Christmas, one of the most enduring traditions is the placing of
ornaments on the Christmas trees. European glass reflector ornaments have been among
the most popular and requested items at Christmas time. These ornaments range from traditional images of Christmas, such as Santas and nutcrackers, to the unusual and off- beat. Many ornaments, which seem
at first glance to have nothing to do with Christmas, are actually deeply rooted
in European folklore.
The pickle ornament, for instance, is a German symbol of good
luck. In the past, the first child to find a pickle on a Christmas tree received
a special gift on Christmas morning. As children grew older, however, the
pickles got smaller!
Since European glass ornaments are such an integral part of
Christmas tree decorating, we thought it would be interesting to delve into how
these ornaments came to be. While Christmas as a religious and holiday
observance has existed for nearly 2000 years, glass reflector ornaments are
relatively recent, making their first commercial appearance in the 1840's.
They were first made in a German village named Lauscha, about
60 miles north of Nuernberg, in the province of Thueringen. It was a cottage
industry craft then. The ornaments were blown and silvered in a workshop
attached to a home. Generally the glass was blown by men and the silvering
handled by women. All members of the family, including children, helped paint
and finish them. A typical work day lasted 15-16 hours, six days a week. At this
pace, a family might produce 300-600 glass balls a week, depending on size and
Why did Lauscha develop into a center for this trade? In the
1590's, Huguenot glass blowers originally living in the German province of
Schwaben were forced to flee their homes due to religious persecution. They
settled in Thueringen because the ample forests provided energy resources
necessary for them to resume their business of glass blowing.
In and around Lauscha, they continued their glass making,
chiefly products such as windows and drinking glasses. Later they made
decorative bead glass for the jewelry and millinery trades. This bead glass was
their main source of income until the 1840's, when glass makers in nearby
Bohemia invented a cheaper and better process which captured much of the bead
glass market away from Lauscha.
Faced with ruin, some of the glass blowers began refining a
craft they had experimented and amused themselves with since the 1820's. Since
that time they had blown large glass balls named kugeln, which they now began to
silver to give them a brighter, shinier look. The first written record of glass
Christmas tree balls appears in 1848. With the production of these Christmas
tree balls, Lauscha discovered its economic salvation.
These early glass balls were blown "free hand", without a
mold. However artisans soon began to use molds to increase their production. The
pine cone was one of the first designs. It was followed gradually by the
hundreds of different designs we are familiar with today. By the 1880's buyers
from American stores were coming to the area to purchase glass ornaments. One of
the earliest was F.W. Woolworth.
World War II totally disrupted the market for German glass.
Lauscha wound up ten miles inside the border of East Germany. Although
production continued, many glass blowers and their families escaped to the
vicinity of Coburg (now the center of the German glass blowing industry. Much
German (and European ) glass is still made by hand; since all the ornaments are
hand painted they can't be done on a machine.
Many people say that the glass
ornaments are what you remember best about Christmas's from the past. Isn't it
interesting that such a pleasing craft assumed its prominence largely because of
Executed with style and imagination, and drawing upon their
traditions of hand made craft work, glass reflector ornaments have come a long
way from their humble commercial origins. They deserve their recognition as an
important form of German folk art.
Most of the images used for European hand blown glass
ornaments are common subjects for Christmas tree ornaments, and others are
simply the whimsy of a creative glass blower. But some ornaments have religious
significance or are a sign of good luck, and a few are associated with charming
stories from the glassmakers' past.
Santa blown glass figurals are customary to be hung on the
Christmas tree. Because our modern Santa Claus is a composite figure, drawn from
legends from many different areas of the world, there are a great variety of
Santa ornaments. They range from a saintly looking character to a grim gnome
type to the jolly, robust character that we know today. All of these variations
on Santa are represented in glass ornaments.
Next to Santas, birds are considered to be among the most
common figural tree ornament. They have religious symbolism as being biblical
messengers that bring God's love and peace to the world. Birds are also symbolic
of good luck and good fortune. It is said that many German families felt that
finding a bird's nest was a sign that good luck would come to their family
throughout the year.
The fish is an early Christian symbol for Christ.
Many different flowers have graced the Christmas tree over
the years, but the rose is special. It is a common flower that was made in glass
for the tree because it is an old German symbol for Christ. There is also an old
Arabian tale that tells of all the rose bushes in the world blooming the night
Christ was born.
Fruits and berries were among the earliest of glass tree
decorations. These molded glass ornaments replaced the fresh fruit that was once
used as ornaments by the Victorians. Fruit filled baskets are symbolic with
Christmas giving and they were once frequently given by churches to the poor.
Grape clusters are the most common fruit glass ornament mainly because of the
grape's religious significance.
Vegetables were traditional motifs for tree trim in the
1800s. The harvest vegetables, such as carrots, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes,
cucumbers and onions were the most popular. These vegetables were placed on the
tree to give thanks for the bountiful harvest.
The dog in the potato sack ornament has the motto "my
darling" inscribed on it because "my darling" was the trademark for the Witman
Company. This company made the original mold for this ornament, and "My Darling"
was a love name for a family doll.
The St. Charles Spaniel was an early blown glass ornament.
The spaniel was the most popular pet of the Victorian era, probably due to
Victoria's love of them.
The pig was not a favorite subject for German glassblowers
because it was associated with being a common sacrificial animal of pagan times
and even today, it is still identified with customs and lore of Central Europe.
As a result, the pig is a rare glass figural because not many molds were made.
The teddy bear ornament represents the stuffed, plush toy
bear created by Margarette Steiff in 1903 and named for President Teddy
Roosevelt. The teddy bear, originally thought of as a "boy's toy" was
popularized in the American market and a Washington Post cartoonist depicted
President Roosevelt dressed in hunting garb refusing an opportunity to shoot a
Musical instruments, especially horns, are prevalent since
they herald the celebration of Christmas music and were sounded to welcome
Christ into the world.
Reminiscent of nature's own tree decorations, pine cones,
walnuts, and icicles are commonly depicted in glass ornaments but each have
further significance. Pine cones were often brightly colored and imitated the
cones found on European trees. These cones tended to be long and thin. The
walnut was known to ancient Romans as "the nut of the Gods" and was one of the
very first tree ornaments.
Prior to the reformation, European children received
walnuts from St. Nicholas. And, often tiny gifts were concealed inside a gold or
silver painted walnut. Icicles have an interesting old superstition associated
with them. It is said that one can predict the depth of the winter's snows by
measuring the length of icicles between Christmas and New Year's Day.
Additional symbols of good luck include the red and white
capped mushroom stem, and the chimney sweep ornaments.
Reflectors (the ornaments with geometric concave
indentations) are sometimes referred to as "witches eyes". In the Victorian era
at least one reflector ornament was placed on the Christmas tree to fend off
evil spirits present in the home during the holiday season.
Treetops that have decorative spheres and a
spiked top were shaped to resemble the spike on a Prussian officer's helmet.