I both dread and anticipate trimming our Christmas tree. Dread comes from the tedious business of setting it up and putting on the lights — we use multi-colored bulbs, so we need a LOT of them to illuminate the tree to my satisfaction. Anticipation comes from knowing I will soon pull out our ornaments. I’ve had some of mine for decades now, thanks to my mother’s forethought. From our first Christmases, she gave my sisters and me each a special ornament every year. I have a Christmas keepsake for every year of my life. I continued this tradition for my husband starting the year we married, and later for our children. Opening the boxes is like greeting friends you only see once a year.
Most of the ornaments are quite ordinary, purchased at Woolworth’s (when I was a girl), WalMart, Target, Hobby Lobby…you get the idea. The only thing that makes them remarkable are the names and years carefully written on each one where they won’t be easily noticed.
There’s no theme involved either; ornaments are usually selected to suit the owner’s likes and interests. As a result, our tree is a glorious mish-mash. Ballerinas dance out of the way of the Klingon Bird of Prey, miniature ice skates dangle near a porcelain cat and a reproduction glass penguin, while teapots are grouped between sparkly birds and Santas.
The angel ornament pictured at the top of this article is my very first ornament, purchased even before my first birthday. Others remind me of special people or places, like the porcelain pointe shoe given to me as a teenager by a friend of my mother’s who knew of our custom.
Several years later, she included another that would turn out to be one of my favorites in our wedding gift, pictured to the right. It reminds me of our wedding day every time I look at it.
Over the years, I’ve learned a few things about the history of Christmas tree ornaments. The first ornaments in Germany were fruits, often apples, and nuts. Later this progressed to gingerbread ornaments in a variety of shapes. Until the middle of the nineteenth century, ornaments depended on the creativity of individuals. Once the tree was brought in and set up on a table, families used materials at hand to craft that year’s ornaments. Decoratiosn included baked goods, paper cutouts, pretty pictures from magazines, angles or snowflakes made of lace scraps. Chains of shiny paper glued together with flour-and-water paste were used in Germany and England, while Americans made use of their native popcorn and cranberries to make garlands.
Glassmakers in the area of Lauscha, Germany created the first commercial ornaments. They molded glass stars, hearts and animals, then painted the glass in bright colors. The luminous decorations became tremendously popular and a new industry was born. Die-cut ornaments of thick printed and embossed paper also hung on Christmas trees.
Here, a reproduction glass ornament on the left hangs next to one from the Second World War. To save on metal during the war, balls were made of clear glass and decorated with non-metallic paint. Stripes were a common motif. Look carefully at the metal necks of each ornament. Those on reproduction ornaments are bright and and embossed. The metal on vintage ornaments are plain and have dulled over the years.
Some ornaments represent mistakes. I learned the hard way NEVER to promise your three-year-old that she can pick out her own ornament. Despite trying to distract her with some really adorable alternatives, the child in question insisted on this one:Yes Virginia, it looks like I have a giant Hostess Snowball hanging on my tree. My daughter still insists on placing it right in front. I keep trying to get the cats to play with it, but so far the damn thing has proved indestructible.
It’s fun to use found objects as ornaments. The teddy bear in the picture below arrived on a Christmas package years ago. I couldn’t resist displaying him on the tree! The paper heart demonstrates one way to use up scraps of wrapping paper. I have one made by each of my girls when they were young.
Speaking of which, this one was a 45th birthday present from my youngest. She now begs me to get rid of it every year when I pull it out, but I cherish it. She doesn’t yet understand how her hand-painted popsicle sticks mean as much to me as the little angel purchased by my mother so long ago.
Thanks for joining me in a look at some of my treasures. Do you have a favorite ornament or other holiday object? What is the coolest or prettiest tree you’ve seen? I have a small winter goody bag for one lucky commenter! I’ll announce the winner on December 22nd.