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Remembering: Collecting Christmas

Martha reveals her favorite Christmas collectibles that she's gathered over the years.

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I've come to the conclusion that the best way to really learn about traditions, biblical history, Christmas, Hanukkah, and other religious and secular holidays is to collect some of the wonderful memorabilia, ornaments, and toys that have been created by professionals and amateurs over the years. Most serious collectors have gotten hooked on one holiday -- Christmas, Halloween, Easter. Dabblers, like me, have started "collections," only to discover that what they are doing -- what I certainly do -- is accumulating those things they especially love, be they tinsel, feather trees, or dreidels.


When I was growing up, in a middle-class family of eight in Nutley, New Jersey, Christmas was our most intensely celebrated holiday. We baked; we cooked; we decorated with boughs and artificial snow. We always stayed at home, surrounded by our family, lots of relatives, many friends, and modest gifts.


We Kostyra children were encouraged to join the Nutley Savings Bank Christmas Club, and each of us had, as a result of our savings, anywhere from $25 to $50 to spend on gifts for the rest of the family. I deposited babysitting earnings into my account every week so that I could buy my mother and father something special, and I spent whatever was left on "ingredients" to make my siblings unusual presents, using a recently acquired skill: knitting, crocheting, tatting, weaving, sewing, pottery making. One year, I spent almost half of my savings on fine cashmere wool for a scarf for my father. I knitted a really beautiful, complicated pattern in taupe, and he was so happy when he wrapped it around his neck. Unhappily, the first time he wore the scarf -- to a business meeting -- he left it somewhere, losing it forever. I vowed that I would make "collectibles" from then on, ornaments and decorations that perhaps might one day be considered valuable.


I started to pay closer attention to real collectibles, handling my mother's few possessions with respect. We had some vintage Christmas ornaments, large German glass orbs painted with beautiful flowers and sparkling with glass glitter. We had real tinsel -- thin shards of tin-plated lead that hung heavily on the tips of our tree's branches. We had lovely conical metal "trees" that turned with the help of small electric motors. And we had a magnificent glass tree topper that made our tree resemble the onion domes of Russian churches.


My favorite collectible was the creche that Aunt Clemy had given us, rescued from one of the estates she represented at the storage warehouse where she worked. It was small as creches go, but old and charming. Made of some sort of wood and composite material, there was a roofed three-sided manger, trees, and figures of Mary, Joseph, the Baby Jesus, the three wise men, two shepherds, and various barnyard animals.


At a neighborhood garage sale I found more animals (even an elephant) to add to our creche; many of them, I was told, had been created in Germany, Japan, or Czechoslovakia. Some were home-crafted and crude, but others were simply extraordinary.


Years later, on a trip to Colombia, not long after Alexis was born, I found wonderful unpainted clay creches -- heavy but evocative, primitive but expressive -- in a street market. I carried the entire assortment of figures on the plane home on my lap! I found another beautiful creche in Mexico, another in Peru. At an antiques show in East Hampton I was lucky enough to locate a really old set made from composite, wood and plaster of Paris, with all the original paint intact. It resides on my dining room mantel every Christmas, a fine example of old-world craftsmanship and a beautiful reminder of my childhood.


Still on the lookout for wonderful ornaments and other holiday decorations, I have a craving for strands of turquoise glass ball swags, and I buy every one I find, regardless of quality. Not long ago I bought a giant pinkish mercury-glass kugel decorated with hand-etched stars -- no one I know has ever seen one so large. I still try to find tree toppers for my feather trees. And I don't think I will ever outgrow my appetite for real tinsel, which I guard from my cats.


A word of caution: Be careful where you place your precious collectibles. Last year I displayed my Colombian terracotta creche atop a mantel decorated with unsecured evergreen boughs. A friend inadvertently pulled on one of the boughs, causing a chain reaction. The entire Nativity scene tumbled onto the floor, and every piece was damaged except for one: the Baby Jesus rested untouched atop a small fluffy evergreen branch. I cried with joy!