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Longtime friends and colleagues Rudi Hempe, left, and Gerry Goldstein are pictured with a Christmas tree ornament that Hempe made from a laminated copy of Goldstein's poem "Christmas," which appeared in the Providence Journal in 1994.

A Christmas poem goes like this:

 

I hung my stocking up with care

And sat down in our fireside chair

While father stoked the flames up high

And talked of Christmases gone by –

Of walks he took in childhood

Into a silent snowy wood

To find a perfect, shapely tree

Amid the white-tipped greenery

That he could stand in fragrant show

 Beside a hearth of long ago.

 He talked of chestnuts that he roasted,

And of marshmallows he toasted;

Of wooden sleds and holly sprays,

Of caroling on crystal days

And sleigh rides held on frosty nights

 Far from the city›s brilliant lights.

 Later, with the fire low

And I in quilts from head to toe,

 He carried me upstairs to bed,

 And as he tucked me in, he said:

 No matter how the world has changed

We’re fortunate that God arranged

 For Christmas, so we can recall

That love, and constancy, are all.

 

The poem has been fashioned into an ornament by Rudi Hempe of Narragansett who has hung it on his Christmas tree for 27 years.

But there’s a back story. Hempe is a Christian, but the poem was written by close friend Gerry Goldstein who is Jewish. Both are journalists and Goldstein wrote it in 1994 on Christmas Eve for a newspaper at which he worked.

Both men, now nearly 82 and have shared a lifetime together since meeting in the early 1960s, have this ornament bridging their separate religions that reminds them every year of their special bond.

“This is a friend of mine who Jewish and he captures in a non-secular way the spirit of Christmas,” said Hempe who prizes the ornament and it goes right in front, eye level, every year so people can read it.

They have competed against and worked with each other after their graduation from the University of Rhode Island where they met nearly 60 years ago.

It has a special place as do ornaments of so many others who brighten their solemn green trees with sparkling balls, hanging designs of all kinds and these most special crafts that they hold in their hands each year as memories fill their heads.

Reaching to a branch on her Christmas tree, Denise Winston, who hails from South Kingstown, puts a “house” made from a small single-serving milk carton given at a school lunch 37 years ago to her young daughter, Shannon.

“She drew and colored on paper what looks like a house, attached it to the milk carton, added a chimney and some cotton for snow on the roof, with a piece of yellow yarn to hang it on the tree,” Winston said.

She added with a smile, “And I am happy to say it is in very good condition and I hang it on our tree every year.”

The spirit of Christmas comes through in many ways like religious observances, giving, hope, good cheer, love, understanding, helping, goodwill and just setting aside troubles for a little while.

Family, friends, traditions and memories are so much a part of celebrating.

Ornaments — whether for a Christmas tree, mantle, outdoor decoration or windows — bring a very personal touch both within that spirit and who gaze at a special design unique to each person holding them dear.

Passed down from generation to generation, the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree of any size, kind or shape has become a holiday fixture across the globe.

People in many countries haul out treasured ornaments to relive special memories of times and lives gone by, yet feelings still warmly burning in the fires of their lives whose embers still billow.

Ornament maker, Duke Marcoccio, owner of Mylittletown.com, an online Christmas ornament company in East Greenwich, put it succinctly.

“People love them for all they bring back. People even keep them around after the holiday, and I hear lots of stories about the memories, like one from a couple on a ride over the park at Rocky Point and that’s where they have their first kiss,” he said.

In a series of interviews with The Independent, others shared their stories about those special creations weaved into traditions and emotions during the  Christmas holiday season.

 

Children’s Ornaments

For Terry Schimmel of South Kingstown, they return memories of children for this former teacher.

“The most common gift was the Christmas tree ornament. Consequently, each year, my sons (would) chuckle as they pass over ‘another of Mom’s teacher ornaments,’” she recalled.

Most were simple store-bought ones, with a few perhaps handmade. “Many, have the child’s name on the back,” she added.

“I love these the most, as they jog my memory of each sweet face, each unique personality, whether it’s doe-eyed, shy Rachel, gentle giant bespectacled Adam, or Nicole, whose maturity and natural teacher skills meant that at five she could already command her peers,” Schimmel said.

“I especially take note of the wooden apple from DJ, whose life was precariously threatened by seizure disorder,” she added.

This theme of children-now adults came to many parents, such as Yvette Nachmias-Baeu of Hope Valley.

The oldest ornament, she said, that she once hung on her Christmas tree was a green dragon made by her son, Jesse, now 48, but crafted when he was eight years old.

“Made of paper and glue and painted a with an acrylic grotesque green and red paint, it was always wrapped carefully with all the others, but each year a little bit of the dragon’s tail fell off,” she said.

After 25 years, its head and hook disintegrated. “We had to bury the dear dragon in a heap of tissue paper and Christmas wrappings for its final farewell,” Nachmias-Baeu said with some remorse.

Narragansett resident Jane McCarthy keeps a remembrance of her younger child’s years on the tree, too.

“We have an ornament that was given to us by our youngest daughter, Kate, that she made while she was in kindergarten. She is now 50 years old,” she said.

“It consists of a pine cone for the body with white pipe cleaners for snow and a face made from clay painted pink with a blue nose, rosy cheeks and now a missing eye,” McCarthy said with a laugh.

  

Special Times

And there are ornaments marking special times, emotions triggered simply by the sight of one being pulled out for the tree or mantle.

“My oldest ornament is a small plastic/cloth Santa. He was my Grandma’s and is almost a bit scary looking but he reminds me of her so he is always a highlight for my Xmas tree!,”  Nikki Munroe of South Kingstown told The Independent.

“Nice to have ornaments that have been passed down from one generation to the next! No matter crusty they end up looking!” she added.

Greg Mancini, Town Council president in North Kingstown, said, “Our oldest ornaments are glass balls from my wife’s grandmother. They cost 59 cents at Apex.  The ornament that means the most to us is our doves of peace ornament, which my wife and I gave to all the attendees of our wedding when we got married in December of 1994.”

Kristin Urbach, executive director of the North Kingstown Chamber of Commerce collects ornaments and has a favorite in Abraham Lincoln.

“I always believed (he) was a remarkable president. The ornament has a hinged frame on it which is reflective of the Victorian period. The other reason why I adore this ornament is that it is made not only in America, but in Lincoln, RI by ChemArt,” she said.

Ralph Mollis, North Kingstown town manager, also has a special story for the oldest ornament on his tree.

“(It) is approximately 55 years old. Back in the day, families frequently sent out Christmas Cards with pictures of their children signed by the parents. My parents made one of the cards they sent into an ornament, simply stringing an ornamental string through the card itself,” he explained.

“I’ve placed it on my tree for as long as I remember. My sister has it on her tree also. My younger brother wasn’t born yet, so it’s just my sister and me on the card-ornament,” he said about a transfixed time.

Susan Mandel of South Kingstown upped the ante on the age of ornament over Mollis, but connects family in her special way.

“There is one ornament that takes front and center stage every year. It’s over 100 years old, l think it’s a family heirloom. I don’t know its history, and as a child l thought it was ugly. It’s an ancient, a felt Santa with broken boot,” she said, describing it.

“But as an adult, I’ve learned it’s loved and ‘well worn’. I’m adopted. It somehow makes me feel connected,” she said.

Betty Cotter, former editor of The Independent and now a resident of Charlestown, also sees in her ornament collection the opportunity to restore something she lost.

Shiny Brite — a colorful glass ornament marketed to the masses after World War II — went on the family tree every Christmas. It was the “scrawniest” pine her father could find and one whose branches were barely strong enough to hold tinsel, she recalled.

“Somewhere in the chaos of renovating the house where I grew up, all the old ornaments disappeared – the tarnished Shiny Brites, a few red Santas, the bells with their too-tiny hook openings. So I have begun collecting Shiny Brites,” she said.

“Some of them have sprayed-on designs made to look like snow: “Silent Night,” reads one, “On Dasher, On Dancer” another. Antiques now, they are neither sophisticated nor monochromatic.

“Some would call them gaudy. But I guess I could say the same for myself,” Cotter noted with a laugh.

Terry Simpson of South Kingstown is a frequent impersonator of Santa Claus sporting the real white beard, sparkling eyes and jolly laugh. This actor at the Contemporary Theater has a special ornament shared with his son, Christopher, who started the theater.

It is an oval in which a child is smiling next to a very young Terry Simpson. It was taken on a trip to see his brother, who has since died, and with whom he did not have a close relationship.

“We explored Pittsburgh, did a lot of fun things and spent some quality time together for all of us,” he said.

“My brother lived a long time after this photo, but has been gone for 13 years now. When I look at this, I have mixed emotions – fond memories of the trip and Chris growing up and sadness for all that my brother has missed,” Simpson recalled.

 

Personal Collections

For others, the oldest and favorite ornaments were some they made, collected and still cherish or passed to another family member.

Gene Kincaid, Narragansett summer resident, said, “My favorite ornament was an early 1950s mobile that had five or six ornaments balanced and connected by stiff wire arms. My daughter still has it and its original box which is covered with classic 1950s graphics.”

Paul Simmons of South Kingstown and now in his mid-20s, recalled making one when in second grade. He cut a church bell out of paper and then glued little pieces of macaroni to it. He then painted it in dark gold to give a bronze metal color tone.

“On the back of the ornament is my 2005 class picture followed by the year it was made. I always love digging through the boxes and bags of ornaments and then rediscovering that one ornament every year,” he said.

These special ornaments that top the list of favorites and are handled with care that come with love for friendship, family, closeness, special times and all the other sentiments – if they could – that are the spirits of Christmas.

Poem writer and journalist Goldstein, mused about the ornament connecting a Jew and a Christian.

He said he enjoyed seeing Christmas trees in friends’ houses and it carried into adult life when Hempe, “a major-league Christmas decorator,” and he became best friends through their journalism work together.

“Despite always enjoying the season, I never thought I’d be turned into a Christmas ornament, “ he said with a laugh.

And with a touch of sentiment that this season brings, he added, “And I guess if the Jewish Irving Berlin could write “White Christmas,” the least I could do was give my long-time friend something to hang on his tree.”

True words like these echo through time, according to ornament maker Duke Marcoccio of Mylittletown.com based in East Greenwich.

“Ornaments at Christmas are all about our memories. They bring back things gone, but we want to keep alive, and they keep alive those that we don’t want to lose,” he said.

Write to Bill Seymour, freelance writer covering news and feature stories, at independent.southcountylife@gmail.com.

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