But I wouldn’t trade an origami of lords a-leaping for the manger with crossed Popsicle sticks for legs and strands of straw glued perfectly perpendicular to the cradle’s edge, more bed of thorns than swaddle. And there’s intricacy enough in the “God’s eye” of sparkly red, green, and white yarn wound over and under and through another set of X’d Popsicle sticks, and the stained-glass window of crayon shavings melted with a warm iron between wax paper sheets, then stapled to a construction paper arch. It takes some fourth-grade talent in art class to use a vegetable peeler, to select the right color crayons so as not to wind up with an opaque, purple-brown muddle of wax.

A bell. A star. A bow. (Would Christmas even come without construction paper?) A little faded, a little tattered, a little ragged ’round the edges. And, OK, perhaps a little pitiful, a little laughable. But you’ll take that glitter-crusted, glue-clotted sheep or teddy bear, that Popsicle-stick Mary wrapped in a pinking-sheared blue fabric square — her face with its crooked smile — over any machine-made Madonna with a beatific expression.

A bell. A star. A bow. Would Christmas even come without construction paper?

“Never you mind,” you said then, when the kindergartner fretted over the lopsided eyes. “Never you mind,” you say now, when that grown child calls his handiwork embarrassing. Because those gifts of childhood still and will forever — eternal as Christmas itself — hang front and center on the tree boughs. Because while little hands can’t manage perfection, they make a memory worth preserving. And because there’s nothing breakable about those humble, handmade ornaments, except when it comes to your heart.

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This story was published on Nov 16, 2020

Susan Stafford Kelly

Susan Stafford Kelly was raised in Rutherfordton. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill and earned a Master of Fine Arts from Warren Wilson College. She is the author of Carolina Classics, a collection of essays that have appeared in Our State, and five novels: How Close We Come, Even Now, The Last of Something, Now You Know, and By Accident. Susan has three grown children and lives in Greensboro with her husband, Sterling.