Matt DiVisconte calls the construction paper stocking ornament his mother has hung on her holiday tree every year for the past 43 years “god-awful,” but to Mary DiVisconte-Banninger of Babylon, it represents the meaning of Christmas.
Matt, who is now 46 and working in California as a wine chemist, made the ornament from brown paper, green yarn and cotton balls when he was 3 years old and in preschool. It has his name, “Matthew,” spelled in glitter.
“It’s not the most attractive ornament on the tree,” DiVisconte-Banninger, 72, concedes, noting that the cotton has worn thin, “but it’s special because he made it with love, and he was very proud of it. He made it for me as a present. To me, it’s what Christmas is all about, bringing out the things your kids made for you to celebrate the joy of the holiday.”
Many families across Long Island hang ornaments or put out menorahs that have a special, sentimental meaning. Here is the story behind Matt’s ornament, and four other families’ tales:
MARY DIVISCONTE-BANNINGER, BABYLON
DiVisconte-Banninger also puts on her piano a “snow globe” that her only child made from a baby food jar with a “teeny, tiny poinsettia” inside. “That comes out every year,” she says. “We moms treasure the things that our little ones make because it’s from the heart.”
DiVisconte understands the sentiment behind his mother celebrating such items at the holidays; he and his husband, Aaron Stillwell, 54, who works in social services, use an angel Stillwell made when he was 5 as their tree topper every year in Sacramento, Calif.
Stillwell jokes that he crowns their tree with the haphazard angel “against my husband’s will.” In exchange for the concession, Stillwell agrees DiVisconte can decorate the whole front of the tree however else he wants while Stillwell is relegated to adorning the back.
RENEE AND ANTHONY VITULLO, VALLEY STREAM
Seventeen years ago, Renee Vitullo and her husband, Anthony, purchased their first home together in Valley Stream. They’d been living with Anthony’s parents in Elmont for two years to save money for a down-payment. Renee was 29 the day they moved in, and Vitullo was one day shy of his 30th birthday. “I remember because we slept on a mattress on the floor, because he said, ‘I will move out of my family’s home before I’m 30,’” says Renee, now 46 and a real estate agent and money coach.
That first Christmas in their new home — the home they still live in today — Anthony’s mother gave the couple an ornament of a house with the words “First Home 2005.” The Vitullos — Anthony, 47, works for National Grid — now have two children, Anthony, 14, and Victoria, 10. “It seems like a blink ago,” Renee says of the day they were gifted the ornament, “and also a lifetime.”
MEG AND NEIL O’CONNELL, BABYLON
“Our tree is very traditional. We have some of the glistening ornaments, but more than half of them are handmade,” says Meg O’Connell, 82, a retired nursery school teacher from Babylon. The O’Connells also have ornaments passed down through their families, some of which are more than 100 years old, she says. “They’ve been on my tree all of my life, and they were on the tree when my father was a little boy,” she says. “One of them is a very skinny Santa Claus, another is a white bear sitting on a swing.”
Several handmade ornaments were the work of O’Connell’s daughter, Katie Schrader, when she was a child — Schrader is now 52 and serves as the mayor’s secretary in the village of Lindenhurst. Those include a “bell” crafted from the bottom of an egg carton with a pipe-cleaner stuck through to hang it, and what Schrader calls a glitter decorated tongue depressor.
“They’re packed away very, very carefully every year, at the top of the box; they’re lovingly taken out every year and put on the tree,” O’Connell says of the treasured holiday ornaments.
When Schrader was growing up, she says she couldn’t understand why her parents — her father, Neil, 85, is a retired social studies teacher — kept putting the old ornaments on the tree. She says she thought, “Why do we have this silly thing I made when I was 3? We should be putting on new ornaments.” But now that her own daughter, Meredith, is 19, she gets it — every year she puts out a shoe box diorama that her own daughter made in Sunday school of the Nativity scene.
KARYN AND ALAN SLEPIAN, DIX HILLS
The Slepians’ collection of menorahs made by their children include two created using metal bolt nuts as individual candle holders, one made out of a wood truck with thread spools as wheels and the shamash candle atop the truck’s cab, and one made out of blue clay.
They were created by Ashley and Dylan when they were in nursery school at the local JCC, and the couple sets them out every year at Hanukkah, even though their children are now ages 31 and 27.
“They’re too precious to throw away,” says Karyn Slepian, 59, of Dix Hills, who manages the medical office of her husband, Alan, a doctor. “They were made with their little hands, and it was their first experience with religion.”
Now the Slepians show the items to their granddaughter, who turns 3 this month, explaining to her which one was made by her mother, and which were made by Uncle Dylan. In the past, the Slepians used to light the candles using the blue clay menorah — it still shows some vestiges of melted candle wax — but these days they use an electric one and the ones by their children are mementos.
REMI LINDBERG, NORTHPORT
Every year while they were both going to college in Manhattan, Remi Lindberg and her sister Chloe would go to Macy’s in Herald Square and pick out an ornament to add to their family’s holiday tree in Northport. Chloe studied accessory design at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “It was always her dream to design Christmas ornaments,” Remi says.
Chloe Lindberg died of leukemia in 2021 at the age of 26. The family last year set her ashes on their mantel with miniature trees on both sides, and for every holiday — not just Christmas, but also Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and other holidays — the family changes the ornaments on the trees. They also surround the ashes with other sentimental items that remind them of Chloe.
Remi, now 29 and a receptionist in a chiropractor’s office, formed a not-for-profit in her sister’s name, the Chloe Belle Foundation. “We were only fourteen months apart; we were basically twins,” she says of herself and her younger sister. The foundation has done toy drives for children’s hospitals, and Remi’s goal now is to create a Christmas tree ornament as a fundraiser in her sister’s honor; she says she hopes other people will purchase one and keep it on their trees every holiday season.