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My Old Christmas Decorations

December 13, 2023
by the gentle author

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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

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

11 Responses leave one →
  1. mem permalink
    December 13, 2023

    what a lovely collection . I think maybe you and your grandmother have similar sense of aesthetics . It a lovely thing to have a grandson who cares about your things as you do .

  2. Arabella permalink
    December 13, 2023

    I too love my Christmas decorations and have been collecting them for many years now. I was delighted on my last outing to Columbia road market to discover a shop selling decorations from the places in Germany you mention. Perhaps you know it.

  3. Jill Wilson permalink
    December 13, 2023

    Having spent a lot of the summer clearing out the family home following my Mum’s death I have also inherited all the ‘old friend’ Christmas decorations which will be going onto my tree, and which will bring back many happy memories.

    Have a lovely Christmas xx

  4. Christa permalink
    December 13, 2023

    Lucky you. I know that happy feeling – when I open my Christmas box every year and see the few Old treasures come to me through the family. Happy Christmas time!

  5. Cherub permalink
    December 13, 2023

    These are beautiful, you are so lucky to have this collection. I collected tree decorations from 1984 onwards, sadly lost what I had built up when my house was flooded by a burst pipe in the attic back in 2001.

    I have since amassed another collection, some are traditionally Swiss or particular to customs in Basel, others have been collected from other places. I bought some beautiful hand made glass ones and some hand beaten brass ones at the weekend in Copenhagen. The brass ones are of oak leaves, birds and stars.

  6. December 13, 2023

    We are so fortunate to be able to visit your treasured collection…… and hear the stories about
    each ornament. I set up our little tabletop nativity scene yesterday. Like your bicycle, this group of figures and the small wooden stable, are from my childhood. As I unwrapped one of the Three Kings, I turned over the figure and saw a price imprint —- thirty-nine cents. With this memory I was transported to the Murphy’s dime store in my little hometown, and I stood peering down into bins of nativity figures. Camels, sheep, shepherds, Kings, angels, etc. My allowance money at the ready in a plastic change purse, I contemplate which figure I will add to the scene. I decide on a dog, who will accompany a young shepherd. Fast forward to 2023, and the whole cast of characters is now on display amidst a forest of bottle brush trees, illuminated by white column candles. Beautiful nostalgia. Thank you GA for shining a holiday light!

  7. Ron permalink
    December 13, 2023

    Greetings from Canada.
    Some of these decorations were in our Grandmother’s and subsequently our parent’s collection.
    Was always magical to open those carboard trays, hoping that they had survived their long hibernation.
    Thank you for your daily inspirations.
    Happy Christmas to all.

  8. December 13, 2023

    Your collection is a fine one. Unfortunately, my cats are far too curious so I don’t put any cherished glass pieces on the Christmas tree. Consequently, fabric decorations, pine cones and the inevitable plastic replicas festoon my tree. The cats get to climb, pull or knock over the tree and nothing is broken. Every year, when I bring up the decorations from the cellar, I look through the boxes and select this year’s pieces. I also have delicate glass from the 1950s and I keep a few Christmas card. Those from people now passed always bring tears. The season and the closing of the year brings mixed emotions.

  9. December 13, 2023

    *** MERRY CHRISTMAS! ***
    *** JOYEUX NOËL! ***

    Love & Peace

  10. December 14, 2023

    These lovely glass ornaments are still being made in northern Bavaria. We began stocking them in our Berlin shop a couple of years ago and are happy to see how appreciated they are, especially by younger people.

    Merry Christmas and frohe Weihnachten from Berlin

  11. Cherub permalink
    December 14, 2023

    There is a Christmas decoration shop in Basel that sells handmade glass baubles. The owner oversees decorating the huge tree in the cathedral square every year, it’s always very beautiful.

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