A family’s history told through Christmas tradition
Steamboat Springs — In the living room of Jerry Nelson, part-time Steamboat Springs resident from Wichita, Kansas, a tree — save for a few lights strewn about and the small gifts waiting for children and grandchildren to unwrap — stands bare on Christmas Eve.
On command, the featured gifts are unwrapped to reveal miniature wood carvings commemorating family memories of the past year.
“He always kept it a secret of what he was carving until Christmas Eve,” said Sara Stauffer, Nelson’s daughter, whose own children have grown to love the family tradition. “It’s a treasure, almost like a Christmas ornament journal — I love it.”
It’s a tradition that has been part of the Nelson family since 1966.
Creating memorabilia of engagements, births and other family milestones, Nelson hand-carves wooden ornaments that resemble animals or symbols of sentimental value. As his children grew older, the ornaments took on characteristics of school mascots, from junior high through college.
Nelson said inspiration for the ornaments originates with his family.
“I started these wood carving because I wanted to have something lasting,” he said. “I would dream about ideas of the ornaments — of what the family had done throughout the year — and came up with ornaments that I thought they might enjoy.
“This has been my most consistent ritual for my whole life. I’ve grown to appreciate what a unique family tradition this is. I don’t know anybody else that has their family history told in ornaments hard-carved by the family patriarch.”
Prior to retirement, Nelson worked in a plastic surgery residency in Kansas, a career that gave him a familiarity with surface contouring. He also took drawing and sculpture workshops over the years, all of which have combined to for the foundation of his hand-carved ornaments.
He began carving balsa wood, which is light and soft enough to be sculpted with a surgical scalpel. A few years later, his wife gave him a woodcarving set for Christmas, and he began carving other types of wood, from pine basswood to sugar pine.
Each year, he would make as many as four ornaments through a process that starts with a sketch or clay sculpture and can take as long as eight hours to complete.
Stauffer said one of her favorite ornaments is of a mouse that resembles a pet mouse she had when she was about 10 year old. Another ornament was inspired when Stauffer’s son proposed to his wife with a wooden engagement ring made from the tree limb his childhood swing used to hang from.
Nelson used wood from the same limb to carve a boy elf pushing a girl elf on a swing.
To capture the story that accompanies each of the whimsical, yet non-traditional, Christmas ornaments, Stauffer created a book of photos and descriptions of each to document the carvings and memories.
This year, Nelson said he wanted to commemorate his son’s induction into the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame by creating an ornament of his school’s mascot — Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s “Tim the Beaver” — being inducted into the hall of fame.
“Because they tell the family story, they are priceless,” Stauffer said. “It’s a special, heart-warming tradition for our family that is one of the constants of Christmas.”
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