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Don’t be afraid to pay a lot- there will come a time when classic examples will be completely unavailable.

Hunter-Gatherer: Collecting Vintage Christmas Ornaments

by Darin Lowery

A few days after Thanksgiving, my Mom would send us down to the basement for her boxes of Holiday decorations. Some of these trinkets were homemade (this being the 1960’s) when families still did things like that- craft paper angels, popsicle stick snack bowls and garlands of cranberries and popcorn. Most of the ornaments were store-bought, however, having been purchased over the years at dime stores such as Ben Franklin and Woolworth’s. One box in particular held the older, fragile items: thin glass confections in the shapes of fat snowmen, elegant pagodas and golden bugles. This box was of course my favorite.

Before anything could be hung, the strings of lights had to be wound around the tree- not an easy task for us kids, as I was the oldest at nine years of age. Only after we’d been poked and scraped by pine needles could the fun part begin, and we were each careful to choose and hang the prettiest ones in front (despite my Mother’s admonition to spread them around the tree so they could be seen through the windows). When that was accomplished, my Father pulled out the tinsel: fireproof lead strands which he insisted we hang, one piece at a time, on the tree. Of course this drove us insane because it took  f  o  r  e  v  e  r.  The lamps were then turned off, the tree lights were engaged and voila– a pulse of shimmering, glittery color turned the room into a Technicolor fantasy.

Historically, what we now call Christmas ornaments hark back centuries, when apples, biscuits and berries were hung on evergreens. In the mid 1800’s Christmas as we know it blossomed and glass ornaments were being produced primarily in Germany; fifty years later the Czechs and the Japanese jumped on the wagon. The aforementioned Woolworth’s sold 25 million dollars worth of baubles in 1890 alone. By the 1940’s, Christmas was a commercial gravy train for manufacturers and purveyors of holiday decorations.

Today you can find vintage Holiday ornaments at antiques malls, tag sales and on the Internet. Prices start at under a dollar (for some of the wackiest, ugliest 1970’s things you’ve seen) and can go up to thirty dollars each for a real beauty. Don’t be afraid to pay a lot- there will come a time when classic examples will be completely unavailable (think of the Halloween candy containers and papier-mâché witches which used to be in abundance). My own collection was begun a quarter century ago and, after storing them, and then displaying them, and then once again packing them away I said to Hell with it. My perky thirty-six inch green plastic Christmas tree sits on an Art Deco buffet, forty or fifty miniature vintage ornaments tinkling when the door is slammed or the dogs bolt through the room to welcome me home. The tree, with its cheery ornaments, has remained there for four years.

In the 1957 film An Affair to Remember, Terry McKay (Deborah Kerr) says, “Winter must be cold for those with no warm memories”. Whether you celebrated the Holidays in a home with aluminum trees or sturdy spruces, sang Christmas carols in Albany or in Honolulu, or drank eggnog in a Swiss maisonette or a Cavco double-wide, Christmas really is about warm remembrances. Vintage Christmas ornaments bring it all back in a heartbeat.

For additional information, Google ‘vintage Christmas ornaments’ or visit https://www.ornamentshop.com/history_story/part2.asp

3 comments

  1. Great story! I have all my old ones and my mother gave me a buch of old ones too! All those we made thru the years have wonderful memories also.

  2. Man oh moan! I inherited the family ornaments. There were some beauties! My favorites were / are the horns. Tradition has it that each time that they are unwrapped and before they are hung, they MUST of course, be “tooted” ! There was an airplane, (totally fantastic) and several others. A couple of years ago however, I made the mistake of putting them on the tree when we had a kitten in the house. There was a chase and a crash and, well, a LOT of tears and cursing. The tree leg broke and it fell down, taking several ornaments with it. Some were saved, but many were lost.

  3. Really lovely article, Darin. I was home in Michigan last Christmas and got to pull out that box with the yellowed tissue paper and exclaim over those the 1950 glass delights!

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