Christmas Traditions > Christmas Ornaments

In the early 1800’s, Christmas trees in Germany were typically decorated with candles, cookies, fruit, paper novelties, and candy.

Then, a glassblower in Lauscha, a district long recognized for the quality of its glass, crafted some small glass balls to hang on his family’s tree.

Within a few years, Lauscha glassblowers were filling orders by the thousands. In 1880, F. W. Woolworth brought the ornaments made in Lauscha to the United States.

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Christmas Ornament History

For Christians and others who celebrate Christmas’s secular traditions, decorating their home and Christmas trees with ornaments is one of the most enjoyable ways to capture the magic and excitement of the Christmas holidays.

The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs and pagan tree worship. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century.

The invention of the blowpipe by some unknown artisan brought about the craft of glass blowing, eventually evolving into the fine art of Christmas glass ornaments we know today. Items originally produced were not Christmas ornaments but practical items used mostly in the home. Christoph Muller and Hans Greiner set up Germany’s first glassworks in 1597 in Lauscha, then in the Duchy of Sachsen-Coburg, now in the German state of Thuringia (Thuringen). Lauscha, located in a river valley, had several elements needed for glass making: timber (for firing the glass ovens) and sand. Soon other glashutten (glassworks) were established in the town, producing drinking glasses, flasks, glass bowls, glass beads (Glasperlen), and even glass eyes (1835).

In 1847 Hans Greiner, a descendent of the Hans Greiner who had established Lauscha’s first glassworks, began producing glass ornaments (Glasschmuck) in the shape of fruits and nuts. These were made in a unique hand-blown process combined with molds. The inside of the ornament was made to look silvery, at first with mercury or lead, then later using a special compound of silver nitrate and sugar water. Greiner’s sons and grandsons, Ernst (b. 1847), Otto (b. 1877), Willi (b. 1903), and Kurt (b. 1932), carried on the Christmas ornament tradition. They were also responsible for another product: glass marbles.

Glass ornaments had become popular in 1846 when an illustration of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree was printed in a London paper. The Royal tree was decorated with glass ornaments from Prince Albert’s native land of Germany. Soon these unique glass Christmas ornaments were being exported to other parts of Europe.

Because of the Puritan influence, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the United States until the 1800s. As a result, decorated trees did not become widely popular until people saw the ornaments brought to America by families emigrating from Germany and England in the 1840s. Some historians attribute the Hessians, German mercenaries fighting in the Revolutionary War, with introducing Americans to decorated trees. In the 1880s the American dime-store magnate F. W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha’s Glaskugeln during a visit to Germany. He made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments to the U.S. By 1890, he was selling $25 million worth of ornaments at nickel and dime prices.

Germany faced virtually no competition until 1925. Then Japan began producing ornaments in large quantities for export to this country. Czechoslovakia also entered the field with many fancy ornaments. By 1935, more then 250 million Christmas tree ornaments were being imported to the United States.

The work of the German glass blowers and the distribution of the German ornaments remained almost unchanged from the middle of the 19th century through World War ll. When the Russian occupation of Germany began in 1953, many of the old world family molds that had been passed down for generations among all the families in Lauscha were destroyed. Families splintered when craftsmen fled their homeland to settle in Neustadt, a territory occupied by Americans, later establishing what is now the modern day Inge-glas workshop.

During the occupation, members of the Muller-Blech family stayed behind in Lauscha. Some of the old molds were found in garbage piles, other molds were bartered for. Since the border guards would have destroyed the molds if they had known the molds were going across the border, they were ingeniously smuggled. The molds were in two pieces, so, to ensure that the entire mold would get across the border, present day Inge-glas owner Klaus Muller-Blech’s grandmother would send them to him in a box of about a dozen or so, but only one half of each mold. She would put a note with the package, “Little Klaus, here are some molds for you to play with in the sand.” By sending the molds this way the border guards would think that the molds were of no importance. Later she would send the other half of the mold in a similar manner. For many years the old original recipe used to making the molds was lost. Recently the recipe to make the original molds used for making the old world Christmas glass ornaments was found, making Inge-glas the only company able to exactly reproduce the old molds.

The Muller-Blech family practiced the craft of ornament blowing in the same workshops in Lauscha Germany for thirteen generations. In the 1960’s Klaus Muller-Blech, a 14th generation descendant, and Birgit Eichhorn Jeremias-Sohn, descendant of the Eichhorn family, joined forces by marriage and combined their familys’ tradition and skills at the Inge-glas workshop. Today their collection includes more than 6000 antique blown glass ornaments molds dating from the 1850s. In addition, new ornaments are created each year to represent the traditions of today.

To find out if you own any original Inge-glas ornaments, look for the authentic star crown ornament holder. This star crown is the Inge-glas trademark. The Inge-glas ornaments are recognizable as one of the oldest generational German Christmas ornament makers and in the year 2000 Inge-glass established their own distribution site in the United States. Not until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II did an American company significantly enter the ornament business. Using a machine designed to make light bulbs, Corning engineers produced more than 2,000 ornament balls a minute. In 1973, Hallmark introduced six glass ball ornaments and 12 yarn figures as the first collection of Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, a new tradition of Christmas decorating was started and a new collectible industry was born. When the first line was introduced, they were unique in design, year-dated and available only for a limited time, innovations in the world of ornaments. Since 1973, Hallmark has introduced more than 3,000 different Keepsakes Ornaments and more than 100 ornament series, groups of ornaments that share a specific theme. The finished Keepsake Ornaments reflect the way styles, materials, formats and technology have expanded since the first ones appeared in Hallmark stores in 1973. Once a collection of decorated glass balls and yarn figures, ornaments are now made in a wide array of wood, acrylic, bone china, porcelain, and handcrafted formats.

Many unusual glass Christmas ornament traditions and stories have evolved from the German families. The German tradition of hanging a Christmas glass ornament pickle on the Christmas tree is the oddest German Christmas ornament story, some say even a myth. The pickle ornament is always the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree, with the parents hiding the pickle glass ornament in the Christmas tree among all the other ornaments. When the children are allowed to view the Christmas tree they would begin gleefully searching for the German Christmas glass ornament pickle. The children knew that whoever found the pickle ornament first would receive an extra little gift and would be the one to begin the unwrapping of the Christmas gifts.

It would be interesting to hear from any readers that have experienced this tradition, so if you did, please do share your story with us, thank you and Merry Christmas!

Enjoying a jolly holly-day

What are your family Christmas traditions? Sixpences in the pudding? Snoozing afer dinner? Every home has its own favourites. But there are some Christmas traditions we all share, and while some go back centuries, there are others which are more recent than you might think.

Take the tradition of bringing greenery into the home during the darkest months of the year. This harks back to pagan times. For ancient people Christmas marked the turning of the year and the hope of spring and evergreen branches symbolised fertility and the renewal of life.

That explains our holly and ivy, the tradition of kissing under the mistletoe goes all the way back to Druid beliefs about eternal life symbolised by the mistletoe, which grew on their sacred oak tree. But the most common greenery we bring into our homes at Christmas is the Christmas tree, as traditions go it is a very new practice indeed.

We owe our Christmas tree to a famous love affair, the passion of Queen Victoria for her German husband, Prince Albert. Together, the two dreamed up a new vision of solid family life which would revolutionise the way their subjects lived and which still affects us today. And one of their first targets for a revamp was Christmas. Christmas before Victoria was a wild affair which dated back to pagan times.

The fun was presided over by the Lord of Misrule, full of lewd and naughty pranks, and usually strictly for the grown-ups. Stern Victoria, a family woman through and through, disapproved of this uncontrolled revelry. So she and Prince Albert cooked up a new-style celebration more in keeping with the strict values and morals they wished their society to follow. Out went the boozy Lord of Misrule, but Victoria did borrow some of the best pagan traditions.

Greenery, for instance, has been brought into our homes since pagan times. Victorians adopted them with a vengeance. As well as swags and wreaths, they embraced the idea of Christmas trees with enthusiasm. This was a tradition brought from Albert’s homeland of Germany, where trees were once worshipped. When Christianity came along the ancient Germans were still anxious not to offend the tree spirits, and so they brought them into their homes for the celebrations.

Victoria loved Christmas trees, especially bedecked with candles, which were first introduced in the 17th-century to symbolise the starlit sky on the night of the nativity. Before that, they were hung with paper roses and apples to honour Mary. Christmas trees had been a Royal favourite for many years, but led by Victoria and Albert the general population adopted them.

The Royals loved them to extremes, the royal children had one, and so did the ladies in waiting. Victoria wrote a card for each member of the Royal Household to hang on yet another. Victoria, her mother and her husband each had one to themselves, hung with candles, toffees and gingerbread.

No baubles, however, they did not come along until 1870 from Bohemia, where they were said to ward off the evil eye. The family even had them on the dinner table, thanks to a new trend for serving the dinner in dishes for guests to help themselves; this left plenty of room for festive decorations on the table itself and remains with us as a tradition today.

Feasting has been a tradition at Christmas time since pagan days, designed to ward off the harsh winter conditions and bring back the good times. Rich people would have perhaps decked their table with a boar’s head until the start of the last century, when it was replaced by a goose. Turkeys came along in Victoria’s time, and as they were imported from America they were at first a luxury only the very wealthy could afford. The plum pudding we know today also became popular in Victoria’s time, replacing an earlier plum porridge which was once served with the meat course.

And as for one tradition, we have taken it further than any generation before us. Christmas gifts were once only available to people with money, poor children might get a hand-made doll or wooden toy if they were lucky.

And as for that jolly bloke with the red suit who climbs down chimneys, he is very recent indeed. Although Santa is based on St Nicholas, Siner Klaas, a bishop brought to America by Dutch people, today’s version was invented by Thomas Nast in a Christmas cartoon in the American magazine Harper’s Weekly in 1863.

Collectors treasure Santa figures

Father Christmas belongs to the English holiday tradition.

Père Noël was French. Kris Kringle came from Germany in the 18th century. St. Nicholas, who wears bishop’s robes, is the patron Saint of sailors in Greece and the Netherlands. Santa Claus is the American version of the bearded man who gives gifts to children at Christmastime.

By the 1890s in the United States, Santa was known as the leader of a workshop of elves at the North Pole. He had a wife by 1899. Santa’s appearance changed from a large man who dropped gifts down chimneys to a jolly little elf who came down the chimney with gifts. By the early 1900s Santa wore a red suit trimmed in fur, and by 1931 he was a large man dressed in red, and was pictured in a Coca-Cola ad.

Collectors treasure early versions of Santa as a jolly round elf or as a rotund man wearing long robes and a wreath of holly. Any Santa figure that is not wearing red is of extra value because it is probably more than 90 years old. Many people collect Christmas items year-round. Another group gathers old family Christmas ornaments, cards and figures to use each year in December.

Q: Sometime during the 1950s, I received a 10-inch doll called “Littlest Angel” for Christmas. The joy this doll gave me continued for a whole year, because each month a new outfit for the doll arrived in the mail. Each outfit went along with the month. So there was a slicker and boots for April, a swimsuit and towel for July, a school outfit for September, and so on. I still have the doll and her trunk full of clothing. Can you tell me who made the doll and what it’s worth?

A: Check the back of your doll’s head. It should be stamped “R & B” the mark used by the Arranbee Doll Co. of New York City. Arranbee introduced its hard-plastic Littlest Angel dolls about 1954. The dolls came with vinyl heads starting in 1957. In 1958 the Vogue Doll Co. of Medford, Mass., bought the Arranbee Doll Co. Vogue continued to sell Littlest Angel dolls marked “R & B” until 1963. Your doll, in excellent condition and wearing her original white outfit, would sell for about $150. If you still had her original box, the doll could be worth nearly twice that much. Each of her outfits, boxed and unopened, sells for about $50. Outfits that have been opened and played with sell for considerably less.

Q: I have a needlework sampler that was once offered as a product premium for Gold Medal flour. It’s 15 by 12 1/2 inches and has a label on the back explaining that the sampler is an “exclusive gift from Gold Medal Flour and LeeWards” to honor Gold Medal” more than 100 years of success.” It also says that the sampler “required over 25 hours of fine stitching by professional artisans to complete.” Do you have any idea when it was given out and what it’s worth?

A: Gold Medal flour dates back to 1880, when a Minneapolis milling company called Washburn, Crosby and Co. won a gold medal at an exhibition and named its flour after the first-place award. That means Gold Medal flour was 100 years old in 1980. By then the brand was owned by General Mills, which at the time also owned LeeWards, a chain of crafts stores. General Mills sold the LeeWards chain in 1985, so we can date your sampler to sometime between 1980 and 1985. If it was actually hand-stitched by professionals, it was probably a premium with limited distribution, perhaps for grocery-store owners who sold a lot of flour. It’s not very old, but hold onto it and take care of it. Don’t let bugs or the sun destroy the fabric or colors.

Q: When we cleaned out our warehouse in 1974, we found a partially assembled three-wheeled riding-horse toy. The horse’s body is molded plastic, but his legs are wooden. The riding base is metal. A child can pull the high front handle toward himself to move the horse forward and pump the footrest to turn the two back wheels. We also found the original assembly instructions, so we put the toy together using original and replacement parts. The instructions list the manufacturer as Hedstrom Union Co., Fitchburg, Mass., and Dothan, Ala. How old is the toy, and is it valuable?

A: The original manufacturer has survived corporate acquisitions and bankruptcy. Its name is now Hedstrom Corp., with headquarters in Arlington Heights, Ill. The company dates back to 1915 and was called Hedstrom Union from 1922 into the 1960s. Hedstrom Union made riding toys beginning in 1936, but your toy’s plastic frame is a clue to its age. Molded plastics were first used in the late 1930s to make baby bathtubs and a few toys. But the war years curtailed toy production, so your horse probably dates from the late 1940s or the 1950s. Collectors of riding toys don’t mind a few replacement parts, but the value of your toy depends on its overall condition.

Tips > Don’t wrap Christmas ornaments in newspaper, the ink might rub off. Don’t store them in plastic bags, moisture might condense and cause problems. Don’t store glass ornaments in a damp basement, mildew will cause damage.

Christmas Ornament Collecting and Buying

Predicting Christmas Ornament Collecting and Buying Trends for 2006 and 2007

For Christmas ornament collectors who want to know the ornaments that will be among the most sought after this fall, the author of “The Experts Guide To Collecting Ornaments” has some advice. “The ornament collecting hobby has changed a good bit since the 1990’s,” said author Harold Nicoll. “The collectors’ age, interests and situation in life will have a lot more to do with the ornaments they want and will buy. Popular culture and even the price of fuel will also affect ornament trends this Fall.”

Baby Boomers Still Lead Collectors > People of the Baby Boom generation are still the biggest collectors because they are the largest group and have the most money, compared with other population groups. “Baby boomers prosperity may mean they approach buying ornaments for their second and third homes, or as gifts or remembrances for their grandchildren,” Nicoll said. “They (boomers) will be less concerned about price and more interested in finding something eye catching and unique.”

Christmas Economics > How does the price of oil affect the price and availability of Christmas ornaments? “Since petroleum is the basis of plastics, the price of it will affect the price and availability of plastic ornaments,” Nicoll said. “But it is more likely the price of fuel will keep people home during the holidays, instead of driving or flying to visit friends or relatives. And if they stay choose to stay close to home, it is possible they will put some extra effort into decorating their homes.”

Home Size & Tree Size > Fuel and housing trends will affect the ornament business. Artificial tree sizes have been larger in recent years as people have purchased bigger homes and needed bigger trees to go in them. But the increase in oil prices could make high ceiling homes less appealing. “With the price of heating and cooling big homes going ever higher, people will likely buy smaller homes and therefore need smaller trees,” Nicoll said. “Smaller trees will need fewer ornaments and that will impact the business.”

So What To Buy? > Batman, Homer Simpson, and Eric Cartman are not traditional Christmas characters or even characters we strongly associate with Christmas like Charlie Brown, Snoopy or Rudolf. But characters from popular culture are important to ornament collectors.

“Cartoon characters and other cultural icons and licensed images created by well known artists are now part of the decorating and collecting scene,” Nicoll said. “A recognizable or well known name makes a big difference to collectors now more than it did a few years ago.”

Hot Ornament Predictions For Christmas ’06 > The Simpsons: The longest running animated show in history will spawn a feature length motion picture in the summer of 2007. The popular show will reach new heights of collectibility. All things Simpsons will be very popular in 2007.

Batman: The revived movie series from Warner Brothers has another movie in the works tentatively titled, “The Dark Knight.” Heath Ledger is signed to play The Joker in the second installment of the new series. Kurt Adler has a line of Batman ornaments that are faithful to the news series. It should prove popular.

Thomas Kincaid: Thomas Kincaid’s light drenched and nostalgic images are part of a brand new line of ornaments from Kurt Adler. People relate better too artists and artwork they know and recognize. There are entire ornament companies based on the work of a single artist. This will be the next big thing in ornaments.

To learn more about Christmas ornaments and how to build a better collection, go to www.ornamentcollectors.com