History Christmas Decorations

A few weeks ago, I made my annual pilgrimage to the garage to sift through the boxes and Rubbermaid bins filled to the brim with Christmas decorations from years past. My family and I started unpacking the boxes to decide which ornaments and other knickknacks would make this year’s decorative cut.

As I fumbled through the ornaments, lights, garland, nutcrackers, and other trinkets, I started to wonder if any of the generational hand-me-downs had any collectible value – other than the obvious sentimental value. My curiosity got the best of me, so I did a little digging to learn more about Christmas decorations – their origin, purpose, and overall collectability.

O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree

Glade jul

Glade jul by Viggo Johansen (1981)

Much like the carol, decorating a Christmas tree has its roots in German innovation. Traditionally adorned with edibles such as fruits and nuts, the custom of the Christmas tree (or Weihnachtsbaum in German) was developed in Germany in the late 15th to early 16th century, in which Christians brought trees into their homes and decorated them.

Like so many other German Christmas traditions, the practice of decorating a tree made its way to America in the early 1800s. To complement the fruits and nuts, strands of popcorn were introduced, and then candles… yes, candles. From that point on, decorations became more elaborate; none more prolific than the silver and pink aluminum Christmas trees of the 1950s. To add to the space-like allure of these aluminum trees, they rotated on an electric tree stand equipped with a rotating color wheel that would make the Jetsons envious. Believe it or not, these metallic creations are highly sought after by today’s collectors.

Glass Ornaments

Baubles

Hand blown German baubles

Always striving for innovation, German craftsmen evidently weren’t satisfied with just fruits and nuts as decoration. A glass artisan by the name of Hans Greiner, produced garlands of glass beads and tin figures that were a perfect complement to any tree worth it’s foliage. Soon enough, glassblowers were huffing and puffing glass creations (Baubles) of their own. However, I was rather disappointed to learn that many of the original ornaments were molded into the shape of… wait for it… wait for it… yep, fruits and nuts. So much for innovation huh Hans?!

Soon, all of Germany was snatching up Christmas glassware. So how did those glass ornaments make their way to America? Well capitalism of course! During a visit to Germany in the 1880s, the shiny glass baubles caught the eye of famed American retailer F.W. Woolworth. Ever the savvy businessman, he immediately began importing German glass to his five-and-dime stores in the United States. Most ornaments today are mass-produced, which is one reason why original German baubles are highly collectible.

Vintage Toy Catalogs

Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalogs

1950s Montgomery Ward Christmas Catalogs

For all of you advertising junkies out there, old toy catalogs can be quite a find. Iconic retailers like Sears and Montgomery Ward mailed annual Christmas toy catalogs to throngs of toy-thirsty children across the country. Valuable to both toy collectors and people who collect Christmas themed items; these catalogs represent all the accouterments of a nostalgic era for toys, advertising, and Christmas. If one needs convincing, a simple search on eBay or Amazon shows Montgomery Ward Christmas catalogs from the 30’s fetching nearly $200.

The Christmas Man: Santa Claus – An Advertiser’s Dream

Sinterklass

Sinterklass – Netherlands Santa Claus

Good ole’ jolly Sinterklass. Say what? The origin of Santa Claus goes back to the 4th century and Saint Nicholas of Myra (now Turkey). A Greek Christian Bishop, Saint Nicholas was known for his generous gifts to children and the poor. A few hundred years later, Dutch immigrants brought the folklore of Saint Nick to America. Having its own traditions (like making up words when we don’t understand what foreigners are trying to say), we (America) mispronounced the Dutch word “Sinterklass” as Santa Claus. That’s right; the closest ancestor to the modern day Santa Claus is Sinterklass of the Netherlands.

Advertisers quickly latched onto the benevolent character whose origins were steeped in charity. Although the image of Santa Clause was used to advertise products prior to Coca-Cola Company’s advertising in the 1930’s, no other brand has ever been so closely aligned with Saint Nick (I guess it’s appropriate that a diabetic, rosy-cheeked, portly man would be the face of Coca-Cola. Just stating the obvious here folks…). To this day, Santa Claus themed Coca-Cola products and advertisements have a strong collectible appeal.

Christmas Lights

Candle In Christmas Tree

German innovation in lighting.

Clark Griswold didn’t invent the Christmas lights, he just made them spectacularly awesome. One doesn’t have to think too hard to figure out where Christmas lights got their start – yep, the Germans. In addition to garland, fruit, nuts, and glass ornaments, the Germans suspected that their trees were still missing something… fire! So, they stuck lit candles to the branches of the tree.

For obvious reasons, candles were soon transitioned to a more secure position on the tree thanks to candleholders. While Thomas Edison was still trying to figure out that thing called electricity, the Griswold’s of the time turned to small lanterns and glass balls to hold their candles.

Although Thomas Edison was one of the first to invent lights on a strand, it wasn’t until 1917 that a teenager by the name of Albert Sadacca suggested that his family owned novelty lighting company should start selling strands of Christmas lights to the public.

The Christmas lights we see today, took their teardrop shape in the 1950’s and have remained relatively the same since.

Those Creepy Nutcrackers

Nutcrackers

Be afraid, very afraid.

I have to admit, these things have always creeped me out. A tall slender wooden man, with dead eyes, a scraggly goatee surrounding a large open mouth, and often times holding a large pointed medieval weapon will have that kind of effect on a young child.

Although the first metal nutcracker dates back to 300 and 400 BC, the more elaborate and decorative wooden nutcrackers were produced by… the Germans. In 1816, German (of course) author E.T. Amadeus Hoffmann wrote the novel “The Nutcracker and the King of Mice,” which is the novel that inspired the ballet “The Nutcracker” and Tchaikovsky’s famous score, “The Nutcracker Suite.”

U.S. GI’s returning from Germany after WW2, are largely credited with popularizing the nutcracker to America. However, the ballet and its music have since become a Christmas tradition throughout the world, helping sustain the popularity of nutcrackers today.

Hanging On

After a half-day odyssey exploring the history of Christmas decorations, I now have a better appreciation for why the heck I lug all of this stuff out of the garage every year. I’m also appreciative of the Germans for helping us move away from open flames, affixed to trees, inside our homes. So hang on to those hand-me-downs, you might just have some valuable Christmas history in your possession!

 

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