Beautiful baubles glistening on a Christmas tree capture the splendour of the season like few other objects. But tree ornaments come in many shapes and sizes – each bringing something special, treasured or even quirky to the party. Ornaments are not reserved for the tree, of course, so this section also covers those free-standing collectables like nutcrackers, snow globes and model villages.
Baubles: A History
Baubles are distinct from other tree ornaments in that they are spherical. The earliest versions were made from blown glass but are now made from a variety of materials, including shatterproof glass, plastic and metal.
Glass blown baubles sprang from the small German town of Lauscha in the Thuringian Forest region, which had been the home of glass blowing from as early as the 12th century. Hans Greiner (1550-1609) is credited with inventing the spherical decorations, which were made from clay moulds and initially came in the shape of nuts and fruit. Germany was at the forefront of the invention of Christmas tree decorations and from the 17th century produced machine-made silver tinsel. But Lauscha is the lauded home of glass blowing and baubles are produced there to this day, some using moulds more than a hundred years old. Glass marbles were created there and it was in Lauscha in 1835 that Ludwig Muller-Uri invented the first artificial human eye. After World War II, Lauscha’s glassworks became state owned in communist East Germany but are once again privately run concerns.
Heavy glass ornaments made in Germany from 1840 to the early 1900s are known as kugels, which means ‘round ball’. However, some kugels appear in such shapes as apples, berries, pinecones and teardrops. The outer colours mainly used include red, blue, green, gold, silver, cobalt and amethyst, with most having a silver lining inside. A brass cap was attached to the top of each ornament. Old kugels can be distinguished from the new because they were cut off the blowing iron almost flush to the surrounding surface and have a smooth finish around the hole where the brass cap fits. Newer versions have what’s called a pike, which is the neck. The kugels made from thick heavy glass should not be confused with the thin-walled glass ornaments made after 1918.
Until the bauble came along, Christmas trees were decorated with such items as fruit, small lanterns, miniature birdcages, gingerbread, flowers, tin toys, paper butterflies, bells, sweets and trinkets. Baubles were mass-produced from 1847 thanks to one of Hans Greiner’s descendants. The Greiner family maintained the family glass-blowing tradition in Lauscha through the generations. It’s believed the popularity of baubles in the UK grew from a picture in a London newspaper in 1848. The “Illustrated News” etching captured Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children beside a Christmas tree, which were rarely seen in Britain at that time. Scroll down this page for more Victoriana.
German chemist Justus von Liebig (1803-1873) developed a silvering technique for glass baubles in the 1850s. Within two decades, the first American glass ornaments were created in New York by William DeMuth, but they only became affordable to the masses nearer 1880 when American dime-store owner F.W. Woolworth discovered them on a trip to Germany and had them produced for his shops.
If a tree decoration isn’t spherical in shape, it falls into the more general tree ornaments category. Trees were first brought into the house and decorated in Pagan times, long before the celebration of Christmas. White candles were sufficient decoration across swathes of Europe from the mid-16th century as trees found their Christmas home thanks, so the legend goes, to German protestant leader Martin Luther. From the 1600s, the desire to dress the tree yet further became a Europe-wide trend. Silk and paper flowers became popular adornments in France, rose blooms were commonly used in Latvia and painted eggs became popular across other parts of the continent. Germany introduced silver machine-made tinsel in the 17th century. The Christmas tree was yet to figure in festive decorations in Britain and the USA. The Victorian era would change that in Britain. German and Dutch immigrants arriving in the United States would alter the picture there. In Victorian times – and before baubles were introduced to the masses – Christmas trees would be decorated with such items as toys, sweets, doll’s house furniture, miniature musical instruments and gilt fruit. Today tree ornaments include snowflakes, snowmen, icicles, angels, Santa figures, reindeer, robins, owls, nutcracker soldiers, cartoon characters and miniature Nativity scenes. The list is abundant.
Dresden Ornaments: these were named after the German city in which they originated in the late 19th century. They were in production from around 1880 to 1910. These embossed cardboard decorations were gilded or silvered and came in a myriad of shapes – animals, toys, musical instruments, transport and so many more. Some were hand-painted by artists and many came in pieces that required assembling. Although thousands were manufactured relatively few originals remain, making them most collectible.
Did you know…something like 2.5 billion pounds is spent each year in the UK on baubles and bling for our trees?
The Christmas Pickle
Hiding a Christmas pickle ornament on the tree was thought to be a German tradition, but that has increasingly been dismissed and attributed instead to Americans in the 1890s. That was the decade when imported glass tree ornaments, including French-designed vegetables, became popular. Whoever found the green, glass pickle on Christmas morning would be rewarded with an extra gift. Berrien Springs, Michigan is the world’s Christmas pickle capital and holds an annual pickle festival each December.
We have chosen some of our top shops, designers and websites for baubles and tree ornaments. Time to get surfing and shopping.
Shops with Pop:
Fortnum & Mason; Harrods; Heals; House of Fraser; John Lewis; Liberty; Marks & Spencer; Selfridges; Tiffany & Co; Soho Home.
Alessi; Christopher Radko; Lisbeth Dahl; Gisela Graham; Bombki; Hannah Berridge; Hutschenreuter Porcelain; Georg Jensen.
Swarovski – sparkling crystal treasures to collect each year at swarovski.com
Waterford – crystal and glass baubles and ornaments to dazzle at waterford.co.uk
Artifactually – bespoke baubles and tree ornaments from a family concern in Surrey at artifactually.co.uk
Braybrook & Britten – limited edition sterling silver tree decorations, plus pudding and cracker charms at braybrook.co.uk
Wedgwood – white porcelain and jasper blue combine to give trees decadent detail at wedgwood.co.uk
Royal Collection Trust Shop – gorgeous selection of decorations with a rich and regal feel at royalcollectionshop.co.uk
Cox & Cox – prides itself on being unique, eclectic and beautiful at coxandcox.co.uk
Unicef – delightful colourful baubles that will appeal to children at unicef.org.uk
Elf Helper: How about considering making some fabric baubles filled with sweets? Using a side plate as a template, draw circles on pieces of festive fabric and cut out the circles. Put sugared almonds in the middle of the circle and tie them with wired ribbon to complement the fabric. Add sprigs of greenery atop the fabric bauble and hang from a Christmas tree or twig tree.
When you have obtained your beautiful decorations, you need to store them. Many decorations come perfectly packaged in square or rectangular boxes, making for easier storage. But over time these boxes can be damaged. To ensure that your decorations don’t suffer the same fate, investing in some sturdy long-term storage is a good idea. It also allows you to find a safe home for those freelancing rogue decorations that originally came in tissue paper and plastic bags.
There are few more magical and captivating ornaments than snow globes. These orbs of wonder have delighted children and the young at heart since the nineteenth century. Imagine the awe on first seeing snowflakes falling over a tiny landscape inside a glass dome when snow globes were first introduced to the public.
Snow globes were in evidence at the Paris Universal Expo of 1878 and the following year a snow globe containing the newly erected Eiffel Tower was produced for the International Expo in the French capital. Also at the end of the nineteenth century, the first patent for snow globes is on record as belonging to Austrian Erwin Perzy, who went into business in Vienna with his brother Ludwig. Their family production continues to this day. The first snow globe-related patent in the United States was granted in 1927 to Joseph Garaja.
Many of the snow globes we see today are musical and contain anything from cityscapes to flying reindeer. They come in various shapes and sizes and are made from all manner of materials, not just the heavy glass of yesteryear. Glitter globes now sit alongside the snowy domes. Some miniature examples can be hung from Christmas trees, other larger models serve as paperweights, many are souvenirs of places visited, some can be personalised and you will even see a variety of homemade versions created from old jars. The snow globe fascination is almost universal.
Did you know…between the 17th and 19th centuries, Christmas decorations were not taken down on Twelfth Night but at Candlemas on February 2? It was considered bad luck to do away with the festive decorations any sooner. Candlemas marks the purification of the Virgin Mary 40 days after she gave birth to Jesus. All candles to be used in the coming year were traditionally blessed on this day.
A nutcracker in its most basic form is a mechanical or functional device for cracking nuts. But in its ornamental guise, a nutcracker is a Christmas collector’s dream. The earliest recorded mention of the word nutcracker in the English language was 1481. It wasn’t long before carved wooden nutcracker figures were introduced, depicting soldiers, knights and even kings. Their stern expressions resulted from the fact the carvings were initially only of these imposing, authoritative figures. To own a nutcracker like this was often seen as a sign of good fortune and protection. A lever at the back of the head would open the figure’s mouth and be strong enough to crack a nut. A cottage industry for carving nutcrackers developed in rural Germany and the tradition was exported to the United States with European immigrants. The nutcrackers we recognise today began to take shape around 1870. Nutcrackers became collectors’ items, especially those made by Steinbach, Klaus Mertens and Junghanel. A soldier nutcracker toy is the inspiration behind the story and ballet “The Nutcracker”, widely seen at Christmas. Nowadays most modern wooden nutcrackers serve a predominantly decorative purpose.
Erzgebirge-Palace: Visit this wonderful palace of delights and be prepared to be lost in a whole new world for a while. The nutcrackers are 100 percent handmade in Germany and shipped all over the globe. Their dedicated online shop is at erzgebirgepalace.com. The selection is vast and the price range huge. Here are just some of the nutcracker characters and themes you can purchase: Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus, Snowman, Father Time, Black Forester, Uncle Sam, Artist, Austrian soldier, Bagpiper, Aviator, Bavarian beer-drinker, Beefeater, Beekeeper, Carol singer, Hussar, Chef, Mouse King, Chimney sweep, Cowboy, Dentist and Kings. The website makes easy work of finding the nutcracker you want as it lists them in categories like ‘Professions’, ‘Kings’ and ‘Soldiers’ as well as in lists for height and price.
Erzgebirge-Palace also sells wonderful candle arches, angels, German candle pyramids and the charming wooden figures known as smokers, in which you can place a smouldering incense block and see scented smoke flow from the figure’s mouth. It produces about 5000 handcrafted items in all using only the finest manufacturers like Steinbach, Ulbricht and Seiffener Volkskunst.
The Lemax Company celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2015 and its decorative villages have become a Christmas tradition. The Caddington Village collection delightfully represents the Victorian era, while Santa’s Wonderland is bold and vibrant. The choice at lemaxcollection.com is extensive, with new pieces added annually to favourite product lines. Garden centres up and down the land have sections devoted to such model villages throughout the festive season. Even if building a mini village does not appeal – or if space is an issue – individual pieces can still be excellent additions to a Christmas ornament collection, especially the subtly illuminated or mesmeric mechanised pieces. German Christmas markets have traditionally sold porcelain houses that light up to deliver a gentle glow from each window. Such Lichthauser are increasingly available at UK Christmas markets or can be sourced at the following websites: toepferei-langerwehe.de/ lichthaeuser-miniaturen or leyk-shop.com