No one can deny that the Christmas holiday is the one that is filled with the most nostalgia. Any faithful attendee of almost any weekly auction is witness to the boxes and boxes of holiday ornaments and decorations sold by the carton, and supplied by consignors who are either empty nesters or are cleaning out a relative’s estate.
You can almost hear the grumbles: “Why did Mom save all this stuff?” or, “What were we thinking when they bought this?”
An eye-catching still life of two Pennsylvania Christmas-themed redware plates keeping company with a redware bowl bursting with colorful multi-shaped German kugels.
I have to confess – those very sentiments will probably be echoing the day I cross over and my relations tackle the job of dispersing my collections. While it’s true that my possessions are varied, it takes a true collector to understand my penchant for German-made holiday adornments.
With the holidays fast approaching, the largest Christmas project to tackle in our home is the tree – or should I say, trees.
A penny postcard, dated 1910, showcasing Santa wrapped in an untraditional long, blue coat.
Boxes of decorations make their yearly trek down from the attic to our family room, ready to be uncrated. Not only do we have a 7-foot fir in the family room, I have a small forest of German feather trees that surround an antique child’s sleigh, which takes up residence in our living room’s front window.
The main tree is decorated with white lights (my husband’s preference), Victorian beaded garlands, dozens and dozens of vintage German glass-blown ornaments, and new additions that supplement my collection each year. It is all topped off with a painstakingly adorned top layer of vintage lead-foil tinsel (my preference).
In the hands of the German artisan, a simple "lump of plaster" suddenly springs to life.
Several years ago at a local auction, I was the high bidder on two crates of boxed tinsel from the 1950s. I’ve used it religiously since, and my supply has dwindled down to a mere dozen or so boxes. Lately I’ve continued the tradition of saving the tinsel and placing it back in its original box, just as my father did after the tree came down in January; a nostalgic childhood memory.
Then it’s time to tackle the task of setting up my 14 feather trees (in various sizes), where a number of them have been designated as “theme” trees. I set aside one tree for my husband, who is an avid model-train collector.
A copse of feather trees adorned with dresdens, German scraps, and glass-blown ornaments. A miniature Putz takes up residence under the trees. The large white feather tree in the middle is a rare find.
Another tree displays my collection of German “Dresdens,” the embossed cardboard ornaments featuring animals, birds, butterflies, etc. One tree will be dressed with antique glass birds with spun-glass tails; another will showcase my large collection of German glass kugels dating from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. Two trees will show off my collection of miniature feather-tree ornaments, while another evergreen will feature my collection of vintage penny postcards – all featuring Santa Claus, attired in a coat other than the more traditional red (postcard collectors know that these particular samples will bring higher prices than the historic crimson-hued cloak.).
To decorate our home’s three fireplace mantels, I just call on my legion of antique German Belsnickels and Santa Claus candy containers to help deck the halls.
A bevy of Belsnickels looking a bit grim despite the festive holiday season.
The tradition of the Belsnickel has its roots in Pennsylvania German lore. This character did not get his looks and demeanor from the gentleman we know as Saint Nick. Rather, this stern-looking individual is dressed in tattered clothing with his face covered in soot and ashes. Over one shoulder he carried a rucksack packed with cookies, pretzels and fruit for the well-behaved children, while in the other hand he clutched a bundle of switches that were designated for the naughty ones.
For the most part, these characters are portrayed with dour visages, but it’s in the hands of the German artisans that they become works of art, albeit folk art. Each year they take up residence on our bedroom mantelpiece, watched over by the King of All Belsnickels – our impressive 16-inch Father Belsnickel candy container.
The living room mantel becomes a temporary holiday home for my Santa Claus collectibles. Whether a basic figurine or an elaborate candy container, each and every piece in my collection has, through the benevolence of the German artist, been given a personality of its own.
A cheery group of German Santa Claus figurines and candy containers. The large Santa candy container in the back on the far right has been a family treasure since the 1920s and is affectionately known as "Guckymuss." The Father Christmas figurine on the opposite side is a very rare German bouncer.
My collection began many years ago when my Uncle Gerry presented me with what he thought was a gnome, a gift he received as a baby. The figure is clutching a small feather tree (which has become denuded with the passage of time) and leads me to believe that it is Santa dressed for workshop duties – a definite twist on the traditional red-coat-clad gentleman. He opens in the middle, revealing a round-shaped box for holding sweets. This piece dates to around the early 1920s, a time when some of the best examples of holiday collectibles were being produced.
Surprisingly, the aforementioned embellishments are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to my Christmas decorating. I give equal time to vintage nutcrackers, smokers, pyramids and redware along with quilts and coverlets in patterns of red and green – all with a conspicuous German theme. I’m very proud of my heritage and it is certainly evidenced as you step through our front door in December to take in all my vintage German-themed decorations and collectibles.
To all of my family and friends: a very heartfelt Froliche Weihnachten!