A highlight from Miniature Moments at the Henry Ford Museum in Detroit (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

Christmas is an occasion for many, especially in the United States, to engage in a series of depraved practices — from overwhelming our aural space with relentless Christmas music and offering free holiday parking in shopping districts to sending photo cards that insincerely highlight family accomplishments and flirting with financial disaster in order to buy gifts for every single person you know. It’s a fun time of year!

At Detroit’s Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, an exhibition opened last month that celebrates a comparatively more official Christmas tradition: decorating the Christmas tree. Miniature Moments: A Journey Through Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments features an impressive 7,000 ornaments that range from traditional spheres and bulbs to admittedly weird baubles honoring an Oscar Mayer weiner, The Twilight Zone, a 2009 Jonas Brothers moment, and yes, Michael Scott from The Office.

One Christmas ornament features a typical ’90s dad with a video camera. (Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

The Christmas tree, at least as recognizable in its modern conception, is credited to 16th-century Germany. Certainly, the practice of holiday decoration utilizing evergreen boughs — not to mention literal tree worship — predates this, but as far as the practice of kidnapping trees from their natural environment, dragging them into our homes, and dressing them up in lights and tiny objects, that’s all Germany. The holiday trend became more widespread through the marriage of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Queen Victoria, which brought the tradition to England, and from there it disseminated into the international practice of cheerful tree-killing that we see today. One could say that this is already strange enough. But the ritualistic peculiarity does not stop there; when one gets into the specifics of tree ornamentation, the practice becomes even stranger.

Installation view of Miniature Moments (courtesy the museum)

Hallmark, having already established an empire built on greeting cards, broke out in a bold and definitive new direction in 1973, launching its annual series of keepsake ornaments that would go on to become a fixture of American Christmastime. The series was discontinued in 2009, and in 2019, the Henry Ford Museum announced its acquisition.

Could this be an art handler ornament? (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hypergallergic)

Organized by year, with special sections that present themes that bridge multiple generations of Hallmark ornaments, the permanent exhibition that just went on display shows an overall shift from very traditional, Christmas-oriented ornaments in the ’70s and ’80s to more pop-culture and personality-reflecting trends from the ’90s onward.

“There are some things that perhaps 40 years ago we wouldn’t have thought of as appropriate Christmas ornaments to appear on people’s trees,” curator Jeanine Head Miller, who oversaw the acquisition and installation of the monumental collection, told Hyperallergic. “Christmas tree decorating has become more about personal identity and self expression now, as opposed to more traditional Christmas tree decorating. So, people choose things to put on a tree that reflect their interests, or even their personal experiences.”

Certainly, there are many ornaments that would make no sense without some context — from a Star Wars Imperial AT-AT Walker about to be felled by a rebel Snowspeeder, to Indiana Jones poised to replace a golden idol with a bag of carefully weighted sand.

The “Oscar Mayer Wienermobile” Christmas ornament from 2001. What tree would be complete without it?! (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)

Perhaps even stranger are those pop culture figures that have been adapted to the Christmas context. This is at least marginally on brand for characters like the Peanuts, who famously star in a series of beloved and confoundingly depressing holiday specials, and more of a stretch with, say, an ornament of Pixar’s WALL-E, wrapped in a string of seasonal lights.

“One of the ornaments that’s the hardest to find, so it’s very popular, is Cousin Eddie’s RV from National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation,” said Head Miller. Naturally, one does not immediately think of hanging a rusty RV on the Christmas tree, but that just goes to show you how eclectic and odd some of the Hallmark ornaments can be — even though a huge majority of them are fairly sentimental and nostalgic in a more generic way.

Hallmark “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: Cousin Eddie’s RV” Christmas Ornament, 2009 (image courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)

Then there’s stuff like this bear. It appears to be a reference to Steiff stuffed animals on wheels, which were apparently all the rage in 1904, but I’m not sure what lingering relevance they have in 1999, when this ornament was issued, let alone having anything to do with Christmas. The real kicker is how, hilariously and with no additional context, the bear ornament is labeled “Son.” Perhaps this ornament presaged the coming of Fat Bear Week (which is, incidentally, my favorite holiday), and indicates our hope that this 1999 Bear takes home the top prize (which is not starving to death over the winter).

And don’t even get me started on this ornament of Ralphie in his pink rabbit sleeper, instantly recognizable as a moment from the iconic 1983 holiday film A Christmas Story — but utterly confusing when taken out of context as a small, unhappy child in a pink rabbit costume hanging on a Christmas tree. This underscores how, in truth, some of the ornaments explicitly related to Christmas are pretty strange as well, like this representation of one of the Three Kings (Magi).

“Ralphie’s Pink Nightmare” Christmas Ornament from 2009 (image courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)

If it’s not already clear, I find Christmas and its associated practices a little confounding. From the inside, I suspect it feels like a comforting series of activities that warm the heart as the temperature drops. These Hallmark ornaments touch people, as is obvious during a visit to the exhibition, which finds visitors of all ages and types pointing to this or that on the wall, exclaiming in recognition. It’s always lovely to see folks bask in the collective glow of shared culture.

From an outsider perspective, it is a wild mish-mosh of insane symbols and signifiers — which is actually wonderful in its own, secular way. I can’t say what this “Mom” Christmas sweater ornament means to you, but I can tell you what it means to me: Christmas makes people do crazy things.

“The Office: World’s Best Boss” Christmas Ornament from 2009, now on view at the Henry Ford Museum (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
“Star Wars The Empire Strikes Back: Imperial AT-AT and Rebel Snowspeeder” ornament from 2006 (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
Nothing says Christmastime like Lucille Ball stunting in a bucket of grapes, right? “I Love Lucy: Lucy’s Italian Movie” ornament from 2003 (image courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)
“Rainbow Brite and Starlite” ornament from 2004 (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
“Disney Channel’s Jonas: Rock the House!” 2009 ornament (photo Sarah Rose Sharp/Hyperallergic)
“Mom” Christmas Ornament from 2004 (image courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)
“Son” Christmas Ornament from 1999 (image courtesy the Henry Ford Museum)

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit — including at the Detroit Institute of Arts....