Festive reflections: 7 personal objects that help us find meaning

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The closing of the year brings with it the full and often difficult spectrum of emotions. Reflection and remembrance. Celebration and cheer. Tears and longing. For some, one feeling defines the festive season, while for others it means a little of them all. This year, we want to acknowledge those feelings by sharing the stories behind personal objects belonging to National Museums Scotland staff.

Dr Chris Breward, Director of National Museums Scotland: doll of dreams

A Pippa doll holding up a foil star, with silver tinsel attached and surrounded by various doll dresses and accessories.

During the mid 1980s my partner and I started to spend our first Christmases away from parental homes, with our new family of student friends who like us had moved to London for the bright lights. We always exchanged rather campy presents, often acquired at London’s thriving flea markets for pennies.

One year I received the wonderful Pippa Doll, the UK’s equivalent to Barbie (I had always wanted a doll of my own. As a child in the early 1970s I even turned my Action Men into costumed versions of Mary Queen of Scots and Elizabeth I, inspired by Vanessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson!). Pippa came with a selection of Carnaby Street ‘gear’, but with the help of some jam muslin, tinsel and a toothpick star we fitted her out for the top of the tree.

Every year since, when the tree decorations come out, I take her from her box and exclaim ‘Pippa Doll! Good to see you again!’ and am transported back to carefree times.

Lucy Neville, Interim Schools Engagement Officer: a memorable winter warmer

A small whisky glass is held up in font of a Christmas tree with warm lights.

Winter warmth, for me, brings to mind three things – family, fire and a wee warming dram. All of these are encapsulated in one object – a small, handmade whisky glass.

A few years ago my sister, mum and I went to glass blowing workshop for Christmas. Glass blowing requires temperatures of over 1000 degrees Celsius, and plenty of fire – the perfect winter artform. After a few hours learning the basics we created our first shaped pieces. I made a whisky glass, largely because it is small and simple. By the end of the day we’d made textured paperweights and colour infused vases but the simple wee whisky glass remains my favourite piece of the day. One reason for this is my Papa.

Photo collage of a man in black rainproof gear on looking happy on a boat, surrounded by images of whisky glasses held up.

Papa loved his whisky. It had to be Scottish, it had to be malt and it had to be savoured. Papa passed away on Christmas Eve, only a few hours before his favourite feast of the year – Christmas dinner. Every year, no matter where we find ourselves, aunties, uncles, parents, cousins all send each other a photo of our Christmas dram in his honour. Mine is always in my slightly skew-whiff glass adding fire, family and warmth in our collective moment of reflection.

Slàinte!

Dr Calum Robertson, Curator of Modern and Military History: fashion runs in the family

Four cufflinks, each identical to the others. Round, dark grey or black with Celtic knot-style designs.

Christmas is traditionally a time for dressing up; from novelty jumpers to sequins and black tie, many of us relish the opportunity to put on those special items we reserve for this most special time of the year. For me, no outfit is truly complete without a pair of cufflinks, and no pair of cufflinks are more important than a set belonging to my great-uncle.

James Deuchars Robertson was one of the few relatives of his generation I had the opportunity to meet. Wearing these cufflinks, I feel connected not only to Uncle Jamie, but also to the family members I didn’t have the chance to meet.

For many of us, the festive season is all about family, and these cufflinks are a very personal reminder of the power of objects to evoke memories and communicate emotion. There may not be many parties this Christmas, but I’ll still be dressing up.

Chanté St Clair Inglis, Head of Collections Services: winter wonderland

A white shelf containing four candles, each with Christmas tree decorations, and a central pyramid candle with candy cane colouring.

When I was 15 years old, I spent a year in a small village in Germany on student exchange. Coming from New Zealand, I had never experienced Christmas in winter. To me Christmas meant summer sunshine, BBQs, sea swimming and a Christmas tree decorated with the kind of snow that comes out of spray can.

That first Christmas in Germany was extraordinary. It was like being in a Christmas carol with real snow, sleighs, warming fires and mugs of hot chocolate. One of my favourite things was the Christmas market where I bought this little Weihnachts pyramid candle.

Twenty-seven years later, it’s travelled with me from Germany to New Zealand and now to Scotland. The central carousel no longer turns, the paintwork is charred by candle flame, but it reminds me of the wonder I felt that first Christmas in Germany and still makes me feel like I am back in Christmas carol.

Gareth Ireland, Visitor Experience Assistant: departures herald arrivals

A large black suitcase standing upright in a hallway with wooden floors, topped by a present.

I have chosen my partner’s suitcase. At this time of
year, he usually travels abroad to see his family. This year, he will be gone
for both Christmas and New Year, so I’ll miss him even more.

I also used to pack my suitcase to go back home.
However, since my dad died, Christmas in my childhood home has been painful. So
now my mum visits me in Edinburgh. We go to the theatre, eat out, and wear
matching socks. And on New Year’s Day, my dad’s birthday, we raise a glass to
him.

When my mum arrives, her suitcase will replace my partner’s. At this time of year when we bring light into our homes to brighten up the dark outside, it reminds me that the sadness of a loved one leaving is always replaced with the joy of arrivals and the warmth of remembrance.

Anne McMeekin, Marketing Officer: disco penguin

Small penguin figurine, very fluffy and sparkly and shaped like a snowman.

Every year when I unpack my Christmas decorations there’s one in particular that I look forward to seeing again. Around 10 years ago my mum bought the same decoration for me, my sister and herself.

Covered in tiny plastic sparkly bristles that make it look like a jazzy loo brush, this decoration – quickly named Disco Penguin – has neither grace nor decorum. At first we laughed slightly cruelly at its crunchy iridescent body but Disco Penguin fast-nestled itself into our collective family Christmas.

It’s not the most delicate, or the most aesthetically pleasing, but somehow knowing the same silly decoration lives on the various Christmas trees of all my family brings a particular kind of Christmas cheer each year. All hail Disco Penguin!

David Weinczok, Digital Media Content Producer: dine with me

Yellow plate with faded green floral designs around its rim, placed on a light brown placemat on a wooden table.
Christmas dinner table with a plate full of Yorkshire puddings, roast vegetables and sausages, with candles and a wreath in the background.
A man and a woman, middle aged, sitting on a white couch smiling while holding a newborn baby, their grandson.

Meals are memories. Many of my most vivid memories of my grandparents on my father’s side, Elizabeth and Johannes (Hans) Weinczok, relate to the foods that seemed ever-present in their retro, suburban Toronto home: the spread of cheese and meats brought out each morning like ritual, or the potato dumplings they procured from a fabled German grocer and served at every special occasion.

Both passed away after I fulfilled my longstanding dream of moving from Canada to Scotland. I know they were proud of me, having undertaken my own transatlantic migration. Yet, they never got to visit or see me flourish. They never met my partner, and the chairs at the event which launched my life as an author that I so wished they could fill were taken instead by strangers.

That is why, at times like Christmas, I have my meal on a plate they often used. It instantly evokes their home, in which many of my happiest early days were spent. This way, they always have a seat in the life I have built here, their memory the invisible guests smiling encouragingly across the table. I miss them, and so long as some Yorkshire pudding or a heap of spätzle warms this plate, they’ll never be entirely gone.