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Christmas Glass Baubles

December 28, 2021
by the gentle author

If any of my readers would care to join me for a socially-distanced guided walk through the history of Spitalfields on New Year’s Day at noon please drop a line to

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 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 flight 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

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

Russian cosmonauts from the sixties that I bought in Spitalfields Market this year

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

16 Responses leave one →
  1. December 28, 2021

    I have some of those more recent ones in my own collection. I started buying a few mercury glass ornaments each year since I moved out of my parent’s house until I developed quite a collection. I haven’t hung them in years as I’ve been putting up (and taking down) their tree for over a decade. Some of theirs date to the 50s and perhaps a few older ones from my Mom’s parents. I love the charm of the older ornaments even if they are faded, scratched of a more simple design.

    We have other holiday “baubles” not related to tree ornaments. We have cookie cutters that are over 65 years old and recipes even older. We also have a paper and wax Angel and some small Santa figurines. We have quite a few holiday treasures of varying eras. My parent’s purchased an extensive hand carved wood nativity on a trip to Germany in the late 60s. One of my favorite baubles is a plain red ball my parent’s purchased in the 60s when they bought a tall tree and didn’t have enough ornaments to fill it. In those days the bulbs were large and burned very hot. This one was put way too close to one of those bulbs and it burned the red paint to a matte brown. I call it the chocolate ball and my Mother hates it so I would have to hang it on the back where she couldn’t see it. Now that I am in charge of the tree I make sure it is on it every year, even though the trees have gotten smaller and small each year.

  2. Joan Isaac permalink
    December 28, 2021

    Christmas bittersweet memories – a visual feast and wonderful evocative writing – thank you

  3. Sally Bernard permalink
    December 28, 2021

    Poignant memories ,I understand and often wonder who will appreciate mine when I’m gone.

  4. December 28, 2021

    Lots of memories there GA, for you and bringing their own back to your readers. We had an eclectic mix of things. Giant 19th C baubles as fragile as those made of soap, which have always puzzled me as I’m convinced no one in the family then ever had a tree big enough, or perhaps they just seemed huge to me as a child. Original Victorian strawberries with all the colours gone and mercury glass left. Things from every later period including those made at school by us.

    I was tempted by a cosmonaut figure this year too! I hope that you had a wonderful Christmas and wish you a good New Year.

  5. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    December 28, 2021

    Would you post a photograph of the decorated tree, please. It would be lovely to see all these beautiful glass baubles hanging on it.

  6. December 28, 2021

    No wonder you collect them, they’re beautiful. So delicate, so fragile. Thank you.

  7. December 28, 2021

    I love seeing your collection. I suspect they would love to see your bike at The Repair Shop show.

  8. December 28, 2021

    What a wonderful way to extend the holiday spirit! I love this post, with the almost-tactile photos. Your array of delicate ornaments remind me of ones we had when I was a kiddo —
    I think many of them had been handed down to my mother from her folks, who came from Bohemia. And, of course, at that time one could find lovely treasures in the dime store.
    All breakable……making them even more treasured. Each year, the sweep of the family dog’s tail would cause some inevitable breakage and regret. But a surprising number of those special decorations survived. They’ve become part of our (ahem) eclectic array. When we travel, we always bring something home “for the tree”. And we hang photos of departed friends and family on the tree also. And, over the years, endless artists have contributed handmade ornaments, etc, etc. So — all in all — it has become a Memory Tree. Which is exactly how we like it.
    Thank you so much for sharing these special artifacts with us. Wonderful.

  9. Saba permalink
    December 28, 2021

    GA, I enjoyed reading today’s post and exclaimed when I came to the section on the Greiner family. I live near Newburgh in the Hudson Valley, New York State, where a business interest from New York City possibly opened a glass manufacturing plant in the early nineteenth century, although whether this is fact or local lore has never been proven. The New York businessmen sent a contract proposal to a member of the Greiner family, possibly while visiting London or, more likely Amsterdam, asking him to become plant manager. A copy, or possibly the original, of the proposed contract can be found in the New York Historical Society’s archive. While the contract is not signed by Mr. Greiner so no one can be assured of its acceptance, it describes in great detail the working conditions of a glass blower. Life was really tough but you got a plot of land and a cow!

  10. December 28, 2021

    Such a beautiful selection, of these Baubles, they have a special light to them it is wonderful
    that their condition is so good,also maybe the adorned Christmas tree will not require further artificial lighting.

  11. Ann V permalink
    December 28, 2021

    Dear GA thank you for your beautifully nostalgic blog. I have two precious bells, well over 60 years old, that go on our Christmas tree every year. They remind me of a time when the world was a different place. Reading your blog today has motivated me to look for old glass baubles for our tree next year.

  12. December 28, 2021

    Ah – this piece makes me sigh. I don’t excel at organization which is one way to keep these types of treasures intact, but you’ve inspired me to try harder and to collect a few vintage (or inspired) glass baubles each year and get rid of some of the horrors we’ve accidentally accumulated over the last two decades. I rediscover some hulking plastic Dalmations wearing Santa hats on fire hydrants every year, and every year I want to hurl them into the dark. I don’t think my husband will even notice. They were gifted to him by his family when he first became a Firefighter. It’s time for them to go.

  13. Sue permalink
    December 28, 2021

    Wonderful selection of memories. Does anyone remember clip on glass birds with glass fibre tails? I know my mother kept the old baubles for many years after I left home but I don’t know what became of them as they had gone by the time she moved near us in the Eighties.

  14. Cherub permalink
    December 29, 2021

    These are gorgeous, I remember my parents having glass baubles many moons ago and an artificial tree with a holly berry at the end of each branch. There was also a little white church that lit up to show coloured windows. Sadly, I lost all of the Christmas things that had come into my possession 20 years ago when my house was flooded.

    I’m now amassing a new collection of Christmas baubles from my adopted home in Switzerland, there is a shop here that sells lovely hand made and hand blown things. The owner of the shop has the honour every year of decorating the huge tree in the medieval cathedral square and it is always beautiful.

  15. Pence permalink
    December 29, 2021

    Yes. Clip on birds. Me childhood tree had them – very old, I suspect from a grandparents tree which would be early 1900s. All lost in a move alas. A few years back I bought some modern reproductions, the tails are stiff plastic not nearly as graceful as the old ones.

  16. David Hall permalink
    December 31, 2021

    Lovely! Almost all my Christmas decorations once belonged to my mother or to my Grandparents and I recognise some of the baubles in your piece . I just packed them away this morning as I do every New Years Eve. You have some real treasures though ….the red devil ,clock etc …..thanks as always.

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