|BY SUSAN BLOWER
Of his 14 antique-decorated Christmas trees, Craig McManus’ most prized are his kugel trees. Branches heavy with sturdy glass spheres, grapes and teardrops, the trees must be wired to keep them from falling over. Kugels are German-made glass-blown ornaments from 1850 to mid-20th Century.
“My first kugels were from my great-great grandmother, who was a German-born immigrant to the United States during the Civil War. She had been a servant in a German household and was sent away because she became pregnant by one of the members of that household,” McManus said.
Later married to the father and bearing six more children, Maria Elizabeth Heiser lived to 100 and passed on her story, along with her kugels.
“In the 1960s, when I grew up, we had all these shiny bright American ornaments, such as bells, clip-on birds, and Styrofoam pieces. On the inner branches, we kept four kugels. As a kid I would reach in and notice the weight, which was so different from the other ornaments,” McManus recalled.
“The cobalt blue (of one of the balls) would stand out. In the daylight the kugels were so radiant,” McManus added.
McManus was later given the cobalt sphere and a green grape to keep, while his two siblings were given the others. McManus is unsure of how many kugels his great-great grandmother had or of whether she brought them from Germany or bought them in New York. Either way, the kugels were made in Germany or France. McManus has since gone on to become one of the world’s foremost experts on kugels. He is in the process of writing a book on them. He plans to include his family’s personal connection and anecdotes of his great-great grandmother’s life.
“Most of us start with family heirlooms,” McManus said.
For most collectors of antique Christmas decorations, there is a personal connection, perhaps beyond that of an actual heirloom.
“Christmas is really a part of our past that we have a direct connection to. As children we had a feeling of being together with family and friends. We explore items that survived two World Wars, that people displayed and lovingly preserved throughout many years,” said Bill Steely, publicity chairman for The Golden Glow of Christmas Past, a group of collectors of pre-1966 Christmas items.
The earliest Christmas trees were accented only with real fruits, nuts and presents tucked within the branches. Candles were the first lights placed on the trees.
The oldest known manmade ornaments for the Christmas tree are kugels, made of heavy clear or colored glass and blown into various shapes, usually spheres. Kugel is German for ball or sphere.
Kugels became popular in the 1850s, after silvered glass was invented. The result was glass that was reflective of light. Glass ornaments were expensive and highly valued. People at first owned few of them, tucking them in between homemade ornaments.
The value of a kugel rests in the combination of shape, color and size. Ranging in sizes from 1/2 inches to 14 inches, kugels come in a plethora of glass colors. The most common is a silvered ball, which is clear glass, showing the silver interior. From there, the next most common colors are the following: gold, yellow-green, cobalt, blue and pinkish red. Less common would be dark greens, copper/bronze, light blue, with the rarest being the red spectrum, including deep red, burgundy, orange, and the most coveted—amethyst.
According to GoldenGlow.org, only one in 100 kugels are colored amethyst. Next to balls, grapes are the most common shape. More desirable are free blown shapes like eggs, pears, and teardrops, especially if they are ribbed. Rarest shapes are mold-blown fruit shapes, such as artichokes, berry clusters, and pinecones. Cost for kugels can range from $50 for the smallest sphere to $1,850 for an amethyst-colored specimen, McManus said. He added that in recent months, the values have jumped higher.
Another big focus area for collectors of antique Christmas ornaments is Dresdens. While kugels are heavy and sturdy, despite their age, Dresdens are few in number and fragile, made of pressed cardboard.
Dresdens are the most highly-valued Christmas ornaments. They were made in Dresden, Germany from 1880-1910. They are made of pressed cardboard, which was gilded or silvered and glued at home by cottage workers, usually the entire family working to assemble a single piece.
“Most people are surprised they are made out of paper. They look like anything but. They are the single most expensive (collectible) and priced out of most collectors’ reach,” Steely said.
Prices for Dresdens range from $100 for flat pieces to $10,000 for the most intricate three-dimensional ones, Steely said.
One of the aspects of antique ornaments that collectors enjoy is the utter whimsy of these early Christmas decorations, Steely said.
“Nothing was out of bounds. Sometimes the creations are unbelievable: horns, heads that are laughing or crying, popcorn balls, faces on grapes, or a peasant couple playing banjos,” Steely added.
“This is reminiscent of another time. A lot of work and passion went into making these. It was also an opportunity to make some money. It was not so enjoyable to work around a hot flame. It was a family affair, with the father forming a shape, a mother painting and a child blowing silver. It was piece work,” Steely explained.
Most collectors of Christmas past go beyond mere ornaments to a wide range of items, including ephemera displays, candy containers, Jack in the Box, games, clocks, putz scenes (wooden villages) and – of course – Santas of all varieties.
Steve Wilt, of York, Pa., displays a 40-45 foot-long putz scene wrapping around the walls of a room in his house. He also collects old German Santas, stern figures wearing suits of varying colors.
Like most other collectors, Wilt started small at rummage and estate sales.
“You can start on a small budget and amass a neat collection at antique malls, flea markets and auctions. A good place to start is with Christmas paper, such as tags that are die-cut in various shapes like Santa heads. Some people hang those from a tree,” Wilt said.
People who want to collect Christmas items of value should inform themselves by reading, talking to experts, and joining the Golden Glow of Christmas Past, he said.
Wilt recommended books by George Johnson and Bob Brenner to research collectibles.
For more information, check out www.goldenglow.org and www.Facebook/thegoldenglow.