O’ Come Let Us Adorn

There’s an older fellow in Egypt who wakes up every morning, throws on a flannel shirt and well-worn pants, and goes to his workshop behind the corrugated roll-up door of a small, industrial warehouse. Using ancient tools and techniques, he churns out hundreds of colorful, ornate, square cement tiles. He’s a true artisan, our tilemaker, carrying on his craft from many generations before him.  His product endures amid countless mass-produced ceramic and porcelain alternatives. Perhaps our tilemaker would feel more at home in Lauscha, Germany.  Lauscha is home to dozens of glassblowers, who still create colorful, ornate, Christmas ornaments by hand.

Lauscha “baubles”

Every December about this time, my wife & I bring home our Christmas tree (real, not artificial – see Is It Live or Is It Memorex? for that debate).  We take our tree through the same steps from start to adorned.  First, fresh-cut the trunk, set the tree into the stand, and fill with warm water (and one baby aspirin!).  Next, let gravity bring the branches down for a few days.  Then, bring out the ladder, top the tree with the angel, and string the lights generously down all sides.  Finally, adorn with ornaments.  Our collection is larger than the real estate of any Christmas tree we buy, so there’s always debate on which ornaments make the tree and which are re-relegated to the closet for another year of waiting.  In the end, we stand back and admire a pleasing mix of homemade, school-made, photo-framed, and collectibles.

You can never have enough ornaments, and the glassblowers in Lauscha would agree.  The process they use to create the simplest of glass balls is already beyond my artistic abilities.  For one, you must work fast because the molten glass cools in a hurry.  For two, you must have steady hands as you add color and detail.  Have a look at the following short video and you’ll learn a thing or two you never knew about making Christmas ornaments.  My favorite part of the process? “Silvering”.  Who knew the mirror-like aspect of a Christmas ball is painted on the inside of the glass?

Germans (and more people than I’d probably guess) refer to Christmas ornaments as baubles, which is ironic because Americans define a bauble as a “showy cheap trinket”.  Nothing produced in Lauscha, Germany is a showy cheap trinket.  Then again, Americans figured out how to mass-produce Christmas ornaments and the result is a generic, sometimes-plastic alternative to the real thing.  “Bauble” indeed.

The very first Christmas ornaments were anything but glass-blown baubles.  You had fruit, candy canes, pastries, strings of popcorn, and whatever else you could find around the house.  The Lauscha baubles then came along in the mid-1600s.  Short of the post-WWII years (when the German government used the glass factories for more important products) they’ve been making them ever since.

Credit Woolworth’s once-popular department stores for the proliferation of Christmas ornaments in America.  In the late 1800s, Woolworth’s started carrying the Lauscha baubles.  Soon after, they stocked mass-produced American-made versions, taking tree-decorating to a whole new level.  By the mid-20th-century, Woolworth’s was banking $25 million on Christmas decoration sales alone.

Hallmark “Keepsake Ornament”

Hallmark jumped on the bauble bandwagon in the 1970s.  Clever folks, those people at Hallmark.  Their original ornament collection was made available only for the current year, followed by a new collection the following year, and so on.  Today, Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments are so popular you have to join a club (just $49.95!) if you want to own their newest limited-edition ornaments.

As much as I’d like to add a Lauscha bauble or two to my tree, I prefer the more personal ornaments we hang instead.  A dozen or more of them were designed around primary-school photos of our kids (“art projects”, they called them).  Souvenir ornaments from favorite trips we’ve taken over the years.  Several more with imprinted dates, to remind us of special occasions like weddings, births, or passings.

Five years ago, I wrote my one and only work of fiction on this blog, a post about a Christmas ornament.  It seems fitting to include a link to The Best Branch on the Tree, assuming you haven’t followed me that long.  Because, you know, ornaments – er, baubles – have feelings too.

Some content sourced from Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.

17 thoughts on “O’ Come Let Us Adorn

  1. Wow, great post and video. I had no idea how these glass ornaments were made. I admit, I’ve never been fond of them, because they are delicate and take extra care in packing them up after Xmas, but they are pretty to look at!

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  2. The video makes me want to visit Lauscha (3+ hours east of Frankfurt). No surprise, Lauscha has a Museum of Glass Art. Glassblowing fascinates me, especially because it’s way beyond my artistic abilities. Or maybe it’s because the craft involves fire 🙂

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  3. Our ornament collection includes a few glass specimens and a few Hallmark ones too. But we have many more made from wood, felt, yarn, plastic, metal and other materials. Might be interesting to do an inventory of the various materials and see which might be considered the most unusual. We too had more ornaments than fit on our tree, large as it was–and all gifts from family, friends, students, etc. Don’t think we ever bought even one! For several years we put up two trees–one in the living room (artificial–sorry, Dave!) and a live one on the patio. (This was in South Florida.) Now a number of ornaments have been passed down to our three children. We’re back to one tree–and a smaller one at that! Loved the video, btw. I never knew how ornaments were made either!

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    1. It would be interesting, wouldn’t it, Nancy? Place our ornament collections side-by-side and let the many stories behind them be told. In other words, the Christmas tree is really more of a Memory Tree. And no apology necessary for your artificial tree. I was careful not to take sides on that topic, even if my own preference is a live one. There are several good reasons – including “South Florida” – why a person would choose artificial instead.

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  4. I’m always afraid I’ll break a fancy glass ornament. Souvenir ornaments are my favorite but I do love the ones me and my sisters made in school. I have one I made in Girl Scouts that is a frame made of those wooden tongue suppressers covered in glitter with a tragic picture of me (the must’ve called my name then snapped the picture because I wasn’t smiling or ready), always makes me laugh. Nowadays we have it easy and can take lots of pictures and delete the bad ones.

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    1. We have one from one of our kids similar to your “tragic”, with popsicle sticks as the frame instead of tongue depressors. Trust me, it doesn’t matter how good/bad the picture is – the ornament will always be one of your parent’s favorites.

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  5. We’ve had a really lifelike artificial tree for years. We have about 500 medium to really large spruce trees on our property. I couldn’t, in good conscience, cut one of them down and I couldn’t bear their disapproving glances should I bring home one of their fallen brothers…

    Like yours, our tree is decorated with the things we bought during our travels and home made items. I call it my memory tree and enjoy every minute of the month or two or three that it stays up!

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  6. The “lifelikeness” of artificial trees these days is remarkable. As for the “life”, we hold our breath all the way to Christmas, hoping our tree continues to take on the water we give it and not dry up and lose its needles. If we’re lucky, our tree is still looking respectable after the New Year. Three weeks is a good run.

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  7. I learned about glass ornaments last night when I read this post, but wanted to read your previous post to comment now. I have not decorated for several years, save for a wreath. I have to change my ways as I used to spend a day decorating, but now that it’s just me, have settled for a wreath … I must do better, but I said that last year. I thought your tree in a room with a cathedral ceiling (if memory serves me right from the 2020 post) sounded glorious.

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  8. Coincidentally, we just gave my sister-in-law a hard time for the very same reason you’re admitting to here, Linda. She used to put up a beautiful tree in her front window every year, meticulously decorated with lights and garlands and Hallmark ornaments. No longer. She doesn’t even invite us over to her house. We gave her a big “bah-humbug!” over the phone when she said she wasn’t in the Christmas spirit this year. No wonder! No decorations! And no, regretfully, the tree we had in 2020 was not one of our best; certainly not “glorious”. Check out the lead photo in that post again. Too thin for its height. But it was all we could find in a COVID year, so it had to do.

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  9. Wow, Dave, I absolutely loved your fiction short story! I could see that being an illustrated children’s book someday…..think about it! I’ve often thought about writing a kid’s book about picking out a Christmas tree, as they all seem straight and full in the lot, but when you get them home they’re not. They must stand up straight to get chosen! I was not able to watch the video, as it said not available in my country. I have a few Christmas balls from the 1940’s, inherited from my grandmother and a great aunt, and they are such delicate things. I’m sure we broke many of them when we were kids helping to decorate the tree, as I seem to recall hiding under the bed once as I had done so.

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    1. Yes, maybe 2022 is the year to give Gracie a shot at publication. I envision each book sold with an ornament. You should pursue the same with your Christmas tree story. Looks like we both enjoy giving life to inanimate objects! I broke my share of ornaments as a kid as well but fortunately, they were garden-variety colored balls instead of anything handed down or sentimental.

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  10. Loved this! Our tree contains almost nothing but glass ornaments, many of which date to the 50s. I wrote about our tree 9 years ago, that first went up in 1967, at https://www.curbsideclassic.com/blog/nostalgia/my-curbside-christmas-classic-1967-consolidated-novelty-scotch-pine-decking-the-halls-for-forty-five-years/

    It has been in service each year since except 2, including 2019 when we went simple due to a covid-enforced lack of visitors.

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    1. Well that was fun J.P., reading a post of yours from nine years ago. Your tree-topper angel looks very much like ours. And those ornament boxes with the cellophane fronts brought me right back to childhood. We used the lead-based tinsel too, but I always thought it was a fire hazard up against the hot lights. Glad to hear someone still puts “plain” ornament balls on the tree. I think they look great, especially the colored ones with the metallic look. My kids nix them every year in favor of the ornaments they grew up with. To each their own, however; pretty sure we will never have an artificial tree.

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