Are your visions of sugar plums shattered each December by the garish glare of E-Z Lite bulb? Do your Christmas memories cry for a tree ablaze with Little Match Girl magic, each piney bough festooned with finely wrought fairy-tale fruits, birds, bugles and angels of handblown Old World charm? Such enchanted confections exist, lovingly passed on through generations, but usually these fragile vestiges of Christmases past leave a family's hands only when shattered bits are sadly swept away. So if your inheritance doesn't include a trunkful of trimmings, the easiest way to satisfy a craving for an old-fashioned Tannenbaum is to buy new versions of old ornaments at local gift shops. The new editions are still quite a few cuts above the drugstore variety and amazingly inexpensive, but for purists willing to pay for truly tarnished angels, some authentically old oranaments can be had for the haggling at antique-toy shows, estate sales and the occasional yard sale. But be warned-there's one woman in Long Island who needs four trees to display her collection.
"It's a real disease once you catch it," says Dorothy Junghans of Glover Park, whose collection has passed 250 and is still going. "When you first start you want everything you see that's old. Then you get selective. Now I look for unusual things. This year I found a clown smiling on one side and grouchy on the other. Isn't he dear? I don't know if I'm going to hang him," she says softly, cradling her treasure in one palm. "So far I've found two faces but not really what I'm looking for. I want an Indian face and I want the Man in the Moon. When you find something you want you get so excieted you don't care what condition it's in."
She's not kidding. At a recent antique-toy show, one young women who'd driven two hours to be there when the doors opened quickly snapped up$374 worth of handblown ornaments from New York dealer Joan Kindler. At$58, an early 1900s cherub's head, about four inches high and three inches across, was her most costly buy. No matter that the once-pearly pug nose was chipped or that time had rotated the glass eyes so the expression resembled Marty Feldman more than the sugar-plum fairy-especially since another dealer was selling the same ornament for $85. Prices vary drastically, particulary at this time of the year when it's every collector for him or herself.
"They're selling like hotcakes," said dealer Linda Taylor, of Gaithersburg. "I've had to refill my display case twice. There's such a demand for them. Look a that Baby Jesus, isn't he cute? Look at those hands!"
Yes. He was cute. He was also $125-all three inches of him. But religious ornaments are rare, as are such others as a $50 pink drawstring bag or a six-inch, $60 robin's egg-blue swan whose gracefully arched neck is looped with darkened silvery tinsel.
Not everyone pays so dearly for their antique ornaments. Some are lucky, like Betty Anne Richardson of Montauk, who bought dozens at a garage sale for 50 cents a box. "I had no idea they were worth so much," she said. Or Dorothy Midgett of Richmond, who worked for an auction house and took part of her pay in ornaments. After 25 years on the job she has 900. Don Lockett got his the traditional way, inheriting from his grandmother and great aunt. "I'm amazed at these prices. I'm going to be a millionaire." the 24-year-old Lockett said. "I've got boxes and boxes of these in the attic." Alas, Lockett may have his millions spent before he gets to the bank, because he too has caught the bug. "I've become fascinated by them." he confessed. "Now I'm looking for things I don't have. I want a boat with a sail."
The point of origin for this fine madness is, not suprisingly, the Christmas capital of the world-Gemrany, that long-ago and faraway land of snowy villages, gingerbread castles and the Brothers Grimm. It was there that Christmas trees and Kris Kringle came to be and there, in the tiny village of Lauscha, deep in the Thuringian mountains, that the Christmas tree ornament was born. In 1867, the construction of a gasworks gave Lauscha'a glassblowers a flame they could regulate to make delicate, thinwalled glass, and soon they were using intricate molds to create birds, Santas, cones, fnuts, fruits, baskets and houses. Bugles, lyres, hearts, anchors and urns with tiny handles were blown free-form. About 5,000 molds were made between 1870 and 1940. In 1890 F.W. Woolworth went to Lauscha on a buying trip, and the glass ornament's place on America's Christmas trees was secured.
Ornament-making was not only a cottage industry in Lauscha, it was a family fafair. Fathers and sons usually worked over the flame with small blobs of glass while the women silvered the insides of finished ornaments.Everyone helped paint the outsides in rainbow hues. Sometimes they'd add glass eyes, crushed-glass frosting or hair-soft spun-glass tails for birds. Business tended to stay in the families until two World Wars and the Iron Curtain tore apart families, Germany and the ornament business as well. Then in the '50s German ornaments slowly began to cross the Atlantic again, but some people are skeptical about the industry's future in the mechanical modern world. "The glasblower's art is dying out. I'm afraid someday they'll all be plastic," said one dealer sadly.
Not if Olga Whitehurst has anything to say about it. "There'll be handblown glass ornaments as long as there's prosperity in the world," she said, and she ought to know. For the past 30 years, Mrs. Whitehurst and her husband, H. Morris, have imported Old World (the trade name) ornaments from East and West Germany and Czechoslovakia for their Baltimore-based wholesale firm. "There's not a state in the Union we don't sell to," she says, adding that of the dozens of thousands of glass ornaments annually stored in their Eastron Warehouse, some 65 percent still come from Lauscha.
Not too long after World War II ended, the Whitehursts, who then owned a children's shop, heard that many European artisans were open for business again. Ghey decided to go to Switzerland and France after merchanidse, and a shipboard friend recommended that they go to the Leipzig Fair, which dates back to 1100. There they saw the blown-glass ornarments we'd seen as children," Whitehurst recalls. "Baltimore has a large German population and there was no doubt in our minds but that every German in the city would flock to buy them." They did, and the Whitehurst have imported the ornaments ever since.
"No one in the U.S. makes molded ornaments," Whitehurst said. "If they did the prices would probably start at about $10." Instead, the new handblown ornaments, some made from the same molds as the costly old ones sell for about 45 cents for 3/4" hearts, nuts and fruits and up to $3 for 4" frosted chruches and 6" matte birds with spun-glass tails. Why are they so cheap? Partly because Lauscha is now in East Germany, where a government agency controls export manufacturing. Also, business is still in families, who may pay each other less than minimum wage. Finally, she says, speed is a factor: "Most of the craftsmen have been at it since they were eight or nine years old. They can blow about 600 ornaments a day. The wives do the painting and the children put on the cap." Just like the old days, although there are now some factories. Some glassblowers slipped through the Iron Curtain in the earily '50s, taking their molds with them, so now West Germany also has a thriving ornament business.
But Whitehurst expects prices to go up every year as wages rise. And though young people are learning the trade, they're trying out new designs, while some of the old ones are disappearing as older craftsmen die. "The most difficult to get right now are the teapots. They're getting scarcer every year, as are all the free-blown ornaments like bugles and guitars." These may become plentiful again in a few years when the newer artisans master ithe technique.
"When the designs get too modern, people don't like them. They're looking for something they can identify with . . . Also, certain ornaments have a symbolic meaning. The fish stands for fertility, the teapot for hospitality, the bird for happiness and the heart for love. People always want those."
So if handblown, handpainted ornaments from magical. Thuringia that look just like the old ones are available bright, new and cheap, why collect the old? For some collectors, the darkened soft luster of age gives antique ornaments a mesmerizing charm.
"I saw one just like some my mother used to have. I had to have it and that's what got me started," one woman explains. Just like mother's-Christmas the way it used to be even if it never really was. Perhaps the way they would've liked it to be. Nostalgia, a heavy factor in collecting just about anything, is downright imperative when it comes to Christmas ornaments. "I'm just like a child about Christmas," says Dorothy Junghans. A retired government worker who lives by herself, Junghans annually puts up a seven-foot tree for her antique ornaments and, having no children or family close by, she usually invites over a few neighbors, also retired apartment-dwellers, to admire it. She keeps her ornaments packed away in a cedar chest all year, unwraps them one by one Christmas Eve and trims her tree. "Last year I started working on it right after supper. It got later and later, but I was having so much fun that I kept working. I like to put the smaller ones, like the bells, at the top and I try not to get too many of the same type together. Well, all of a sudden I heard this thump at the door. It was the paper boy! It was 8 o'clock Christmas morning!" Now isn't that the magic of Christmas? CAPTION: Illustration, FROM A PAGE FROM EHRICH'S FASHION QUARTERLY, WINTER 1882.