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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Did You Know?--Christmas Decor Trivia

Elves and Christmas---For centuries, Northern Europeans believed their homes were protected by mischievous gnomes. When the Santa Claus tradition made it to Scandinavia in the 1800's, writers quickly adapted the gnomes into Santa's friends and helpers. Elf figurines in porcelain, glass, plastic and rubber are now common sights in antique shops.

Nutcrackers---The 1892 debut of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite ballet established nutcrackers as a Christmas holiday tradition. Although the first hinged nutcracker is attributed to the Romans, the ones we’re familiar with were first produced by German craftsmen in the early 1800s, as functional decorations in the shapes of soldiers, kings, woodsmen, and miners.
With their iconic beards and painted rosy cheeks, German nutcrackers soon found a large audience in America. U.S. GI’s brought them home during WW2, spurring a wave of collecting.

GLASS ORNAMENTS---Until the mid-1800’s, Christmas trees were mostly decorated with homemade adornments or edibles like fruits and nuts. But the German entrepreneurs based in the glassblowing center of Lauscha had a better idea. They began producing decorative tree ornaments made out of blown glass. In the 1880s, F.W. Woolworth imported the first of these baubles into the U.S., triggering the American love affair with Christmas tree ornaments.
German craftsmen began producing images of fruits, hearts, stars, and angels in glass in the mid-1800s, and their popularity soared. By the 1880s American entrepreneur F.W. Woolworth had begun importing these German glass and metal treasures to his five and dime stores all across the country, sparking a Christmas ornament craze in the U.S.
Folksy, homemade decorations like textile and wooden tree ornaments also became popular around this time, and many were constructed from miscellaneous household materials like wire, pressed tin, construction paper and cardboard, often using instructions published in magazines. The handmade German ornament trade floundered after World War I, so American innovators mechanized the process, mass-producing ornaments that were sent to other companies to be decorated, often by hand. The largest such American company was “Shiny-Brite.”

Christmas Tree Lights---Christmas tree lighting dates to 17th century Germany, when wax was melted to tree branches to hold candles to illuminate specific ornaments. In 1882, Edward Johnson, an assistant to Thomas Edison, designed the first set of electric tree lights, which became popular in department store displays. It wasn't until the introduction of safety light strings in 1917, however, that household tree lighting took off, spawning innumerable combinations of colors, shapes, sizes, and figural lights.

Treetop Angels---Some of the earliest tree-topping Christmas angels were made in 18th-century Germany. The figures were often formed of plaster on a composition armature, with bodies of sawdust and robes of brass-foil-covered paper. Some late-19th-century Nuremberg angels wear paper-and-foil crowns, while others are backed by pleated paper wings and wrapped in matching paper skirts. These pieces are very collectible today precisely because they are so fragile.

By the 20th century, construction materials such as composition, paper, and cardboard were still in common use, but fabric had replaced paper for angel skirts and other articles of clothing. Angels were attached to treetops by cardboard tubes, glass cylinders, or small springs. Some angels, like those made by Noma and other manufacturers, lit up; others caught light in starbursts made of spun glass radiating behind cotton clouds.

Reindeer---Reindeer have been associated with Christmas since the famous 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (’Twas the night before Christmas), and Rudolph was created in 1939 by Robert Mays. Early German paper mache reindeer, often covered with fur or felt, emerged around 1900, and later collectible incarnations included metal, glass, celluloid and plastic models (not to mention candy containers, tree ornaments, clothing, and other reindeer items).

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