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Merry Old Christmas Ornaments

  • Collecting vintage Christmas ornaments is a year-round quest for many.

By: Diana Sevanian, Signal Staff Writer
December 11, 2004
Reproduced with permission of The Signal

For many lovers of old things, Christmas is a year-round passion.  Vintage ornaments along with other Christmas-related decor are one hotly sought-after genre - and always a joy to find.

These treasured Yuletide items include: Santa figures from the 1800s, the most prized ones are from Germany, and are dressed in an unusual color with robes of mohair or fur; blown glass German, Czechoslovakian and Polish ornaments can date as far back as the mid-1800s and include musical instruments, flowers, animals, children, grapes, snowmen and stars - and United States manufacturers were making ornaments as early as the 1870s.

Of growing interest these days are American-made Shiny Brite ornaments manufactured following World War II up through the 1960s; old character (figural) light bulbs (these became popular in the 1920s, bubble lights in the 1940s, twinkle lights in the 1950s, plastic bulbs by 1955); tin reflectors (a common sight on Christmas tree lights in the 1950s and 1960s, their popularity waned when mini-lights were introduced; colorful die-cut cardboard figures from Germany (could be angels, umbrellas, gondolas); small hand-carved wooden musical instruments, and more.

The big draw for owning these collectibles often stems from one's youth, said Santa Clarita antique appraiser Terry Sonntag.

"Being a child at Christmas is an exceptionally memorable event and we tend to never let go of it," Sonntag said.  "Many people are drawn to the old ornaments, there's a lot of nostalgia to it - people grow up seeing Grandma's bubbling lights on the tree and are fascinated by that, they cannot get it out of their mind."

The fun of collecting anything is largely rooted in the thrill of the hunt, Sonntag said, who is accredited through the International Society of Appraisers.  He said the search is most often fruitful at estate or garage sales, antique and thrift stores, via e-Bay, or in an old family member's attic.

As happy as finding this decor is for the collector, it's also a big delight for the serious antique dealer - especially when the goods they've located have survived the years without significant damage.

"Dealers sometimes get these (vintage Christmas ornaments) as part of their large estate purchases," Sonntag said, adding they can be found at the Santa Clarita Antique Center, a mall he recently sold interest in to focus more on appraisals.  "There are several dealers with vintage ornaments, and not all are expensive."

The price range can stem from a few dollars each to several hundred and much higher, depending on the item and of course, the condition it's in.  According to Ralph and Terry Kovel, antique experts who have authored many books on antiques and collectibles, the first decorated Christmas tree in America is claimed by many states, including Pennsylvania (1747), Massachusetts (1832), Illinois (1833), Ohio (1838) and Iowa (1845).  Given those dates, finding old, intact ornaments is obviously a challenge. 

The delicateness that is inherent to these ornaments hastens their demise, thus, through the years they tend to not survive so well.

"Glass, as it ages becomes more brittle," Sonntag said.  "People still want to use these ornaments, put them out (on the tree), then the cat bats them off or the grand kids knock them down.  This often breaks them.  And just the packing and unpacking of them takes its toll, making them more vulnerable to damage." 

At this time the majority of the older ornaments found at the mall are from the 1950s, Sonntag said. 

"Sometimes we get them older, like pre-1920, but it's very hard to find the really older ones from 1800s," he said.

Of the Christmas collectibles that people seek, not all are tree ornaments.  They may also be old Victorian feather trees or table ornaments, such as candy holders or sleigh scenes with Santa, some fabricated from cardboard and cloth, with celluloid reindeer.

"You don't see many of them, but they're out there," Sonntag said.

The antiques quest is filled with hope for interesting finds, Sonntag said adding it is a field he has been in since he was a teenager restoring musical instruments.

He said, however, there are many well-crafted old ornament look-alikes on the market, therefore, one must be careful in their vintage collectible shopping.

"Lots of contemporary stuff is being made in the old style," he said.  "Most of it is imported and very well done but they are reproductions and do not have serious collector value as we speak.  They may be at some point, but not right now."

Tammy Dunn, the new owner of The Santa Clarita Antique Center, is herself a longtime collector of old Christmas ornaments.  A dealer for 20 years, Dunn said she adores the holiday.

"I love Christmas," she said.  "I love the old feel of the ornaments that were from way before, the colors...it reminds you of family, the old trees."

Seeing repeat customers who share her joy also delights Dunn.

"The other day, one lady bought 30 at a time.  Some people are doing their whole tree in vintage ornaments," she said. 

As far as reproductions, Dunn admits she carries some very high-quality ornaments that look like the old German felt and fabric ones.

"You don't find them any more and they really fit into the vintage look," Dunn said, adding the new ones are made from quality materials such as real glass glitter and a special tinsel that tarnishes so as to lend an "old" look.


Copyright Terry D. Sonntag