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Christmas Baubles

December 24, 2014
by the gentle author

Each year on Christmas Eve, I bring in the tree at dusk,  fetch the box of old glass decorations from the roof to hang upon its boughs, and set to work, decorating the tree as darkness falls

I do not know when my grandmother bought this glass decoration and I cannot ask her because she died more than twenty years ago. All I can do is hang it on my tree and admire it gleaming amongst the deep green boughs, along with all the others that were once hers, or were bought by my parents, or that I have acquired myself, which together form the collection I bring out each year – accepting that not knowing or no longer remembering their origin is part of their charm.

Although I have many that are more elaborate, I especially admire this golden one for its simplicity of form and I like to think its ridged profile derives from the nineteen thirties when my mother was a child, because my grandmother took the art of Christmas decoration very seriously. She would be standing beech leaves in water laced with glycerine in October, pressing them under the carpet in November and then in December arranging the preserved leaves in copper jugs with teazles sprayed gold and branches of larch, as one of many contrivances that she pursued each year to celebrate the season in fastidious style.

Given the fragility of these glass ornaments, it is extraordinary that this particular decoration has survived, since every year there are a few casualties resulting in silvery shards among the needles under the tree. Recognising that a Christmas tree is a tremendous source of amusement for a cat – making great sport out of knocking the baubles to the ground and kicking them around like footballs – I hang the most cherished decorations upon the higher branches. Yet since it is in the natural course of things that some get broken every year and, as I should not wish to inhibit the curiosity of children wishing to handle them, I always buy a couple more each Christmas to preserve the equilibrium of my collection.

Everlasting baubles are available  – they do not smash, they bounce – but this shatterproof technological advance entirely lacks the poetry of these fragile beauties that can survive for generations as vessels of emotional memory and then be lost in a moment. In widespread recognition of this essential frailty of existence, there has been a welcome revival of glass ornaments in recent years.

They owe their origins to the glassblowers of the Thuringian Forest on the border of Germany and the Czech Republic where, in Lauscha, glass beads, drinking glasses, flasks, bowls and even glass eyes were manufactured since the twelfth century. The town is favoured to lie in a wooded river valley, providing both the sand and timber required for making glass and in 1847 Hans Greiner – a descendant of his namesake Hans Greiner who set up the glassworks in 1597 with Christoph Muller – began producing ornaments by blowing glass into wooden moulds. The inside of these ornaments was at first coloured to appear silvery with mercury or lead and then later by using a compound of silver nitrate and sugar water. In 1863, when a gas supply became available to the town, glass could be blown thinner without bursting and by the eighteen seventies the factory at Lauscha was exporting tree ornaments throughout Europe and America, signing a deal with F.W.Woolworth in the eighteen eighties, after he discovered them on a trip to Germany.

Bauble is a byword for the inconsequential, so I do not quite know why these small glass decorations inspire so much passion in me, keeping their romance even as other illusions have dissolved. Maybe it is because I collect images that resonate personally? As well as Father Christmas and Snowmen, I have the Sun, Moon and Stars, Clocks and even a Demon to create a shining poem about time, mortality and joy upon my Christmas tree. I cannot resist the allure of these exquisite glass sculptures in old-fashioned designs glinting at dusk amongst the dark needles of fir, because they still retain the power to evoke the rich unassailable magic of Christmas for me.

This pierrot dates from the  nineteen eighties.

Three of my grandmother’s decorations. The basket on the left has a piece of florists’ wire that she placed there in the nineteen fifties.

This snowman is one of the oldest of my grandmother’s collection.

Bought in the nineteen eighties, but possibly from a much older mould.

Baubles enhanced with painted stripes and glitter.

The moon, sun and stars were acquired from a shop in Greenwich Avenue on my first visit to New York in 1990, amazingly they survived the journey home intact.

These two from my grandmother’s collection make a fine contrast of colour.

Even Christmas has its dark side, this demon usually hangs at the back of the tree.

It is always going to be nine o’clock on Christmas Eve.

Three new decorations purchased at Columbia Rd recently.

A stash of glittering beauties, stored like rare eggs in cardboard trays.

My first bicycle, that I found under the tree one Christmas and still keep in my attic

39 Responses leave one →
  1. December 24, 2014

    oh my! i just put mine up and that mention of a greenwich ave. store is bringing up a rush of memories……i think i know just the one you mean…..happy christmas!

  2. Alex Knisely permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Wonderfully evocative. We grew up, I think, with the same Christmas trees and baubles — in different households.

  3. December 24, 2014

    A wonderful collection of baubles and memories. Love that old trike, too. Have a happy Christmas, Valerie

  4. Susan permalink
    December 24, 2014

    The devil’s head ornament reminded me of this terrific article, which recently appeared (watch the video, it’s both utterly terrifying and completely cool)

  5. lynne ellis permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Dear Gentle Author,
    Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,
    with love from
    Jim, June & Lynne McBarron xx

  6. Janice permalink
    December 24, 2014

    A wonderful account of the different baubles which hang on your tree. It evoked memories of my childhood in the EastEnd when me and my brother helped decorate the tree. Alas all those baubles have been broken over the years to be replaced by new ones. How I wish I had managed to save just one ! Merry Christmas to you and a big thank you for all your very interesting articles over the past year, not forgetting the book too !

  7. Dee Cornfield permalink
    December 24, 2014

    I still have many baubles exactly like some of yours. Even the cardboard trays are the same! They were always on the tree when I was a child so perhaps they are from the late 40’s or early 50’s.

  8. Jeanie Dee permalink
    December 24, 2014

    A little more Christmas magic coming your way and to all your followers, thank you for sharing once again a delightful story which I am sure bought many childhood memories of our own dear Grandmothers particularly at this time of year as she bustled round us all.

  9. December 24, 2014

    A very merry Christmas, Gentle Author and my best wishes for a very happy 2015.

  10. Jill permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Good to see that like us, you put the tree up on Christmas Eve, ours will have some old glass baubles from the 1950s from when my parents married.

    Happy Christmas

    ps it’s glycerine not gelatine for preserving the leaves, until I read about your grandmother I’d forgotten my mum used to do the same in the 1960s

  11. December 24, 2014

    Thank you so much for sharing these reflections of Christmases past through the fragile, at times ephemeral, vessels that contain and release their memory, like Proust’s petites madeleines.

    Sending kind thoughts and warmest wishes your way, across the great sea, for a beautiful Christmas.

  12. December 24, 2014

    Happy Christmas GA. lovely post and thank you for all you bring to us x

  13. Edward Kelly permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Perhaps your love for fragile baubles has inspired you to champion London’s fragile buildings. Merry Christmas, thanks for your daily emails.

  14. December 24, 2014

    A very Happy Christmas and New Year and thank you so much for such an interesting year’s read. Best wishes Ann Meacher

  15. Victoria permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Happy Christmas GA and Mr Pussy. Just the account to wake up to on Christmas Eve. Nostalgia and tradition, a world away from christmas commercialism. I too have one or two of these baubles from my grandmother’s collection. I remember my mother telling me when I was small how the yellow pear drop shaped one was part of a box of six pear drops of different colours that had been bought at Woolworth’s. Thinking now of my mother, I’m looking forward to giving her a copy of Spitlefields Nippers as her Christmas gift tomorrow, such a wonderful book.
    Victoria x

  16. Jill permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Thank you, GA, for your kind and evocative words throughout the year. Wishing you a happy Christmas and all the best for the new year.

  17. December 24, 2014

    Happy Christmas xxx

  18. paddy kerr permalink
    December 24, 2014

    LOVELY pics of baubles to wake up to on this Boxing morning – thank you Paul.

    Have a GREAT Christmas and New Year.

    Is your beautiful black cat still around? I do hope so – I have missed a few blogs so not sure where he is up to.


  19. December 24, 2014

    +++ JOYEUX NOËL ET BONNE ANNÉE 2015 ! +++

    Love & Peace

  20. December 24, 2014

    marvellous memories stored in the decorations, merry Christmas and thanks for sharing the memories 🙂

  21. December 24, 2014

    +++ JOYEUX NOËL ET BONNE ANNÉE 2015 ! +++

    Love & Peace

  22. Roger Tiller permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Brought tears to my eyes, i remember those so much, they where around 6d each in the early mid fifties properly from Woolworths.
    I’ve still got mine from those days.

  23. Gary Arber permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Fragile memories from youth, treasured but you have to take the risk of displaying them.
    I have an 8 inch high lightbulb in the shape of Father Christmas which was designed to fit in a batten lampholder in an upright position, it dates from my childhood in 1933. the filament is still intact but I cannot risk lighting it as the voltage in those days was 210 volts.
    A Happy Christmas to you, Gentle Author and to Spitalfields Life readers all over the world.

  24. Neville Turner permalink
    December 24, 2014

    A good collection of tree decorations they almost seem like remembered family friends looking forward to a new year. Best Wishes Keep up the good work.

  25. Jane permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Happy Christmas wishes…
    So much to be enjoyed in these intriguing, serendipity Christmas decorations.
    Savouring and finding joy in a recent copy of “Spitalfields Life” ~~ best discovered book this year.
    Much appreciation,

  26. rae donaldson permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to the Gentle Author. I’m a recent discoverer of the blog but it hasn’t taken long to become a daily habit. Looking forward to more elegantly written and beautifully illustrated London lore in 2015!

  27. Mary Ellen Miller permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Thank you for summarizing my feelings toward my Christmas tree decorations, so beautifully. I too collect them and have many special ones that date to the 1800’s from my grandmother. I also buy special decorations when travelling the world. I refer to my tree as a Tree of Memories. Merry Christmas!

  28. Molly Porter permalink
    December 24, 2014

    I shared today’s feature with my sister Liz in America, and she wrote back, Oh wonderful! Now I’d like to see his tree all decorated!

    Perhaps tomorrow we shall?

  29. Yvonne Neblett permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Dear Gentle Author

    What would I do without my daily read..thank you for every one of them, especially this particularly evocative one. I loved my baubles but sadly they are no more like most of my loved ones.
    Have a peaceful and very happy Christmas and a healthy New Year.

    From Yvonne

  30. Debra Matheney permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Dear GA and Mr. Pussy,

    Have a wonderful Christmas. Thanks to you for all the joy your blog brings into the lives of your readers.
    I have Christmas ornaments from the 1940’s, which decorated my newly married parents’ first tree and from my childhood in the 50’s. Like you, I treasure unpacking all the Christmas baubles and finding just the right spot on the tree for each one. So many memories are evoked. I have a Big Ben and a double decker bus to remind me of all my happy times in London. I added a Tardis this year as I am a long standing fan of Peter Capaldi and an ornament of the 6 novels of Jane Austen. Happy Christmas from an Anglophile in California.

  31. Judith Haxton permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Love that you decorate your tree with these beautiful ornaments on Christmas Eve !!!!. Happy Christmas from Canada to you and all your readers.

  32. Pauline Taylor permalink
    December 24, 2014

    Merry Christmas and a very Happy New Year Gentle Author to you and Mr Pussy. How lucky you are to still have all those lovely baubles for your tree with all those happy memories. You have reminded me of how things used to be in Woolworth’s in the run up to Christmas, so different to all the over packaged cards and decorations we have now. My mother and I used to look at all the Christmas cards displayed on an open counter, everybody turned them all over searching for exactly the right one to send to each relative and friend, and then, of course you had to find an envelope that would fit!! Do you remember those lovely paper decorations shaped as bells and balls and so on, whatever happened to them.

    I too have special decorations for my tree including some German ones sent to me from my German friend Sieglinde who so sadly died just before Christmas two years ago. They all bring back memories.

    Frohe Weihnachten und ein gutes Neues Jahr Achim!!

    Happy Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year to all fellow Spitalfieldslife


  33. Jill permalink
    December 24, 2014

    What lovely memories. Since my dad died eight years ago we have decorated our tree on Christmas Eve with my mum while listening to the service of nine lessons and carols on the radio.

    Thank you for all your wonderful insights and stories through the year. A very Happy Christmas.

  34. Patty/NS permalink
    December 25, 2014

    Beautiful glass tree decorations. Wishing you a wonderful Christmas! I have thoroughly enjoyed your blog posts all year.

  35. Annie permalink
    December 25, 2014

    What a magical collection! And I have some very similar at home, passed to me by my mother for safekeeping. They come out every year and still have the power to make me young again. I hope you and Mr P enjoy their twinkling joy in the firelight and that 2015 brings you all you wish. A merry Christmas to you and all readers of this sublime blog.xx

  36. Elizabeth cornwell permalink
    December 25, 2014

    I still have some glass baubles that my parents bought in1949 when my father was stationed in Germany.Like yours they do tend to get fewer each year but I love them as they are part of my childhood!I dont hang them up tho as they are too much of a temptation for the cat!I lie them on the mantelpiece.Happy Christmas to you & Mr Pussy.

  37. December 25, 2014

    Thank you for the lovely post, and the memories of those old glass decorations and their treasure-chest boxes. You’ve brought back happy thoughts of my own childhood Christmas Eves.

  38. Nina Archer permalink
    December 25, 2014

    …. perfect Christmas article, thank you Gentle Author ….. wishing you a Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy 2015 ….

  39. Peter bailey permalink
    December 25, 2014

    Another great post, beautifully written.
    A Happy Christmas to you.

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