Ornaments of Christmas Past

am old school. I use cloth napkins. I write thank you notes on paper. And I buy live Christmas trees. These roots in tradition did not spring from my upbringing. I spent my growing-up in a thoroughly modern 1970’s condominium with a free-thinking mother, orange shag carpeting and a Christmas tree with branches that had color-coded tips that identified which hole to plug them into on the “trunk.” Even then, I gravitated to the ornaments that had been my grandmother’s.

For me, vintage Christmas ornaments are endlessly appealing. You can keep all your 50-dollar-a-pop nonsense, what I really love is those mid-century minted beauties. There’s something about the colors—the muted raspberry red, aqua the color of pool water, burnished silver, cool jade green—that is irresistible. To me they seem a more sincere and cheerful “hello” than “Hey! Hey! Over here!” But, in general, I tend to think holidays shout too much.

Some of my grandmother’s ornaments have survived and are part of the jumble (including, yes, some 50-dollar-a-pop nonsense) that adorns my tree. One of my favorites of her ornaments is always front and center, about a foot from the top. It’s a clear glass ball with frosted white and shiny lipstick-pink stripes. It hangs from a thin silver hook with just the same precarious swing as the ornament on Charlie Brown’s tree. I’m sure no one in my family notices that it is in the same spot every year and it doesn’t matter a bit to me if they do. In a house full of men, you learn to let the not-noticing go.

In all things, other than life experiences, I am trying to pare down. Christmas, a holiday that at one time tipped me to excess, is now understated. This is why I am showing so much restraint in passing the big glass canisters and silver punch bowls of vintage ornaments that appear at the antique malls when the air begins to cool.

Oh, I want them. I want each and every one of those glowy gumdroppy beauties. I yearn to scoop them up like nests of baby birds and place them in my basket, carefully dodge the other shoppers (probably looking for presents for other people—bother) and set them up on the counter and say, “Yes, I want them all,” to the harried person behind the desk.

But I don’t. I don’t because I don’t need more and am reminding myself all the time that there is not time or space or money to enjoy every thing that turns my head. (This is also why I do not have hand-embroidered linen napkins, though there is a part of my brain—my soul even—that tells me my life will not be complete without them.) No, I can pass up the ornaments as I shop for vintage barware for my now-adult son and hope I pass a little of that old school sensibility on to him.

There are new versions of vintage ornaments and you can find them at shops around town. (I love the selections at Hall’s and Stuff in Brookside.) But if you are interested in finding vintage ornaments, there are consistently good spots to look. Several dealers at River Market Antique Mall have the aforementioned big bowls and glass containers of ornaments, the dealers in the West Bottoms are a good bet, Urban Mining is my current favorite for vintage everything and of course Mission Road Antique Mall. Whether you just like the look or are interested in collecting seriously, there are a few things to keep in mind.


Vintage ornaments aren’t rare and it’s not a bad idea to be at least a little discerning. Look for significant fading and avoid as much scratching and peeling as you can.

Speaking of Shape

Most of what you will find is ball-shaped ornaments. Shiny Brites were originally produced in the ‘40s and 50’s, but have been recently re-introduced. These are delightful and I love having a variety of sizes to set them apart. The more interesting, and more expensive, ornaments are different shapesthink fruits, fish, nuts, cars and Santas. While they’re not rare, they may not be as plentiful around town.

O Christmas Tree

Beyond ornaments, some collectors are interested in vintage trees. Mid-century aluminum trees have had a surge in popularity and devoted collectors often have one or more feather trees. Originally made in Germany in the late 19th century, these tabletop trees have branches made of goose feathers. They were one of the first artificial trees and were created in response to deforestation in Germany. Proving everything old is new again.