Christmas ornaments have different meanings for different people, which is what makes them special.

By Sid Evans
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Evans Family Ornaments
Credit: Hector Manuel Sanchez

In the annals of Christmas disasters, this one wasn't too bad, but it made a big impression on my then-8-year-old daughter, Phoebe. She was reaching for a present under the tree, bumped into a branch, and the 12-foot Fraser fir started to wobble. Seconds later, it was crashing to the floor, shattering those big, old-school colored lights and about a dozen ornaments. Phoebe skittered out from under the tree unscathed (and laughing hysterically), but we were all sad about the lost baubles, some of which were 20 or 30 years old. My wife, Susan, and I swept up the glittery fragments of glass balls, snowmen, and a fat cow in a muumuu playing a ukulele, and I swore off plastic Christmas tree stands forever.

We have accumulated enough ornaments over the years to decorate the tree at Rockefeller Center, so perhaps it was time for a purge. The kids come home from school with them—frames made from dried pasta, candy canes, twigs—and we save them all. But the best ones have always come from Susan's Aunt Jane, who's been sending her ornaments every Christmas since she was born—and now Jane gives them to the whole family. Each one has a little sticker with your name and the year, always written in the same neat script. Like Jane, they tend to be fun and original, such as the old couple ready for the beach or the sand dollar she gave Susan back in 1976 (all pictured above). One year, she sent each of the kids their own themed trees (Sesame Street and Thomas the Tank Engine) in huge boxes marked with "Fragile!" and "This Side Up!" That was a little over-the-top, even for Jane, but she was famous in our house overnight.

WATCH: Rick Bragg's Christmas Traditions

You'll find more than a few ornaments in this month's issue, starting with the edible versions adorning the Snowy Vanilla Cake on our cover, developed by Test Kitchen genius Pam Lolley. Lee Smith gets at the strange power of ornaments in her wonderful essay, "Our Sentimental Christmas Tree". And in an interview with Executive Editor Krissy Tiglias, Dolly Parton talks about decorating her tree with "strings of popcorn, buttons, and foil eggs—anything we could find," when she was growing up in a two-bedroom log cabin in Locust Ridge, Tennessee.

It doesn't matter what you put on your Christmas tree, of course, or whether you have a tree at all. As Lee, Dolly, and Aunt Jane all know, it's really about trying to add a little magic to the season—which is exactly what we're hoping to do with this issue. Happy holidays, everyone.