Friday, 30 November 2012

Give festive gifts with historic charm this Christmas

collect-9My mission this week is to help you find Christmas presents for the collectors in your life: for Gran, a nice hand-blown English drinking glass for her egg nog; a first edition classic for Grandpa; an impressive gold necklace or gem-set brooch for Mum; an antique handmade golf club for Dad; and the kids? Well virtually any plaything from the past would be perfect.

But all that’s old hat. Why not buy each of them a Christmas collectable? Let’s face it, there’s plenty of choice and since it’s a festival that’s been going for a while now, celebrating Christmas is not something that’s going to go out of fashion.

The idea was planted in my subconscious the last time I went to Florida for my summer holiday. There’s something distinctly odd about shops that sell only Christmassy kitsch all

collect-8year round, but the air conditioning provided welcome relief from the 80 degree August sun and by the time we’d finished looking, many dollars had been liberated from my wallet.

Whether or not any of the baubles, ornaments and knickknacks will ever be worth more than they cost is doubtful, but they are brought out every year around now and they continue to bring pleasure. Perhaps in another hundred years or so ...

No matter. Since then, we’ve been squirreling away all manner of old Christmas decorations. They turn up occasionally at the countless antique fairs and car boot sales we visit every year and they also add a certain unique charm when we deck the halls with boughs of holly.

We’ve yet to find a vintage Christmas tree, like the one illustrated here, preferring instead to enjoy the pungent smell of the real thing. Dealing with the fallen needles is a necessary evil. The artificial tree and all its original decorations came from Binns department store in the 1930s.

The British tradition of decorating a tree at Christmas is a relatively new one, following a fashion started in 1841 by Queen Victoria’s new husband. Prince Albert installed a decorated tree in Windsor Castle to mark their second Christmas together, and it so delighted the queen that the Christmas tree soon became universally popular

It was a tradition Albert brought with him from his native Germany. There, legend has it that the mother-less children of a woodcutter were home alone in the forest one day when a little boy came asking for food and shelter. The children took him in and shared what bread they had with him and gave him a bed for the night. The next morning, on leaving, the boy visitor, who was in fact the Christ-child, planted a fir tree. Instantly it grew and grew and miraculously brought forth apples, nuts and sweets in abundance. The Christmas tree perpetuates the story ever after.

As for antique Christmas tree decorations, look for 19th century glass baubles made in Lauschia, in Germany; bisque porcelain snow babies with original decoration; so-called Christmas pudding dolls and cake decorations and papier maché Santa Clauses made from the 1870s intended to contain sweets or biscuits.
At £10, they seemed like a bargain

Lauschia was the cradle of German glass-making from the 17th century. Christmas shiny balls are today very rare and often mistaken as witch balls. Expect to pay £200 or more for the large Kugels (German for sphere or ball), which measure up to 10 inches across and around £50 for the smaller examples. Beware modern copies.

We saw a box of six 1930s German-made glass shiny balls at recent car boot sale and now, faced with having to decorate our own tree with modern plastic excuses for tree decorations, we wished we had bought them. At £10, they seemed like a bargain, given their longevity.

Snow babies are small porcelain dolls measuring around two inches with blue eyes and rosy cheeks. The German Heubach firm of dollmakers produced the most sought after, but expect to pay £75 plus for a 19th century example. Japanese makers copied the idea after the First World War. Their products are recognisable by their brown eyes, calligraphic eyebrows and inferior quality. Again, modern copies abound.

Vintage Santa Clauses are very collectable, even the plastic varieties popular in the 1950s, being worth £2-5 today. The best are those that are hollow for sweets and which range in size from six to 18 inches. Nineteenth century examples are worth £150-200, while even later copies made in Hong Kong or bearing an “Empire Made” mark are worth £75.

Examples with no mark probably date from just after the First World War when retailers scratched off the “Made in Germany” mark for fear of being left with stock no one would buy.

Harder to find are vintage Christmas crackers, basically because once pulled – the whole point after all – they are discarded. They were invented by London baker and confectioner Tom Smith in Clerkenwell, East London, who copied the Chinese fortune cookie by wrapping his sweets with a motto in waxed paper.

collect-2Tom's next brainwave was to include a small charm or trinket, which he decided he would place with the sweet and motto inside a small cardboard tube enclosed by an outer wrapper. The cracker was born, although it was still without the “crack”.

Tradition has it that inspiration came from the crackling of a log fire. It took two years to perfect but the solution is still in use today. Tom's crackers were launched under the brand name "Bangs of Expectation” in time for Christmas 1860.

The golden era for crackers was 1880-1930. Tom Smith remained the dominant manufacturer producing sets linked by common themes: Shakespearean crackers containing party hats and quotations from the Bard's plays; "Aesthetic Crackers" inspired by Oscar Wilde and "Stereoscopic Crackers" containing tiny kaleidoscopes and other optical toys. Others celebrated war heroes, Charlie Chaplin, the wireless, motoring, the Coronation and even the 1914 plan to dig a Channel Tunnel.

Cheapest of all festive collectables, though, are Victorian and Edwardian Christmas cards, our latest costing just 75 pence. Rowland Hill and his Penny Post of 1840 is who to thank, while one of the most prodigious publishers was Raphael Tuck.

Punch magazine summed up the attraction of Victorian Christmas cards in 1883 with the words: "E'en though you sneer at Christmas cards, you'll feel inclined to gush; O'er wondrous screens and novelties, in satin, silk and plush."

I couldn’t agree more.

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