The Magical History Behind Vintage Christmas Ornaments

snowman ornament
Kate Mathis

If you are fortunate enough to have boxes of decorations from your childhood Christmases, you will probably find a number of charming vintage ornaments among the mercury-glass balls and tin stars. There was a resurgence of interest in crafts following World War II, thanks in part to a wealth of kits and instruction books on such techniques as mosaic tiling, china painting, fanciful frosting, and pipe-cleaner ornaments. Especially at holiday time, novelty craft showed up in abundance at school fund-raisers and bake sales and as decorations at children's birthday celebrations and their parents' cocktail parties.

Today, such vintage Christmas decorations are in great demand among modern ornament makers looking for shapes and patterns to reproduce. Many of these collectible keepsakes can be found in your home. Endearing figures—a debonair top-hat snowman, an amiable reindeer, or a workshop elf—as well as your own favorite holiday characters are a delight to display.

Pictured here: this cardboard snowman, possibly intended for placement under a tree, was one of many traditional ornaments made in Japan in the 1950s. "They were first brought to America in the 19th century," says Fritz Karch, an antiques dealer based in Hopewell, New Jersey, and an avid collector of ornaments, who curated this story. "At that time, F. W. Woolworth had great success with German factories creating them for his stores in the States." With his monocle and pipe-cleaner mustache, this dapper fellow has personality to spare.

No holiday figure is as instantly recognizable as Kris Kringle, the jovial, red-suited icon who has inspired a whole world of Christmas decorations. Among the most delightful Santa ornaments are playful miniatures made of celluloid, an early plastic, sold at five-and-dimes in the '20s and '30s. For less than a dollar, you can buy a handful of these treasured reminders of Christmas past. These cheerful ornaments will inspire you to keep them in the family for years to come.

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A Twinkle in Time

vintage star ornaments
Kate Mathis

Think of star and snowflake ornaments as jewelry for your tree. Spiky versions in paper or clear plastic add graphic punch, while shimmery specimens made of mercury glass, tin, or tinsel reflect light and impart shine. "Early trees were, of course, lit with candles," says Karch. "The effect of flickering light on a beveled metal ornament would have been quite beautiful."

02 of 15

Dresden Ornaments

dresden ornament close up
Kate Mathis

Highly coveted Dresden ornaments, constructed of silver- or gold-faced embossed cardboard, were made in Germany, mostly between the late 19th century and World War I.

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12-Point Star Ornament

12 point star vintage ornament

This is the oldest ornament in our collection—a pressed-lead 12-point star that dates to 1870s Germany.

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Homes for the Holiday

vintage house ornaments
Kate Mathis

The German-American custom of the putz—the miniature Christmas village under the tree, typically including a manger scene—gave rise to the tradition of trimming the tree itself with tiny replicas of cottages, churches, and shops made from handblown glass, plastic, and paper. "When it comes to cardboard cottages, the ones with little trees still attached are most sought after," says Karch. "They're the first things to break off."

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Foil-Covered Ornaments

foil covered ornament
Kate Mathis

In the States, World War II metal shortages inspired homemade foil-covered ornaments.

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House Ornament

celluloid vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

The cutout windows of this 1930s celluloid house allow tree lights to shine through.

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Now Dash Away All

vintage reindeer ornaments
Kate Mathis

It's not all about Rudolph. The famous red-nosed charmer—the creation of a copywriter for Montgomery Ward & Co.—didn't prance onto the holiday scene until 1939. The earliest reference to Santa's singular mode of travel actually dates to 1821, when an anonymous New York illustrator depicted "Old Santeclaus" riding in a sleigh, pulled by a single reindeer.

08 of 15

Rudolph Ornament

rudolph vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

Though somewhat faded, the red nose on this rubberized-plastic piece from the late '60s or early '70s distinguishes the figure as dear old Rudolph.

09 of 15

Silver Reindeer Ornament

silver reindeer vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

Silver nitrate poured inside clear handblown glass gives this 19th-century reindeer its silver shimmer.

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Reindeer Figures

reindeer vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

Larger figures, such as this thermoplastic version, often came in teams along with a sleigh, and were meant to go on a mantel or under a tree.

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Joyful Noise

instrument ornaments
Kate Mathis

"Instruments are classic emblems of Christmas festivities," says Karch. "Think of church bells, handbells, and general merrymaking." German glass artisans flaunted their craftsmanship with dainty versions that rang and tiny horns that could be blown. Later styles, made from a range of materials including glass and plastic, were more ornamental than functional—and included the occasional saxophone.

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Horn Ornament

horn vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

Made from a single rod of handblown glass, this horn has a working kazoo inside.

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Bell Ornament

bell vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

A clapper makes this hand-painted glass bell notable.

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A Feast for the Eyes

vintage fruit ornament
Kate Mathis

The very earliest Christmas ornaments? Fresh fruit. The practice dates back to the 14th century, when apples were hung on evergreen trees to serve as props for the miracle plays presented in churches on December 24. "For many early Americans, hanging citrus on a Christmas tree would have been an extra-special treat," says Karch. The cornucopia of faux produce created for the holidays eventually grew to include colorful berries, beets, and mushrooms made of cotton batting, glass, and plastic.

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Pear Ornament

pear vintage ornament
Kate Mathis

Pressed-cotton ornaments like this pear, made by gluing layers of cotton batting on a wire frame, were a more durable alternative to glass.

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