A favorite past time in our household has always been collecting Christmas tree ornaments. It started with my grandmother, whose ornaments are still a centerpiece on our tree every year. My father was a perennial collector who collected sterling silver ornaments from Gorham, Towle and Wallace and angels made with molded-wax faces and clothing hand sewn in the homes of German craftswomen.
Today we have continued this family tradition, adding many of Christopher Radko’s ornaments and other collectibles, but those vintage tree ornaments are still my favorites. If you’re starting your own Christmas tree ornament collection follow along and learn more about vintage and antique Christmas collectibles.
Starting Your Christmas Collection
Most people who get the bug start out with tree ornaments and other Christmas collectibles handed down from grandparents and parents or else they find a collection at a tag or yard sale and so it begins; you add one or several ornaments each year and slowly the collection builds.
It could even be considered a disease when you get to the point that you have too many to even put them all on display during the holidays or, like my father, you actually begin to collect duplicates! His reasoning was that each of the kids would have one to put on their tree, something that actually makes sense in retrospect, although at the time I thought he must be insane.
But you don’t collect these Christmas collectibles to make a profit; really you either have the passion to invest your hard earned money in them or not. The joy is in displaying your Christmas collection each year and eventually passing them down to your kids and grand kids. They also make cherished Christmas gifts that can last an entire lifetime when given by one family member to another. Like the old saying goes, "buy what you love".
While you can certainly buy a special Radko or tree ornament released each year by your favorite designer, the more serious you become about collecting, the more you may begin to seek the antique/vintage tree ornaments and other Christmas collectibles.
Vintage Glass Christmas Ornaments
Many collectors will choose a theme and try to find as many good examples from their chosen category as possible, while others prefer to collect only a couple of any one type and go very “broad” with their collections.
Glass bulb tree ornaments from the 1930s, 40s and 50s are extremely popular these days with collectors and fetch prices from as low as five, ten, or twenty dollars, all the way up to several hundred dollars for some of the rarer pieces. Striped and indented vintage glass ornaments tend to fetch higher prices than plain bulbs as you’d imagine. Smaller vintage glass ornaments tend to be more popular and fetch higher prices than the larger ones.
A number of vintage machine-blown glass ornaments that are popular with collectors today were made by in Poland under the Fantasia brand. Hand-blown glass ornaments from the 30s and 40s are rarer and more expensive than the machine-blown varieties.
Blown glass tree ornaments made in the shape of berries and pinecones, little baskets, umbrellas and many, many other figural shapes were also popular in the 30s and 40s. These glass ornaments have become very collectible, with prices depending on rarity and condition. As you would expect, many of the vintage ornaments will show wear, with paint worn off or chips in the finish being commonplace; obviously the better the condition, the more valuable a vintage collectible will tend to be.
Figural Christmas Collectibles
In addition to glass tree ornaments, Christmas bells, Santa figures and angels are all collector favorites. Musical instruments, animals and birds are also very popular. The glass bird ornaments with feet clips and tail feathers are fun tree ornaments to collect and originals date from the 1920s through the 1950s.
You’ll find a wide variety of Santa and snowmen ornaments. Fairytale figural ornaments are another great category. Angels are always popular among serious Christmas collectors. One of my dad’s favorite Christmas collections were figurines handmade by German company Koestel, which began in 1907 and still continues to make these angel figurines today with distinctive molded wax faces that are hand painted. The clothing is amazingly detailed and unlike anything else I’ve seen. In the 70s, Koestel offered literally hundreds of fairytale figures, from the Pied Piper to The Three Kings and many others, all made using the same fabrication techniques as the angels.
Some of the figurines were made to hang as tree ornaments, but the larger ones stand ten to fifteen inches tall and are displayed on a table or shelf every Christmas. Just coincidentally, my father would buy these Koestel figures on sale after the holidays every year, paying ten or twenty dollars apiece for the smaller figurines. Today, they are probably worth many times that price, due to being handmade and no longer manufactured. The collection will be handed down to my brother’s and my own kids to enjoy with their own kids for many, many years to come I hope!
Like the Proverbial "Kid at Christmas"
Perhaps with more anticipation than a kid dreaming of gifts under the tree, the serious Christmas collector waits all year for the holidays to roll around and they can unpack everything. While most of us buy ornaments during the holiday season or at after-holiday sales, the truly serious collector is on the lookout year round, watching eBay listings, looking through collector magazines and browsing antique shops, flea markets, estate sales and tag sales looking for new additions.
It isn’t uncommon for an avid collector to put up multiple Christmas trees, add display shelves or commandeer a table, buffet or even a whole room of the house just to make room to display the entire collection. A big part of the fun is in designing the display for a different look every year. Dad used to like to do one tree sometimes that featured only silver and crystal tree ornaments, with red ribbon and candlestick lights to give the tree an elegant and classic look.
Another approach some collectors like to take is to display only a specific portion of their collection, so that the home gets a different Christmas theme every year. Yes, it is a real obsession once you get the bug!
Specialty Christmas Collectibles
Now dad didn’t just stop with the tree ornaments. His collection also included a number of hand-carved figurines from Italian company Anri. Since 1912, four generations have perfected and handed down the Groeden Valley, Italy tradition of woodcarving and hand painting. Dad collected a complete Nativity scene set of the Anri carved pieces that makes for a dramatic display every Christmas.
Whether you prefer reindeer or snowmen, Santa Clause figurines, angels or stars, collecting Christmas specialty decorations other than tree ornaments becomes the next step in many collections. Materials range from hand carved wood to papier-mâché and a wide range of others.
My grandmother had a vintage 1920s collection of houses made with paper or cardboard, including a church, complete with steeple. The rustic hand painted Christmas “village” that made a great display under our family Christmas tree every year when I was a kid. Later, Dad was inspired by that original tree village and started collecting the popular Dickens Christmas Village, another collectors’ favorite.
Collecting Vintage Santa Claus
Vintage Santas comprise a separate category of antique Christmas collectibles. Antique Santa Figures are always popular, as evidenced by the prices they bring at antique shows and shops. You need to do your research if you decide to start collecting the rarer, more expensive pieces. Many older pieces were made using materials such as papier-mâché, little pieces of cotton batting, chenille, die-cut scraps and even twigs and grasses. Many of these pieces are now being reproduced, so you really want to know what you’re buying!
One way to tell if an item is authentic is to look for signs of normal wear and age. While many of the vintage Santas and other Christmas collectibles can be in good condition, signs of wear are normal. The reproductions are fine as long as you aren’t unknowingly paying the price an original could command.
Handing Down the Christmas Collecting Tradition
Collecting Christmas tree ornaments and decorative items is fun if you have the passion. Start with pieces you love that aren’t too expensive and add to your collection as your knowledge and interest increase over the years. You’ll have something special to display every year during the Christmas season and pass down to your kids and grand kids. It’s something the family can enjoy from one generation to the next, passing down the Christmas spirit and tradition.
If your family has some special and unique Christmas collectibles please leave your comments below and tell us what types of collectibles and ornaments you like to add to your own family collection!