When I was young, perhaps seven or eight, I was given a Christmas ornament by someone I vaguely knew as my Godfather’s former wife. It was a delicate, white glass unicorn wearing a holly wreath around its neck. Although I had little connection to the giver, I had a sense that I must be pretty special to have received such a gift. Now, 30 years later, I recall that feeling each December when I remove it from its tissue paper and place it front and center on my tree. Someday, my daughter will own this ornament (she longingly eyes it each and every year) and, I hope, will feel that same sense of specialness.
My glass unicorn is what’s known as an heirloom ornament. And although the terms “heirloom” and “antique” are often used interchangeably, they are not always the same thing.
George Johnson, a national expert on antique Christmas collectibles and author of the multi-volume Christmas Ornaments, Lights and Decorations: A Collector’s Identification and Value Guide and Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments & Collectibles, said an heirloom ornament is different from an antique in that it may have been purchased at a modern-day retailer to commemorate special events, such as a child’s birth, a new home or a marriage.
Johnson, who lives in southeastern Ohio, began collecting Christmas ornaments and collectibles in 1971. He not only decorates his own home, but he also decorates three museums each holiday season, each with multiple rooms, trees and displays. How many ornaments does he own? “That question comes up a lot, and I’ve never counted. Let’s just say a lot.”
And whether your holiday decorating is old, new or something in-between, it’s never too early…or too late…to establish your own holiday decorating traditions.
The family heirloom
Robyn Salvin of Alplaus, has a number of Christmas heirlooms that mean a great deal to her. Growing up, she said decorating for the holidays was a family affair, and her mother took great pride in decorating their Niagara County farmhouse. She fondly remembers a stuffed Santa in what she said “can only be described as a satin, Spanx-inspired suit with a beard that looks like a blanket” and a pair of Christmas carolers made from garbage bags that stood on her family’s fireplace mantel.
“They’re not pretty. I’m pretty sure some of them are not even sanitary anymore,” Salvin said of her holiday treasures. “But they remind me of Saturday afternoons in the wintertime, with a fire blazing in the fireplace, and Christmas tunes playing in the background on the Canadian NPR station. And I would eye those garbage bag carolers hoping one day they would be mine.”
Her older sister has dibs on the garbage bag carolers, but Salvin gets to keep the memories, and she came away with her own assortment of heirlooms.
Among her collection is a green candle in a tin depicting scenes from a mouse family Christmas. She said her family never lit the candle, and, in keeping with tradition, it remains unlit to this day. She was also handed down a Christmas bell, also featuring a mouse family Christmas, which makes an appearance each Christmas, adorning her entertainment center. “My daughter loves it, and if she doesn’t break it before then, I fully expect that it will go to her when she gets her own place.”
Interested in starting your own Christmas heirloom collection? Look no further than local or online retailers, including Lenox, Hallmark and Things Remembered.
“An heirloom ornament doesn’t have to be old. It’s something that is passed down through the family,” Johnson said. “There is an emotional connection to it. You look at it on the tree and remember an event or a person.”
Everything old can be new again
Donna Pochaski-Thomas, owner of Vintage Chic Furniture on Union Street in Schenectady, mixes her antique ornaments with new ones. Each December, her most valuable piece, a forged, wrought-iron Christmas-tree stand from the early 1900s, holds a white tree loaded with new, antique and vintage ornaments that she’s been collecting her entire life.
“My mother used to take me to flea markets, thrift stores and antique stores. It’s really had an impact on my life,” Pochaski-Thomas said. Unfortunately, over the years she lost some heirlooms due to water damage, like a paper mache Santa from the 1940s.
She favors antique blown glass and mercury glass, and she often “upcycles” the ornaments, stringing them together with newer ornaments to make garlands that adorn her shop and her Stockade District brownstone.
She said her hunt for antique and vintage ornaments begins as early as July, when prices are lower and sellers are more willing to work out payment plans. Her favorite sources? Etsy, Ebay, local antique shops and Craig’s List. She’s even found antique ornaments in the trash on town cleanout days.
She sells some of her old-and-new creations in her shop, including ornaments made from old tin ceilings.
The antique…it’s new to you
Unlike many heirloom ornaments, an antique ornament or collectible is one that is at least 100 years old. “An antique can be an heirloom,” Johnson said, “but not all heirlooms are antiques.”
Antique ornaments and collectibles can be made from a variety of materials, including paper, fabric, metal and wax, although Johnson said glass ornaments, “have come to symbolize the Christmas ornament.”
He said that up until World War II, the Christmas ornament industry was a cottage industry largely centered in Lauscha, Germany—producing nearly 95 percent of the ornaments sold in the United States. Families made ornaments, called kugels, in their homes, and each family member had a role in the process—from glassblowing to painting to selling the finished product. After the war, Germany no longer had a stronghold on the market, and modern-day factories in Europe, North America and Asia began mass producing ornaments by the box full.
By most accounts, the F.W. Woolworth Company is credited with introducing glass Christmas ornaments to the US and spreading their popularity nationwide. According to Johnson’s Pictorial Guide to Christmas Ornaments & Collectibles, Woolworth is said to have sold hundreds of thousands of ornaments each year, making an estimated $25 million in the process.
The vast majority of antique ornaments range in price from tens to hundreds of dollars, although extremely rare ornaments have been known to reach the $1,000 mark.
Interested in collecting antique holiday ornaments and decorations? Many cities throughout the country host conventions, such as the annual Golden Glow of Christmas Past convention, catering to collectors on the hunt for antiques and vintage ornaments. Ebay, Etsy, flea markets, auction houses and estate sales are also excellent sources. Many local antique shops, such as the Ballston Spa Antique Center, also carry Christmas collectibles in a variety of price ranges.
The best advice Johnson can give to people interested in holiday antiques is simple: do your research. “Read books, and study photographs. The antique market is up and down, and these ornaments should not be thought of as an investment. If you like it and the price is right, and if you can afford it, then you should buy it. Whether it’s old or new doesn’t matter if you like it.”
How to spot antique ornaments
According to Canadian-based website, FromTimesPast.com,
here are some tips for finding authentic antique ornaments:
- Look for ornaments in soft colors with hand-painted details.
- Look for ornaments that are slightly smaller than today’s modern ornaments.
- Look for hand-blown ornaments by removing the stem from the ornament base. Hand-blown ornaments will have an uneven base rather than a clean break. Machine-made ornaments will have a smooth, even base.
- Look for names of companies or countries of origin on the stem. Modern-day ornaments are rarely marked.