As the Holiday and Christmas Season approaches – we recall with childlike glee our excitement and sentimental memories of Christmases past. It is time to deck the halls, put candles in the window, polish the silver and trim the tree. Most of us somewhere along the line have developed a favorite ornament, motif or family tradition that has become part of our annual tree trimming and decorative holiday traditions.
The Christmas tree itself is not a religious symbol per se but like all traditions surrounding Christmas has evolved over the centuries, into the decorative tradition that we celebrate today. A look beneath the surface and a little research into the history and meaning behind many of the ornaments and customs we use today reveals all sorts of things about our ancestors and about us. It is my hope that this article will bring forgotten memories of favorite ornaments to your recollection and instill a new appreciation for such lovely works of art – each with their own unique story to tell.
Collectible ornaments have become one of the most treasured and important parts of our holiday celebrations. Amazingly, there are ornaments for every event in life, every occasion and every motif imaginable. But what about the collectible ornaments of old?
No article about collectible Christmas ornaments can be complete without a little history on the use of the tannenbaum (fir tree). Evergreens have played an important role in the lives of people in every age from the most ancient of cultures to the present day.
Ancient Scandinavians and other Europeans brought evergreens indoors during the winter solstice to symbolize life in the midst of death and the promise of spring after the death of winter. In parts of Scandinavia, apples were often tied to the branches of fir trees to remind them that spring and summer would soon return with a continued fruitful harvest. Fruits, cones and nuts were the very first ornaments ever used.
The ancient Germans brought living evergreen trees into their homes during the Feast of Yule. Beginning in November, each year, these ancient Germanic cultures would bring a fir tree (tannenbaum) indoors, which had been planted in a tub to keep it alive for the two month period of Yule.
The ancient Romans exuberantly “decked their halls” with garlands of laurel, evergreens and trees lit with candles during the “Kalends” of January.
The Christmas Tree in Europe, England and America!
In 1521 the first recorded use of a “Christmas” tree took place in the German Region of Alsace. Years later (in 1605) an unknown citizen of Strasburg wrote that Christmas trees were used widely in Strasburg as “resident’s set-up fir trees in their parlors.” Martin Luther, the great reformer, is often credited with being the first person to illuminate a Christmas tree, which is another story for another day.
In England the uniquely Christmas tree was also slow to catch on. The Puritans, who had begun to take a foothold in England, frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and the use of Christmas trees, which had become an established custom throughout Germany and other parts of Europe.
Although the celebration of Christmas was permitted at Jamestown and recorded by Captain John Smith, it was not celebrated by the Puritans who arrived at Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1620. Following the lead of Oliver Cromwell, who had outlawed the celebration of Christmas in England in 1645, the celebration of Christmas was outlawed in Boston and anywhere the Puritans had a foothold from 1659 – 1681. If caught exhibiting any Christmas spirit or observance, violators were fined five shillings. Now that’s a bah-humbug!
Although Cromwell had banished the celebration of Christmas from England, it did return years later, after his death, along with Charles II, who returned to England from exile in France. This too is a fascinating story for another time.
In the United States the first “American” Christmas trees were brought by Germans who settled in Pennsylvania. It is recorded that German and Dutch communities in Pennsylvania had community Christmas trees as early as 1747. During the American Revolution it was also reported that Hessian Soldiers set up Christmas trees in their camps.
The Hanoverian Kings of England, who presided over the Georgian era, beginning with George I through George V, were not terribly popular in England. Queen Victoria, however, was a completely different story. She was so loved that a completely new era in British history now bears her name.
In 1846 an illustration was published in the London News which showed Queen Victoria (a quite popular and loved queen), Prince Albert of Saxony and their children gathered around a table top tree at Windsor Castle. As a result, the English people adopted the use of Christmas trees and created a brand new industry as the demand for German made glass balls and other hand blown ornaments was born. The Victorians took the Christmas tree to a whole new level.
Early Glass Ornaments and Their Makers
German natives living in northern Bohemia (now part of Czechoslovakia) during the dark ages were instructed in the art of fine glass blowing by traveling Venetian traders who had elevated fine blown glass to an absolute art form.
The production of glass beads and ornaments began in Germany in the 1500s as these artisans produced balls
and other items to decorate their own fir trees for the winter solstice and annual Yule festival. They produced many items besides glass balls (kugels). Like most successful businesses, antique glass blown ornaments began as a simple cottage industry. The families and apprentices of skilled artisans worked together to create these masterpieces which are highly sought after by serious collectors.
It is interesting to note that although kugels have become synonymous with Christmas, they were first used in 17th century England and in the American Colonies during the 18th century as “witch balls”. The thought behind this passive device was that witches detested orbs or balls which would cause them to flee. Another thought popular at this time was that witches were attracted to reflective objects. The beautifully colored reflective balls would hence attract the witches and trap them inside. The witch ball covered it all! If they didn’t flee, they were snatched up, never to be seen again!
The Italians also produced beautiful balls for hanging indoors but had a much more positive view of them as bringing in light and happiness inside.
Witch balls were suspended from the ceiling and hung by window openings in homes, places of commerce, school houses and in churches. Besides having a specific purpose they were obviously beautiful to look at and brought much needed color and light into an otherwise bland interior. It is intriguing to me that witch balls were so widely embraced. Were it not for the obsession with superstitions and other erroneous beliefs of the day early kugels would probably never have achieved the status that they did. As the witches had finally been dealt with, people began to use kugels as a form of decoration and for the pure pleasure of it.
At this point, kugel makers began to silver the interiors of their ornaments which set them apart from all other ornaments of the past. The brilliant colors and perfectly silvered background of these opulently simple glass balls must have seemed mesmerizing at the very least and surely brought great joy to their owners. Imagine a grouping of these opulent orbs hanging in your window or on your tree. They are a glorious sight even today. Whether “witch balls” ever trapped or repelled witches or just had a profound placebo effect is left up to you to decide. I’m sure the kugel makers were laughing all the way to the bank!
Glass Balls and Silver Linings
Aged silver is exceptionally beautiful and has a depth that cannot be enhanced by anything but time. With this in mind the king of all antique glass ornaments can be none other than the kugel. The word “kugel” is German for the word ball or sphere. They were being produced as ornaments by 1820 in Lauscha, Germany. Later, in the 1840s decorative and functional brass caps were added to prevent the silver on the inside from oxidizing. This also made them easier to hang on the tree. Kugels can still be found in sizes ranging from ” to 8” in diameter and larger. The most common sizes used as Christmas ornaments were 2” to 4”.
It’s What’s in the Glass, Not on It!
What sets an antique kugel apart from all other ornaments is that the color of the glass is in the glass itself rather than painted or flashed on the glass. Trace minerals and metals were added to the glass itself, which yielded the opulent and luxurious colors of the kugel. No mechanized process could ever produce the effects that the original kugel makers were able to achieve.
Colors such as: aquamarine, dreamy light blue, dark sapphire or cobalt blue, silver, silvered green, blue-green, lavender, purple, emerald, lime, copper, moss and olive green, deep gold, pale gold, varying shades of pink, ruby red and bright orange reflect light like no other. Truly all that glitters with regard to Christmas is much more than gold and truly does has a silver lining! For almost one hundred years German kugels set the standard.
Kugels were eventually produced in France as Vergo Glassworks, which began blowing lighter and more richly textured kugels with the addition of several colors such as pink, purple, red and orange. Purple was the least favorite color of the Victorians but the most sought after by collectors today due to its rarity. French kugels were produced from the 1920s to the 1930s.
Buy what you like for use on your tree, however if you are going to collect kugels, be sure to deal with a reputable seller and learn to identify a genuine kugel from a reproduction. Kugels have endured the test of time. The ball or sphere is the most common shape to be found, followed by grape clusters. Egg, pears and tear drop shapes were also produced along with artichokes, mushroom shapes, berry clusters, pinecones and other hand and mold blown shapes.
Silver is the most common color, for obvious reasons followed by gold, lime-green, sapphire, cobalt blue and dark pink. Dark green, moss and olive as well as copper and aquamarine are next in the degree of rarity. Dark red, orange and amethyst are the rarest of all surviving colors. Be sure to invest only in kugels whose interior lining is still intact and has not begun to deteriorate, which can be seen from the outside.
Dresden ornaments were produced in the Dresden-Leipzig area of Germany and are wonderfully whimsical ornaments – perfectly suited for sweet dreams and the joy of childhood wishes. They were produced in an endless array of shapes, sizes and usually gilded, silvered or hand painted. Dresden ornaments were made from dampened cardboard that was die-pressed.
After drying, they were taken home by workers, assembled and finished. Many of us have seen present day ornaments in the shape of harps, lyres, musical notes, angels, rocking horses and the like hanging on our trees or in the stores during the Christmas season. Usually made of painted or glittered wood or plastic, they are patterned after the lovely Dresden ornaments of old. Dresden ornaments were made between 1880 and 1910. They are so rare that most of us will never see one.
Victorian Glass Ornaments
The high Victorian era produced many of the devices, traditions and rules for etiquette that we still use today. Everything they invented or rule that they stipulated, served a purpose. In keeping with high Victorian dictates if it was to be used and displayed it had better be larger than life and exquisitely crafted. This was also known as the gilded age in America.
The Victorians introduced and made popular the floor to ceiling tree. In keeping with the opulent decorating style of the day, they covered as much of the tree as possible with ornaments of every shape, color and size. Themed trees also became popular during this time. Due to the sheer number of ornaments to be placed on the tree, it was necessary for them to be lighter in weight. The opulently painted, gilded and wire wrapped ornaments of the Victorian era reflected the tastes of the day. Like the kugels of yesteryear, they are a lovely addition to any tree.
Handcrafted Pennsylvania Dutch Ornaments
The families who lived in Pennsylvania Dutch country began creating lovely homespun ornaments for sale in the 1870s. They are uniquely American and were made with whatever materials were presently on hand during their creation. With the westward expansion and the establishment of homesteads – they fit right in with the pure country décor of many Americans. These ornaments, if you can find them, are charming and could easily be made by anyone which accounts for their popularity to the present day. Many of us probably have wooden or fabric ornaments similar to these on our own trees that we or loved ones have made.
Italian Glass Ornaments
No article on ornaments could be complete without mentioning the Italians who made some of the most whimsical and truly creative ornaments ever made from hand blown glass. The Italians were the creators of many forms of art glass. Venetian glass in all its forms is still created and sought after by collectors.
These Italian ornaments were patterned after all sorts of animals, people of the day, fairytale figures, and more. The glass blower’s imagination was the only limit to their creativity. They are adorable. I remember some of these ornaments and kugels on my grandparent’s tree – so many years ago. Whatever became of them I do not know – but they were charming indeed. Faux hair was used on people, fur used where needed for manes on lions and so on. Feathers were even used where it was applicable. The Italians brought the use of glass, paint and natural fibers to a whole new level. Early Italian ornaments are marked with the word “Italy”. Later ornaments included a card or attached tag with the name of the manufacturer included with the ornament.
The Post World War II Era in America
As World War II had forever changed the American psyche – the nation was on the verge of an economic explosion that had never been seen before. With a renewed sense of national pride, “Americans” wanted to purchase items made in America as they set out to make their fortunes and change the world. Fine European ornaments that had been used and cherished for generations were no longer “fashionable”. They were packed away into boxes and relegated to attics, garages and basements in favor of American made ornaments.
New materials such as plastic were lightweight and easily molded into all sorts of shapes. These newcomers were mass produced in great numbers. Everything was mass produced – even hamburgers! The assembly line was now king. Being virtually indestructible they were made of Styrofoam, aluminum, plastic and other non-breakables. Some
of these manufacturers are still in existence such as Noma, Brite Star
and Shiny Bright.
The Longing for Traditions and Collectible Ornaments Today
American designers such as the Merck family and Christopher Radko, along with a handful of others in the U.S. and abroad have resurrected the fine art of hand blown glass Christmas ornaments by popular demand. These ornaments are produced in European facilities using the same time honored traditions of the German, Italian and Victorian ornament makers. Each one is hand blown or mold blown using quality materials and is a masterpiece in its own right. They will be the heirlooms of tomorrow.
The Faberge Imperial Collection of ornamental Christmas ornaments are my favorites to date. They are still made in Poland and Czechoslovakia, just as they have been for years. They have increased in popularity in recent years with the resurgence with the Faberge exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in Richmond and our fascination with the last Czars of Russia.
In Closing…Give the Gift of Remembrance
Over the years I have given and I have received some of these most beautiful ornaments ever made, or so I’d like to think. Some were made by artisans and others made by friends and children. I treasure each one received for their reminder to me of the giver and timeless moments shared. Some of my most treasured ornaments were given to
me by dear friends over a lifetime who are no longer with me. Each of these precious ornaments has memories tied
to them. Each year they are new all over again!
My brother and I have always enjoyed this part of Christmas. Now he shares it with his family and I share it with mine. These are special times when moments created in an instant are treasured for a lifetime. Don’t miss out on the opportunity to make yourself unforgettable or let someone else know how much you treasure them. You may never have another chance to seize the day. Let someone know you love them, admire them, appreciate or are grateful for their presence in your life.
This holiday season, I hope you will find time for enjoying annual traditions and perhaps making new ones with your dearest friends and family. May you enjoy the company of those you love most, remember those who are alone or in need and give the gift that keeps on giving. An ornament given or received is truly the gift of remembrance.