Heirloom Ornaments

Turn your own family photographs into meaningful tree ornaments using this simple method.


Donna Firnberg's Christmas tree spans the generations. Using handmade ornaments featuring family photographs of all ages, she has brought her heritage into the heart of the holiday.

The ornaments provide the tree with an heirloom appearance without sacrificing up-to-date style and fun. Donna makes them using Sculpey clay (a malleable substance that can be baked in the oven) and black-and-white photocopies. The ornaments have an aged appearance but took only a few hours to make. "They provide a wonderful way to display photos that you keep in scrapbooks all year long, and they make for interesting conversation when trimming the tree," says Donna's husband, Robert.

Photographs of weddings, school dances, and other special events hang from the Firnbergs' Christmas tree. They are interspersed among older pictures, some that date back to the 1800s. In one photo, Donna's grandmother poses with her baby doll and carriage. In another picture, her husband's father sits beside his favorite childhood dog, Captain. Another ornament shows a distant cousin and war veteran standing at attention in his uniform. Each photograph has a unique story or memory that the family recounts while decorating the tree.

A wide variety of keepsakes and mementos mixes well with the handcrafted ornaments. A silver cup, baby shoes, and trinkets from travels adorn the tree's boughs. "I have a sentimental streak about a mile wide," Donna admits with a laugh.

Now, photos of the Firnbergs' 2-year-old son, John Robert, have become a part of the collection, and Donna sees the ornaments as an introduction to his family's history. "When he's older," she says, "I want to talk with him about people I knew who are no longer with us. Seeing their photos and talking about them are ways to connect with family."

Creative Holiday Keepsakes
This Birmingham preschool teacher combines her love of photography and arts and crafts to create personalized ornaments that will last for years. These ornaments also make wonderful gifts for family members who want to share the past. Here's how to make them.

1. Use a copy machine to make black-and-white copies of your photographs. ( Note: Color copies or laser-printed photographs will not work for this project.) Prepare a flat work surface by lightly sprinkling it with baby powder so the clay will not stick. Prepare a rolling pin in the same manner, and roll out Sculpey clay to 1/4-inch thickness.

2. Tear photocopy edges or cut with deckle-edged scissors to desired shape and size of ornament. Place photocopy on clay (photo side up). Use a cookie cutter, knife, or vegetable cutter to cut around photocopy for desired ornament shape. Remove photo and set aside.

3. Remove ornament from work surface, and place on wax paper on a cookie sheet. Place photocopy (photo side down) on ornament. Hold securely, and rub photocopy with thumb to transfer image to clay. Cover ornaments with wax paper, and rest a heavy book on top overnight to allow time for ink to transfer. Slowly peel photocopy from clay so as not to smear.

( Note: If the image does not transfer clearly, or if its color is not good, try making the copies on a different brand of copy machine. Also, copies made on older copy machines seem to work better for this project.)

Add any detailing such as a border or braiding. Use a drinking straw to punch a hole at the top for hanging. Bake ornaments at 250° for 35 minutes, checking frequently. Add pearls, buttons, or other decorative touches immediately after baking. ( Note: If bubbling occurs, you may have air pockets in the clay, or the oven may be too hot.)