CHRISTMAS ORNAMENTS ORIGINATED IN GERMANY IN EARLY 19TH CENTURY
Vintage Christmas Ornaments. Photo courtesy of Rosemary McKittrick.
Frost seeps through the window pane like butter over freshly baked bread. The fireplace crackles and spits. A distinct Christmas tree aroma fills the room. The fireplace, tree lights and decorations announce the arrival of yet another holiday season.
Christmas is here.
The tradition of decorated Christmas trees goes back about 100-years. The use of greens and plants for celebration dates even further back to the Egyptians. Evergreens signified the perpetuation of life and a promise of rebirth in the spring for the Egyptians.
Most ancient religions shared some belief in the sacredness of trees. For the Druids it was the oak tree. The Chinese cherished the willow. For the Romans it was the fig tree. They also used holly, mistletoe, pine and juniper in their celebration of Saturnalia.
The holiday was celebrated from Dec. 17-24 and was dedicated to Saturn, the god of agriculture. Houses were decorated with greenery. There were torchlight processions, and gift giving governed the empire.
Christmas trees in this country date back to 16th century Germany where the Yule tree evolved as a strong native tradition.
Lauscha, in the Thuringian Mountains was the center for German glass-making. The craftsmen would blow glass balls to amuse themselves and see how large they could make them.
By the 1820s, workers were silvering the inside of the balls with lead or zinc and using them as Christmas tree decorations. In 1848, the first order for Weihnachtsbaum Kugeln, (Christmas tree balls) appeared in the Lauscha glass blower’s order book, and a cottage industry was born.
Everyone in the village took part in the production. The men blew the balls. The women did the silvering. The children applied the paint, and lacquer and added the caps. Making Christmas balls became the number one product in the village.
In the autumn of 1880 a German importer offered a selection of Christmas balls to a dime-store merchant in America named Frank Woolworth. Woolworth purchased $25 worth.
“In two days,” Woolworth later said, “they were gone, and I woke up.” Ten years later Woolworth was ordering that many blown-glass ornaments a year and visiting the village of Lauscha in person to place his order. New York’s Washington Market sold about 200,000 Christmas trees the same year.
In 1895 the Whitehouse Christmas tree was electrified for the first time by the Cleveland administration, and an interest in electrified trees spread across America.
By 1900, the German glass blowers were producing not only Christmas balls but all kind of sculptured ornaments such as fruits, vegetables, fish, fowl, storybook characters, and animals. No one knows for sure how many designs they produced, the estimate is around 5,000. By the 1920s, they added automobile and airplane figural ornaments for their American customers.
“The average collector of Christmas ornaments has a little bit of everything,” says George Johnson. “They see themselves as rescuing old ornaments from the attic and giving them new life.”
Johnson has been collecting Christmas memorabilia for 26-years and has authored a three volume text entitled "Christmas Ornaments, Lights and Decorations" published by Collector Books in Paducah, Kentucky.
“Old ornaments are all about childhood and memories,” he added.
Johnson estimates he has about 5,000 ornaments in his own collection. Many of which adorn his 11-foot Christmas tree every year. His hobby started when he ran a small ad for old ornaments in a hometown newspaper.
Like most other collectibles, Christmas tree ornaments experienced their own heyday. The Golden Age of Christmas ornaments started shortly after World War I and lasted until the beginning of World War II. You could buy exquisite hand-blown ornaments during this time for 5 cents a piece or less. The serious collector today is looking for Christmas ornaments from that era.
After World War II, American tastes changed and instead of buying single ornaments, people purchased machine made decorations by the boxes.
“You can find Christmas ornaments today made out of glass, cardboard, plastic, paper, wax, silk, cotton, wool, etc.,” says Johnson.
Age, condition, rarity, size and uniqueness are the factors at play in valuation. Many old ornaments were packed away carefully in the attic. So it’s not that difficult to find some in good condition. If, by chance you find ornaments in poor condition, don’t clean them. The paints used back then were water based, and the paint will wash off.
“The fancier the better,” says Johnson. “The more decorative, the more value. Molded ornaments such as doll heads, people and animals are especially collectible. But they have to be in good condition. Those in good condition can bring as much as $300 or more.”
“If you decide to sell your antique ornaments, pick out the ones that have family memories and keep them,” says Johnson. “It’s impossible to replace those memories.”
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