With Black Friday behind us, it’s now time to concentrate on more pleasant holiday activities. Whether you’re buying a fresh tree from the lot across town or setting up the fake evergreen branches from a box, trimming the tree signals the true joy of Christmas. Decorations are a creative outlet and a lot more fun than racking up credit card bills for relatives your barely know.
The most famous fictional Christmas trees of the 20th century – Charlie Brown’s lonely little tree with the droopy branch, is now recreated as a bendable plastic tree from several outlets. And Charlie’s tree is just one of the examples of a trend favoring vintage, mid-century holiday decorations.
Some people use the terms vintage and antique to refer to any old Christmas decoration or other collectible, but the words aren’t interchangeable. According to Palmer Pekarek, Director of Communications for Ruby Lane Antiques, in an e-mail interview I conducted with him last week, “A vintage item is any item that is at least 20 years old. An Antique, per US Guidelines, is an item that is a minimum of 100 years old.” That Rage Against the Machine T-shirt you got at Lollapalooza ’93? – vintage. Feel old yet?
An eBay search for 1950s and 1960s Christmas items find abstract paintings and advent calendars, Punchbowls with mistletoe and holly painted on them and choirboy candles. People of a certain age will remember cheesy plastic popcorn Santa and reindeer wall plaques. Grandma hung them in the window. Made of melted plastic scrunched into popcorn-sized pieces stuck together to form a genial looking Santa and his doe-eyed reindeer.
Kitschy plaques aren’t the most beloved mid-century decorations, but others fare better in the popular with collectors. “Simple vibrant Christmas bulbs are always in demand on Ruby Lane. Vintage holiday decor items are also popular on the Ruby Lane site,” Pekarek also noted during the interview. Some items are tougher to find than others. “Highly sought after vintage plastic light-up holiday decorations are very difficult to find in good condition,” he adds.
With so many reproductions on the market, buyers need to be aware of the difference between imitations and authentic mid-century decorations. “The key indicator is at the top of the decoration – the hanging hardware,” Pekarek added during the interview. “The hanging hardware on authentic mid-century decorations are made of steel or brass. Reproductions often use stainless steel hanging hardware. Look at the paint used in the decoration. Decorations manufactured in the 1950s and 1960s often use paint that has pieces of metal alloy in it. Thus, authentic mid-century decorations often look a little more dull in luster than reproductions.”
You can occasionally find shimmering aluminum Christmas trees on eBay, one of the most recognizable decorations from days past. Vermont Country Store even offers a modern tabletop version for apartment dwellers. The silver Reynolds wrap like shards glittered up living rooms with clear plastic covered couches and console stereos in the 1960s. The trees were commonly decorated with bright red satin ornaments and a pink or red spotlight illuminated the tree as it rotated.
Christmas lights framed all the windows in the house, except for the bathroom. Sturdy, bright reds and blue bulbs encased in green plastic holders strung along the front room window and eaves and even the evergreen trees on the front lawn. Our bedroom windows, outlined with small, pastel colored lights in clear plastic holders. On January 2nd, Dad took the lights down. He’d store them in a box in the basement and brought them back out every Christmas for 15 years. Only two bulbs burnt out in all that time.
Today’s sophisticated Christmas decorations are made of safer materials, and just about any premise can be turned into an ornament, (NY taxi drivers, Las Vegas showgirls, cacti, etc), but the homespun warmth of mid-century holiday decor lives on in our hearts. And judging by the number of retro-style decorations offered by retailers including Target, Pottery Barn and K-Mart and craftsellers like Etsy, consumers of all ages are looking to add some of that mid-century charm for their holiday.
What are some of your favorite childhood Christmas decorations? Answer in the comment section.
Source: My email interview with Palmer Pekarek, Director of Communications for Ruby Lane Antiques. Entire text of interview here: