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Collecting in the Heartland: Christmas ornaments

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 19, 2008 - They are the reminders of Christmases Past: delicate celluloid Santas, long cotton stockings with hand-sewn jingle bells, and brilliant red and yellow bubble lights that fascinated us as children so many years ago . . .

Then there are the ornaments - amazing, shining glass globes and hand-painted peacocks and silver-winged angels - that we so carefully hung from the branches of our just-cut trees, trees still sweet with the smell of fresh pine.

No other holiday has the sheer number and range of collectibles as Christmas. Collectors are fascinated by Christmas postcards, vintage German Santa Clauses, plastic Christmas candy containers, frosted Christmas lights, miniature sleighs, tiny Christmas villages, antique tree stands and tree skirts, Christmas music boxes and even antique Christmas trees.

But few collectors are as passionate as the ornament collector.

Their love for these small trappings of the holiday season too often means that they have to forgo the usual one or two Christmas trees in favor of four, five or even more, if they are to have sufficient display space for an ever-growing collection.

"My mother loved Christmas, and I guess that is probably where I got it," said Don Black, 39, manager of a Red Wing Shoes store in South St. Louis County, whose collection of vintage Christmas ornaments dates back to his boyhood some three decades ago.

Black, who lives in a century-old home in St. Louis' Clifton Heights neighborhood, said he remembers his family moving into a home in Ellisville when he came upon a small treasure left behind by the former owner - a box of old Christmas ornaments.

"I remember staring at the colored glass and thinking how bright they looked," he said.

Almost immediately, he was hooked. He and his mother went to yard sales, scouring the tables for bargains. Often, he would return with several more ornaments to add to his collection.

As a boy, he remembers, he always had his own Christmas tree in his bedroom. And he always decorated it himself with his own collection.

As he became an adult, he said, his tastes became more specialized. He began searching out rare Victorian pieces, dating from the late 1890s. He also bought several vintage "feather trees," beautifully proportioned to display his collection.

Today, he says, he has no good estimate of how many antique ornaments he has. Many, he said, never even make it out for Christmas. This year, he has hung an estimated 3,000 vintage ornaments on the five trees in his home. He said it took him two weeks to put them all up, "including a couple of long days."

He will leave them up until well after New Year's Day.

"It makes me feel good," he said. "It makes me happy. While I love to share them with other people, it doesn't matter if nobody else sees them. I see them."

Black said he has paid anywhere from a few dollars to "upwards of $400" for a single piece. His prizes include a collection of clip-on glass birds, dozens of glass Santas, several ornate Italian pieces and a set of antique glass tree toppers that he has arranged atop a fireplace mantel. Also among his favorites is a display of antique German Kugel ornaments, made between 1850 and 1890.

Black even has his own web page, where he sells ornaments he fashions from vintage pieces. The site is www.icedreamcreations.com .

One day, he said, he hopes to be able to attend a national convention, held each summer and sponsored by a collecting group called Golden Glow of Christmas Past. The group, which boasts more than 1,000 members, has a web site at www.goldenglow.org .

Heartland Focus On

ToyMan Toy Show, a modern and vintage toy show held several times a year at the Machinist Hall, 12365 St. Charles Rock Rd., Bridgeton, MO 63044. Contact is Chris McQuillen, phone 314-327-2337. The first show for 2009 will be Jan. 11. Hours are 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.; admission is $3, with a $12 early-bird option an hour before the regular 9 a.m. start.

This is the longest running St. Louis-area toy show and probably the best attended. While most dealers feature the newest Hot Wheels and action figures, there is a nice sampling of vintage items as well, from vintage board games to tin wind-ups. At times, there are great bargains to be had. Come early for the best deals.

A sampling of some vintage toys spotted at the December 2008 ToyMan Toy Show:

  • 1962 Rocky and Bullwinkle boxed puzzle in very good condition: $23
  • 1950 Walt Disney Fantasyland board game in very good condition: $20
  • 1970s Jackson Five photo pennant: $45
  • 1952 Howdy Doody plastic TV "Merrimat" table mat: $15
  • 1960s Barbie Dream House, with furniture, in good/very good condition: $30
  • Vintage domed Bozo the Clown lunch box and thermos in very nice condition: marked $325, but negotiable to $250