A Guide to Christmas Antiques and Vintage Christmas Decorations

December 15th, 2008

christmas tree candle box

Ever wonder about that box of vintage Christmas decorations in the attic? From wooden nutcrackers to glass Christrmas tree ornaments to 1930’s Lionel model trains, this article can help you identify what vintage or antique Christmas items might be in that box. Your cherished decorations might be valuable, and even if not, you can sure have a whole lot of fun decorating with them!

Christmas Trees: From Simple to Space Age

christmas bell postcard

Decorating the tree, like many modern Christmas traditions, was originally a German innovation. Nuts, fruits and candles were the most common decorations, and some families would later take the tree outside to share the ornaments with the animals.

Americans started decorating trees in the early 1800s, often covering them in garlands of popcorn or cookies baked in festive shapes. Christmas tree stands were occasionally made of cast iron, but more often a piece of wood was simply nailed to the tree bottom and covered with a piece of red velvet cloth.

During the late 1800s (Victorian era), Christmas decorations became much more elaborate, featuring elegant Christmas tree ornaments, baubles and garlands. In the space age 1950’s, Americans became enamored with newfangled aluminum Christmas trees, which were produced in silver, pink and even purple, rotated on electric tree stands with an electric light ‘color wheel’. Today these aluminum trees,christmas pin especially in the rarer colors, are highly collectible.

Blown Glass, Wooden and Silver Christmas Tree Ornaments

German craftsmen began producing images of fruits, hearts, stars, and angels in glass in the mid-1800s, and their popularity soared. By the 1880s American entrepreneur F.W. Woolworth had begun importing these German glass and metal treasures to his five and dime stores all across the country, sparking a Christmas ornament craze in the U.S.christmas ornaments

Folksy, homemade decorations like textile and wooden tree ornaments also became popular around this time, and many were constructed from miscellaneous household materials like wire, pressed tin, construction paper and cardboard, often using instructions published in magazines. The handmade German ornament trade floundered after World War I, so American innovators mechanized the process, mass-producing ornaments that were sent to other companies to be decorated, often by hand. The largest such American company was “Shiny-Brite.”

Vintage Department Store Christmas Ephemera

1933 ricesticks christmas catalog

By the 1930’s, Christmas had become a big business, and children eagerly awaited the arrival of Christmas toy catalogs from the likes of Sears and Montgomery Ward. Department stores set up huge Christmas trees, places for kids to meet Santa, and sweeping window displays of their toys, often encircled by a lifelike Lionel train set. All the trappings of this era — the trains, the advertising, and even the catalogs, not to mention the toys, today are highly collectible.

Antique and Vintage Christmas Tree Lights

Although candles had long been used to illuminate Christmas trees, by 1882 one of Thomas Edison’s assistants decided to try the new electric lights for that purpose. After a decade or two of dangerous fire-causing experimental displays, the safety Christmas bulb was invented in 1917, and sold to the public in strings.

peerless inside christmas lightsChristmas lights became popular in many shapes and sizes, like bubbling lights, figural lights, electric flameless candles, and novelty shapes like stars or hearts. By the 1950’s, most lights had taken on the teardrop shape we associate today with vintage Christmas lights.

Vintage Christmas Putz Villages and Antique Nativity Scenes

Putz, or tiny Christmas village houses, are a longstanding Christmas decorating tradition. Often seen at the base of Christmas trees, on mantles, or atop side tables, they were introduced to the U.S. by the Pennsylvania Dutch in the late 1800’s.good lite outside christmas lights

Beginning as hand-carved wooden pieces, Putz villages were soon mass-produced in America, and also in Japan for the U.S. market. Japanese-made cardboard villages sold briskly in dime stores during the Depression. Today, these villages in good condition can be highly collectible.

Many Putz villages also featured a Nativity scene. Rendered in wood, cardboard, and ceramics, they almost always featured angels, shepherds, and animals, in addition to the holy family.

Vintage Nutcrackers, Elves and Reindeer

italy gloria livaudais angelThe 1892 debut of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite ballet established nutcrackers as a Christmas holiday tradition. Although the first hinged nutcracker is attributed to the Romans, the ones we’re familiar with were first produced by German craftsmen in the early 1800s, as functional decorations in the shapes of soldiers, kings, woodsmen, and miners.

With their iconic beards and painted rosy cheeks, German nutcrackers soon found a large audience in America. U.S. GI’s brought them home during WW2, spurring a wave of collecting. Several makers, such as Steinbach, still produce collectible limited edition nutcrackers.

Other iconic Christmas images which have spawned highly collectible decorative figurines and ornaments include elves, reindeer, and Christmas bells.1962 montgomery ward christmas catalog

Vintage Santa Figurines and Christmas Advertising

The story of Santa Claus goes back to fourth century Myra (now Turkey), where the kindly old Bishop Nicholas became a patron for children and the poor. Dutch immigrants brought the lore of Saint Nick to America, and through mispronunciation of ‘Sinterklass’ (St. Nicholas), Santa Claus was born.

Santa’s likeness adorns many Christmas antiques and collectibles, from toys to vintage tree ornaments to centerpieces and tiny figurines. Celluloid figurines were among the earliest such incarnations: German craftsmen figured out how to shape this lightweight, plastic-like material into simple shapes in the early 1900’s, and American and Japanese manufacturers soon followed. But by the 1930’s the market for celluloid figures faded, thanks to their inflammability.

santa claus christmas tree lighting outfitCoca-Cola was one of the first companies to jump on the Christmas bandwagon, helping to define Santa in the process. In the 1930’s the company began producing a number of Christmas advertisements featuring Santa enjoying Coke, which helped establish Santa as a gift giver clad in red. By the 1950’s, popular ornaments began depicting Santa as shorter, with more compact features and cartoonish expressions.

Vintage Christmas Records and Pop Memorabilia

Bing Crosby’s 1938 recording of ‘White Christmas’ launched a wave of popular Christmas record albums which are now highly collectible (and perfect background music for a snowy Christmas day, if you still have a turntable).

bing crosby christmas albumThere’s a lot to choose from in this genre, from the now-rare Beatles Christmas albums to recordings by Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Gene Autry, Pearl Jam, and of course, Alvin and the Chipmunks! Not to mention the memorabilia associated with big screen Christmas movies like Miracle on 34th Street and other early films. Posters and other promotional materials from these older movies are often highly sought by collectors.

Collecting Antique and Vintage Christmas Items for the Future

charlie brown christmas

So whether you consider them antique, vintage, or just fun to remember holidays past by, hang on to those decorations and hand-me-downs in that box in the attic, not to mention the new Christmas items you pick up this year. You never know what might become a valuable antique 30 years from now!

24 comments so far

  1. Rebecca Miner Says:

    I have a box of very old Christmas lights which I found in my Mother’s things. One is Christmas Lights by Noma with a Cat. #110 and another one is by Timco and is entitled Christmas Lighting Outfit #302. Do you know anything about these?

  2. CambrianPark Says:

    I have a vintage animated window display that I believe is from the 1940′s, it is not as elaborate as a department store item, I am assuming it was used in a drug store or five & dime. Is there a source for information on this kind of thing?

  3. Norine Striegel Says:

    When my husband’s grandparents came to America from Germany in the 1800′s, they brought with them a silver looking tree stand. It is about 14 inches or so in diameter. It plays 3 christmas songs and also a switch that you can make the tree revolve. The heavy thing that holds the Christmas tree can be removed from the large silver base. It is very ornate with a couple of faces on it and some other designs. It is about 5 or 6 inches in length with 3 screws that hold the tree. On the large base is a raised trademark of a St. Nick carrying a christmas tree with a little boy on one side and a little girl on the other side. Below that, the word Germany is engraved. It also has on the base the letters NAS and then it looks like a 1 under the written letters. Does anyone have any information about this beautiful musicial revolving christmas tree stand?

  4. grace marshall Says:

    I have a friend who has been collecting vintage/antique Santa Claus figures (has about 1,000) and wants to sell them. Do you know how she would go about this? I am sure many of them are quite valuable.
    She is a senior citizen and I have offered to help her.

    Thank you.

    Grace

  5. Buddy Says:

    I just came across a cast iron christmas tree stand that has been in my familys attic for 60 years, where can I have it appraised?

  6. Dee Says:

    I bought some Christmas ornaments an an auction. The cap looks like a Shiny Brite cap but has numbers instead. At the top is stamped U.S.A.
    at the bottom is a lage number 5. To the right and left are smaller 5s…Can you tell me anything about these ornaments? Some of them has 10s instead of 5s.

  7. Denise Compton Says:

    7. Denise Says: Last week I came across 2 ornaments made by Kurt S. Adler Inc. I have 2 unopened bags that say Santa’s World Holiday Trim. I bought
    these at a thrift store but it actually came from Halle’s Department Store when it was around. It feels like a hard ceramic figurine. It’s a girl playing a musical instrument, braids in the hair with orange bows at the bottom, brown coat with white buttons, bluish socks, & brown shoe’s. I’m going in circles trying to find out some information about this particular item & how much it’s worth. If you know anything about this item I will kindly appreciate it.

    Thank you,
    Denise

  8. linzi Says:

    I am trying to find Alvin and the chipmunks christmas decorations but I live in the UK and I can’t find any decorations that are being sold in the US that can be shipped to the UK.
    I have checked on other websites but can’t find any.
    please can somebody help me?

  9. Mary Says:

    I am looking for 11″ papier mache electrified reindeer wall plaque model # JC-341. We used to have one when i was growing up and I would really love to have one. It reminds me of my mother who passed in 2004 of lung cancer.
    Can anyone help me?

  10. Bobbie Says:

    I am looking for the glass Kurt Adler Believe Santa by Polonaise and am having a terrible time. Any help or wisdom?

  11. Kory Carroll Says:

    Well, it was a Great Christmas 2009. I am a collector of Aluminum Christmas Trees, and bought 5 this past Year. Now My Collection total is 221 all with the Original Boxes and Color Wheels, all Sizes & Colors! Any Questions that You may have regarding this Mid-Century-Modern-Space-Age Treasures, Please let me know.
    Happy New Year & Merry Kitschmas!

  12. Linda de'Marsi Says:

    We found in my Mother in law’s attic an old cement or stone Christmas Tree Stand, approximately 10 inches tall. It’s very heavy. I looks like a tree trunk with the roots going into grass, which is the bottom of the stand…the grass looks like it was painted or mixed into the cement/stone. We’ve never seen any like this one. We’re wondering the age of this stand and if it has any value in today’s antique market?

  13. carol weltig Says:

    i have a sir walter raleigh christmas tin measuring 7×4 and 3 in deep. the top has bells and candles with a wreath around the bust of sir walter raleigh. the front of it has a scene of a home. the tin is decorated with holly on all sides.inside the lid is a tobacco leaf outline with b&w on it. can someone tell me more about this. i cannot find any information. March 12, 2010 . on each end there are partial stamps from the us interrev. please e-mail me if you have seen one of these tins. thank you.

  14. paula hayes Says:

    greetings! i have a pair of very large lighted christmas candles. they were my great grandmothers. she used them in her store display. they are about 4 1/2 feet tall. the base is a metal square consisting of 4 panels that say seasons greetings. the pillar part is made of thick paper and the top part which is the flame and melted wax is made of plastic. the entire candle lights up. they are in really good condition. i havent been able to find out what the value would be. i cant even find anything like them on line. i would appreciate any info you could give me or maybe where to look. thanks so much!!

  15. wendy Says:

    I recently inherited some really old (1900 – 1920, I think) ornaments. My main concern is with the glass icicles. They range in length from 2 1/2″ to 7″. They are very dirty so I am washing them. However, they came with old silver flat twisted metal hangers. The silver is tarnishing to dark grey/black. I would like to display these icicles without having to worry about the wires but also don’t want to destroy any value they have by removing the wires. The icicles are in clear, clear pastel blue, clear pastel peach/pink, and clear pastel yellow. I don’t even want to think about having to polish the hangers. Will I destroy the antique value by removing the old ones and using something I feel is safer? Obviously if they break, all value is gone. The hangers twist through a small glass loop that reminds me of a soft serve ice cream cone curl. Any info or help would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  16. Christine Campbell Says:

    I just received a gift from my parents….a Christmas tree stand that sounds identical to the one discussed by Norine Striegel on Jan 14, 2009.My grandfather’s uncle came over from Germany around 1907 and brought with him this silver-looking Christmas tree stand with a heavy iron base for the tree. It has the St. Nick trademark that she talked about. It plays three Christmas carols, one of which I don’t recognize. I’d love to know what that third song is.

  17. Chuck Lambert Says:

    I’m now 59 years old and have been thinking of an electric Christmas toy I had, probably close to 50 years ago. It was a brightly painted depiction of a living room with a staircase on the left and a fireplace on the right. It was AC operated with one medium light bulb and a small electric motor that would drive the animation. What it did, as Santa Claus would come down the Chimney/Fireplace the Children on the stairway would go up the stairs, and of course as the children came down the stairs, Santa Claus would go up the Chimney. It would play like this until unplugged. It brings back so many pleasant memorys. Would anyone know about this antique animated toy??

  18. Marsha Says:

    I have a Christmas banner from maybe the 1950′s from Sealtest. It has Santa in his sleigh with the reindeer. It is approximately 4-5′ long and 28″ tall. Any ideas?

  19. Joy Says:

    I have a small christmas box made of cards stitched together with red string and covered in some kind of plastic,i remember my cousins making items similar to this when i was about 4 yers old .and that wasn’t yesterday.

  20. sheila moore Says:

    In looking through an old Better Homes and Gardens Christmas issue (1978), I noticed ads for Ball Corp acrylic Christmas ornaments. Does anyone know anything about them?

  21. Rebecca Bowell Says:

    Each year, my mother tells me of the christmas tree lights that they had when she was a child. She grew up in the 1940′s in Northern Ireland and the lights were in the shape of Santa. I would love to find a set of these or as close to them as possible. If anyone has any ideas, I’d be so grateful!

  22. Debbie Knight Says:

    There is an organization, The Golden Glow of Christmas Past (www.goldenglow.org), made up of vintage Christmas enthusiasts from around the world. New members are always welcome, and many of your questions would be answered by becoming a member and talking with other members. It’s a great organization with yearly conventions and some regional gatherings throughout the year in the U.S.

  23. Mary Evelyn Harper Says:

    I have a medium sized glass Christmas ball that has been in my family for as long as I can remember (I’m 66) It is silver/gray with 2 red stars on either side or a ribbed ball. I wondered if it had any significance to WWII like the banners that hung in families windows. Just wondering. Thanks

  24. Mona Gail Clark Says:

    I bought some old Christmas hand carved soldiers. They look possibly Polish,Russian. They have different weapons on the right side of their bodies. They also have different hats. They are about 2 and 1/2″ tall. They still have the original red hand twisted strings to hold them on the tree. Any ideas about? Thanks.


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