When it comes to decorating a Christmas tree these days, several traditional items are used. A star or an angel is usually placed on the very top of the tree, and draped around it is a set of brightly colored Christmas lights...sometimes two or more strings are used. Tinsel can be draped over the pine needles, and completing the adornment of the tree are those wonderful little ornaments... the glass balls and figurines that can honor dates, symbolize events, or simply provide a pleasant feature for the eye to admire.
Ornaments have been hung on Christmas trees since the tradition of erecting those trees first began. The modern custom began in Germany in the 1600s, and had spread around the Western world by the 19th century.
Ornaments could consist of anything an artisan could create. In 1886, for example, a typical Christmas tree in the United States would be hung with "every kind of gilt hanging-thing, from gilt pea-pods to butterflies on springs. There were shining flags and lanterns, and bird-cages, and nests with birds sitting on them, baskets of fruit, gilt apples, and bunches of grapes." These ornaments would have been made of very detailed embossed cardboard.
To the collector of vintage and antique decorations, an ornament is anything from a ball - a ball made of blown glass, (or more often than not of plastic in today's world), and brightly colored, with or without an additional design - to various kinds of figurines: depictions of religious scenes or characters, Christmas icons such as Santa Claus, to generic items such as figurines of athletes or cartoon characters!
Glass ornaments were first produced in 1847, in Lauscha, Germany by a glassblower named Hans Greiner. Rather than spheres, these original pieces were in the shape of fruit and nuts. Special compounds coated the inside of these decorations to make them reflective. These ornaments proved popular and Greiner soon had competition from other glass blowers in the area.
In the 1880s, the American F. W. Woolworth (owner of Woolworth's Five and Dime stores) visited Germany and discovered these ornaments, which he began to import. They became hugely popular throughout the country, and remained so even though supplies from Germany were cut off during World War I.
Japan began exporting Christmas ball ornaments in 1925, as did Czechoslovakia. Indeed, manufacturers in the United States didn't start making these kinds of ornaments until 1939. Glass Christmas ball ornaments continued to be made until the 1960s, when plastic ones came into use.
Collecting Christmas ornaments has been popular for decades, so much so that their value has steadily increased and their availability has decreased. Vintage and antique collectors therefore spread their nets far and wide to find new examples of this craft.
How can you tell vintage ornaments from modern day ones?
Vintage ornaments are typically smaller and much thinner than ones produced today. They were usually done in soft pastels, with carefully hand painted details.
Antique ornaments were hand blown, rather than machine made. If you remove the stem from the base of the ornament, and check that base, you'll see that hand blown ornaments have an uneven base whereas machine made ornaments will have a smooth base.What's the symbolism involved in some of the Christmas ornaments used in the past?
The star, usually placed at the top of the tree, of course represents the Star of Bethlehem.
The lights represent the stars of heaven.
Fruit and vegetable shapes symbolize the harvest. Birds represented messengers from the Bible, and were also symbolic of good luck and good fortune. The fish shape is an early Christian symbol for Christ.
During Victorian times, at least one reflective ornament was typically placed on the tree. Called a "Witch's Eye", it was supposed to ward off evil spirits.
Antique and vintage Christmas ornaments are typically stored away for most months of the year, and then taken out to be proudly displayed during the Christmas season. These fragile spheres of blown glass, or sculpted pieces of wood and plastic, adorn the tree with a double meaning, both with their sheer beauty and of the history behind them.
And each year as another Christmas passes by, each of those ornaments adds yet another layer of history to its story.
For the serious collector of vintage & antique ornaments, Christmas is the absolute best time of the year!