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Their Most Treasured Christmas Tree Ornaments? Three Black Walnuts

The unique decorations, painted silver, remind them to focus on the real meaning of Christmas.

Illustration of a walnut ornament; By Lisa Ballard

I’ll never forget that December day in 1952. Our Scotch pine tree was standing straight in its stand, all ready for decorating. The wondrous scent filled our small Ohio home. To me, trimming the tree with Mom kicked off the entire Christmas season, a tradition I looked forward to weeks ahead of time.

Even as a boy, I loved the story of the birth of Jesus that the season celebrates. But something about the tree, the way it came alive with lights and ornaments, felt like its own special occasion. My parents felt it too. They both worked long, hard hours to provide for my older brother and me. My father was a plasterer. My mother rented tools and trailers out of our home. They didn’t work any less in December, but their steps grew noticeably lighter the moment the Christmas tree went up.

On that memorable December day, Mom opened the old soap carton that held the entirety of our decorations. “You can hang the first ornament,” she offered. She pulled out an old walnut shell, painted silver. A wire ran through a hole in the top of the shell and formed a hook for hanging. I eyed the ornaments in the carton. “Shouldn’t we hang the other ornaments first?” I said. “These old walnut shells can go on the back, if we have room.” I secretly hoped we wouldn’t. The walnuts looked incredibly plain.

Keith’s mother and father, circa 1932; Photo Courtesy Keith Bradford
Keith’s mother and father, circa 1932; Photo Courtesy Keith Bradford

Mother frowned. “These walnut shells are the most precious ornaments we own,” she said. “Your father and I made them the first Christmas after we were married, and they remind me of what’s most important this time of year.”

“What do walnuts have to do with Christmas?” I wanted to know. Maybe I’d missed something in the Christmas story.

Mom laughed. “Your father and I were married in 1933,” she said. “It was the depths of the Great Depression. We felt fortunate to find a modest house to rent on our tight budget, even though we had to repair the floors and patch the walls.” Mom looked at the silver walnut in her hand. “Our first Christmas as husband and wife, we each had 50 cents to buy a gift for the other, and 25 cents for a red garland for a tree. Of course, we had no money for a tree….”

Dad, always handy, had nailed pieces of scrap wood in the shape of an X for a base and attached a 2×4 to it for a tree trunk. He asked the neighbors if he could trim some of the branches from the evergreens in their yard. Attaching those branches to the 2×4, he made their first Christmas tree. But decorating it called for more than just the red garland.

In the front yard was a black walnut tree. “Father went out and gathered a dozen walnut shells and drilled holes in them for a wire hook,” Mom said. “I painted the shells silver to shine on the tree. Underneath was a bottle of perfume for me and a tape measure for your father. But these walnut shells meant so much to me, because we made them ourselves, out of love.”

I took the walnut ornament from her, appreciating its humble beginnings for the first time. The humble and loving home where Mom and Dad’s first tree stood reminded me of the humble beginnings of Jesus himself. I carefully hung the walnut front and center on the tree. Then another one, until all the remaining silver walnuts adorned the tree. Mom and I stood back and took it all in.

“One day we’ll pass the shell ornaments on to you and your brother,” Mom said, “because those walnuts are very much a part of our family Christmas story.”

There were more ornaments to add, but to me the tree was perfect as it was. Even as a child, I knew I’d been given something lasting that day, a special understanding of the love God rained down on our family at Christmas.

It’s been 70 years since I learned the story of the silver walnuts. Today only three remain. My brother and I hold them in safekeeping for when our children will inherit them and everything they represent. Today, I always hang that ornament first. “The tree’s all decorated,” I say when the walnut shell is featured just below the shimmering angel on the top. It’s a joke my wife and I share, but one with a lot of truth in it. Love fills the tree branches and our home and generations of Bradford family gift-giving. Merry Christmas, indeed.

For more angelic stories, subscribe to Angels on Earth magazine.

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