This summer I’ll be 50. FIFTY! Holy cow! Let me tell you, it’s as weird and stressful as everyone makes it out to be. My therapist might or might not use the words “existential” and “crisis” every time I see her. It’s a whole lot of reflecting, and appreciating, and trying not to have regrets. It’s also a lot of nostalgia as well as the opposite of nostalgia, which is “why have I been toting around this box of concert ticket stubs for 30 years?”

One thing I love about being 49, however, is that I’ve had 3 decades to curate an ornament collection that our family loves. Taking out the ornament boxes is one of our favorite parts of the holiday season.  Most years we only use about half our collection on the tree, but it’s fun to decide what goes on and what will make an appearance next year.

A lot of people love buying a new set of coordinated ornaments or coming up with a new theme for their tree every year. No judgement at all from me–I love going to Christmas shows and admiring beautifully designed trees. If however, you’d like to be almost 50 and have an ornament collection full of sentimental and meaningful ornaments, here are a few tips for finding, making, and buying ornaments throughout the year.

Make Photo Ornaments

I don’t hang my kids’ school photos on a portrait wall in our house, or even frame them at all. We have an online portfolio of our family photos that we look at often, so that seems to work for us. I do, however, take that school photo and put it in an ornament frame. It’s sweet to see their baby faces on the tree every year. Sometimes the kids will try to move them to the very lowest branch, but I find them on my daily assessment of the tree and put them front and center where they belong.

I also recommend doing photo ornaments of your pets. I have everything from puppies to 20 year old cats on my tree. Let me tell you, pulling out an ornament after you’ve lost a pet that year is a gut punch, but you’ll be happy to have that memory of love on your tree.

Buy From Artists

Every summer we go to several “Art in the Park” events in multiple towns. It’s a fun thing to do and a great way to support artists. I always keep my eye open for handmade ornaments or other baubles I can tie a string on and hang on a tree. I think one of the greatest things about ornaments is they don’t have to be of any one style and they don’t have to match your decor. Our house is minimalist and modern, but our tree is eclectic maximalist retro handmade shiny.

Ask Grandma for an Ornament

I used to love to help my grandma put up her tree, as well as take it down. I was the “calm and careful” cousin so it was my special job with her. She had boxes of lead tinsel that had to be taken off the tree one strand at a time and put back in the box in a way so it wouldn’t tangle with the rest. It sounds horrible, but it was with my grandma so I looked forward to it. When she went into assisted living and her house was cleared out, I wasn’t there but my dear cousin, Cher, saved this ornament for me and sent it to me that Christmas. I cried and cried. Make sure to ask your grandparents for an ornament from their collection.

Save The Ornaments Your Kids Make at School

My kids had the best elementary art teacher who did really wonderful projects with them. Isn’t this angel lovely? You’d never know I’ve had to tape the shit out of it on the back, huh? Ah well. I’ve also been known to shellac noodles and marshmallows and Mod Podge paper cards. Not all the handmade ornaments make it on the tree, but I do save them and we pick out a few favorites every year.

Let the Kids Pick Out One Ornament Every Year

When your daughter is 15 and you unbox the Elmo ornament and cry a little, she’ll roll her eyes and call you a dork. Then you’ll both laugh and put Elmo on the back of the tree, toward the bottom. It’s ok to be done with Elmo, but you don’t get rid of him. Same with Toot & Puddle.

When your child picks out one meaningful ornament per year, it’s a sweet little glimpse into their interests and obsessions at that age. Pen the year on the bottom so you’ll always know that’s the age he was into Minecraft, or ponies, or ballerinas, or Star Wars, or Elmo. It all happens so fast.

Go Big or Go Home!

Before we moved into our current house, we always had a very traditional dense cone-shaped tree. For the past few years, we’ve been into trees with sparse branches, aka the Charlie Brown Tree. One thing I love about them is that as long as it has sturdy branches, you can display some big, eye-catching ornaments. Like I said, I can’t put all our ornaments on any tree, but when I have the chance, I’ll always put out a few that steal the show.

Buy Ornaments on Vacation

For many years we’ve been buying ornaments on holiday vacations. We get them at lodges and festivals and state parks. If you go somewhere like Washington DC or Disneyland, there’s a gift shop on every corner that has ornaments all year round. We have dozens and we love them all.

When you go somewhere like Kauai, Hawaii in July, you might have to dig a little deeper. After looking for a full week for a great ornament, I was resigned to go home without a special bauble from our trip. But then on our way home I went into the AIRPORT GIFT SHOP and found these gorgeous traditional quilt block designs, which are some of my favorite ornaments of all. No doubt, I was probably much, much happier than most passengers in the Lihue airport getting ready to leave paradise.

Give a Traditional German Bride’s Ornament Set

My husband and I were married at 9 am in the courthouse with 5 family members present. We went back to our house for a breakfast celebration, which is when my parents presented us with twelve ornaments that, according to German tradition, represent 12 blessings for newlyweds. They’re some of my favorites and I keep the set in a special box with CAUTION tape on it.

Obviously, this probably isn’t a set you’re going to get for yourself, but it does make a wonderful wedding gift. If you don’t feel like piecing the collection together, you can find the ornaments in boxed sets.

Make Your Own Keepsakes

My daughter, Paloma, made this adorable ornament. I have to admit, ornament-making has never been my thing, but maybe 2018 will be the year I dive in. I think these patterns and kits from mmmcrafts are amazing and definitely keepsake-worthy! This free penguin pattern has also been on my to-do list.  The time to start making ornaments for next Christmas is today!