Photo Nov 28, 5 25 55 PM
Posted by Amy, Travel Activities
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Travel Souvenirs and Holiday Traditions

Like many people, I like to purchase some memento (or maybe a couple of mementos) of my travels. You can look at a something you brought back and recall all the great memories of your trip while getting excited about your next adventure. The problem for me is that I hate clutter. I hate stuff. Stuff stresses me out. Everything displayed in my home is purposeful or useful. It’s unlikely when traveling you’d always find something you already needed, so what is a girl (or guy, or family) to do?

For my first few trips, I brought home no souvenirs. I wasn’t going to buy something I didn’t need that would just clutter up my home and life. But that kind of sucked, so I came up with a solution to this problem: every place I go, I bring back a Christmas tree ornament.

The result has been better than expected.

A Christmas Tree Full of Memories

The Christmas tree decorated with travel ornaments
I truly believe I have the best Christmas tree in the entire world. It’s not the biggest. It doesn’t look like it was professionally designed by a decorator. It’s missing some branches in awkward places. But it’s full of memories of the most amazing things I’ve done in my life.

It all started January 3rd, 2012. I was in New Orleans to watch the Michigan Wolverines play Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. Wandering around the French Quarter before the game, I happened to see this cool flour de lis ornament and thought it would be a great souvenir from the trip, and I would always remember that it came from New Orleans because of the shape. Then I thought, why not do this for every trip?

My first travel ornament: A fleur de lis from the Sugar Bowl 2012 in New Orleans

Setting up the Christmas tree has become one of the most exciting things I do every year. The box of ornaments comes out, and aside from a few decorative balls, every single thing that goes on the tree is a travel memory. With each ornament I hang, I fondly remember the trip it represents. New years in the Dominican Republic with my college friends, Gaudi attractions in Barcelona, visiting friends in Southern California, a wedding weekend in Wisconsin… all of it is captured right here in a few square feet in my living room.

After all the old ornaments are up, I start hanging the new ornaments I collected this year, reflecting on this year in my life and the places I’ve been. It’s so cool.

From right to left: Punta Cana, Dominican Republic - Barcelona, Spain - The House on the Rock, Wisconsin - Balboa Island, California

Finding the Ornaments

The “rules” for my game (I sort of think about it like a game I must win) are the following:

  • The ornament must be recognizable as being from a particular place

Yep, that’s it, actually only one rule. It has to either say the name of the place on it, or be recognizable as being from the place I’m visiting. A generic ornament doesn’t work because I will forget where it came from over the years.

It has to be clear where the ornaments are from. Each of these ornaments is specific to a particular place.

Acquiring Christmas tree ornaments isn the most far flung corners of the world can be a challenge. In most US cities, gift shops are full of Christmas Tree ornaments. I had no problem finding them in the Czech Republic or Switzerland, but Paris was a real challenge and I’ve been to Barcelona 3 times without ever seeing a souvenir ornament. South Korea? Mauritius? Forget about it.

A Better Travel Experience

Seattle coffee, a decorative ball from Nepal, a steer from Dallas, and a tiny Dutch version of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer from Amsterdam
Playing my ornament game has enriched my travel experience in ways that I did not expect in the beginning. I’m always on the lookout, investigating shops and locations, poking my head in somewhere. The search leads me to places I might not have gone otherwise – not just specific shops but entire areas of a city. My friends and family who travel with me are very familiar with this – they always wind up participating in the game too.

In South Korea, my trip with friends was winding up and I hadn’t found ANYTHING. I was on a real mission, visiting department stores, street markets, poking my head into any place that looked like it might have a precious ornament. In the Seoul mall, I had some interesting cultural experiences that stick with me. On the streets, some adorable Korean girls came up and interviewed me about what I liked about Korea (Bulgogi, naturally) as part of a school project. I poked my head into anything that seemed plausible and along the way I experienced more of South Korea. I never found one, but the journey was great.

When There are No Ornaments

In some places, Christmas tree ornaments do not exist. You might expect that this correlates with places that do or do not celebrate Christmas with trees, but I haven’t found that to be the case.

However, all is not lost. If there seems to be a lack of actual Christmas tree ornaments, there are a few next steps:

  1. Find a keychain that could easily be transformed into a tree ornament
  2. Find a magnet that could easily be transformed into a tree ornament
  3. Find ANYTHING that could (even if not very easily) be transformed into a tree ornament

I had to improvise in South Korea. Next time I will improvise a little more straight.
As I mentioned, South Korea was a complete failure. I did find a lot of ornaments since they were all decked out for Christmas, but they were all completely generic. The airport was my last hope, and I eventually picked up this decorative plate and glued a ribbon to it with super glue. Bamn. Ornament. (Yes, I did a terrible job making it straight.)

My first goal is always to find something actually made to be an ornament. A keychain is a decent backup, but if nothing good exists there, it’s the wild wild west (or east) and you just have to get creative. From Romania, I brought back a magnet, but it already had a ribbon attached and was easy to hang. The plate from Bangkok wasn’t meant to be an ornament, but it had a hook on the back. The cat figurine from Puerto Rico had a necklace I could attach a ribbon to.

Romania, Bangkok, and Puerto Rico. None of these started out as Christmas tree ornaments.

This tradition has become one one of my favorite parts of travel and my favorite part of the holidays. If you hate clutter but want a useful memento from your trips, consider joining me and decorating your Christmas tree (or Hanukkah tree, or Kwanza tree, or agnostic tree) with memories.

Happy Holidays!

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