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.
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 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”.