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”.

Scour Power Bars

I like to calculate trivial quantities for my own entertainment. For instance, in the timeframe of my years in grade school, my mother made me over 2,000 sack lunches (thanks, Mom!)  Or how about, in the sixteen years my wife & I have lived at our current address, I’ve driven up and down our street over 12,000 times. Trivial or not, these numbers lend perspective to things we don’t think a lot about.  Like soap.  And my soap number is +650.  That is, the number of bars I’ve consumed over the years in a daily effort to keep clean.

Seriously, when was the last time you gave a bar of soap more than a passing glance?  The poor little 3″ x 2″ x 1″ pastel-colored brick spends its month-long life sitting somewhere in your shower or bath, 23.75 out of 24 hours a day.  In those remaining fifteen minutes (probably less) he gets his one moment of adventure, traveling all over your body while he works to return you to fresh ‘n’ clean.  But with each passing day, Mr. Soap gets smaller and smaller until the dreaded moment of deliberation.  Is his remaining sliver too little for effective scour power?  You’d never know it with all the water, but maybe Mr. Soap sweats as he shrinks, anticipating the moment he gets demoted from the shower to the trash bin.

In the spirit of don’t try this at home (because it’s already been determined), a bar of soap really does last about a month, assuming a daily shower.  And that’s me.  I take a morning shower every day whether I need it or not.  Even if there’s nothing to “get ready” for I still want to face my day like there is.  So, Mr. Soap matters to me. You can understand why I’m getting into a bit of a lather on this topic.

In the chemistry lab, soap equals a surfactant derived from the chemical compound of a fatty acid.  In the supermarket, soap is simply a waxy, floral-smelling substance you purchase in solid or liquid form.  Behold some of the more common brands in America (as advertised online by Wal*Mart):

  • Caress
  • Coast
  • Degree
  • Dial
  • Dove
  • Irish Spring
  • Ivory
  • Jergens
  • Lever
  • Olay
  • Safeguard
  • Yardley
  • Zest

Admit it, as unimportant as soap may be to you, there’s a favorite brand out there, probably from the list above.  Mine is a little more exotic.  I go with Dr. Bronner’s All-One Hemp Lavender Pure-Castile (and how’s that for a mouthful of soap?)  Dr. Bronner’s is harder to find and more expensive than the commoners above, but I sure like it.  Maybe it’s the hemp; you know, maybe I’m getting a little “high ‘n’ clean”?  You could claim I’m “soap-stoned” when I shower.

My wife & I stream most of our entertainment these days so we miss a lot of commercials.  But ads for soap – at least those of several decades ago – took scrubbing bubbles to ridiculous claims.  Coast convinced you its product would “awaken your senses” and “bring you back to life” in the mere minutes of a shower.   Irish Spring advertised itself as “springtime in a bar” as a towel-clad Irishman cut into the soap with a knife he just happened to be carrying, uh… where, exactly?  And Zest had you thinking “you’re not fully clean until you’re Zest-fully clean”.  As if Zest was somehow noticeably better than other options.

Even though my Dr. Bronner’s might label me a soap snob, I want to give a shoutout to Ivory.  The simple white bars claim to be 99.44% pure soap.  The other 0.56% includes the sharp tang of fresh ginger root, a smell I will always associate with my grandparent’s house.  I can’t come up with another smell so “cleanly” connected to my distant past, so Ivory gets my nod of gratitude.

Some of you reading this far dismiss the entire topic since your preference is liquid soap.  I say, good on you!  Liquid soap has all of the cleansing benefits of bar soap and is typically a better moisturizer for the skin.  Liquid soap is also less likely to gather germs than Mr. Soap since he sits fully exposed in the shower all day every day.  But bar soap contains fewer ingredients and more natural ingredients than liquid – better for you and for the environment.  As they say, tom-ay-to, tom-ah-to. 

This opera of soap is just about done, but not before I leave you with one final trivial number: 4,800.  That’s how many years soap’s been a thing, invented by those brilliant but ancient Egyptians.  Think about it the next time you unearth a mummy.  You’ll never know who’s under the wrappings, but at least you can be pretty sure he or she was left fresh ‘n’ clean.

Some content sourced from the RompaGroup article, “17 facts about soap, the most popular hygiene product in the world”, the Healthy Group article, “Is Liquid Soap Better than Bar Soap?”, and Wikipedia, “the free encyclopedia”.