I once had some friends who exalted their Christmas eve by putting live candles all over their tree, just as their grandmothers did back in Germany.
"Yes," commented a relative. "They light the candles, then they call the fire department!"
The bright and sometimes burning tree thankfully seems to be a thing of the past, but tree decor, believe me, was never bigger, and artful ornamental artifacts have never been more in evidence.
Stores offer a choice of cornhusk angels, sterling silver baubles, porcelain heirlooms with this year's date, and a passel of other offerings done in precious metals or blown glass.
But year-to-year ornament treasures, sometimes antiques, sometimes things you make yourself, sometimes things collected by categories, seem to lead into wider paths. It's a surprise, but more than half of all Yuletide ornaments sold -- 60 percent -- are purchased not for buyer's trees, but as gifts. Often these "series" items -- ceramics, metals, glasswares and such -- are brought out annually and bear such names as Hallmark, American Greetings, Hummel and Herend.
Edythe Baker, a veteran North Baltimore domestic arts teacher, began her world-class collection of thematic Christmas ornaments around 1976. Earlier, a grandmother had started her off in sewing, and by 1958 she had copped the top prize in Vogue's national pattern-sewing derby. She makes all her own clothes, but it wasn't her skill at costumes that gave birth to her collecting. It was thimbles.
About 250 thimble ornaments and sewing-related miniatures, especially those depicting scissors, spools of thread, pin cushions and sewing machines, decorate the 6-foot Christmas tree enjoyed by Mrs. Baker, her husband, Robert, and family and friends during the holiday season. The thimble-tree specialties are a sort of diary of Baker travels to Europe (especially Rothenburg, Germany, a major toy capital) and to points west, too, including Hawaii, a surprisingly hot market for interesting Christmas baubles, the couple reports.
Contrary to first impressions, thimbles are quite versatile as Christmas ornamentation, the Baker collection reveals. They can used as miniature hats, sewing baskets, balloon gondolas, pots, backpacks and many other containers in miniature designs.
Appreciation of such collectibles can be considerable. Edythe Baker says the prices of the Hallmark thimble ornament series, started in the early 1980s but no longer issued, have doubled since then. Collector guides say Hallmark ornaments from the 1970s (they began in 1973) now bring triple original costs.
So what's the hot item this year? The starship Enterprise is this year's best-selling ornament at Greetings & Readings, the North Baltimore books and gift emporium. Hallmark makes the plastic Star Trek vessel, complete with blinking lights all around. It retails for $20.
Hummel ornaments are runners-up in sales, according to Diana Craig, holiday sales specialist with the gift store. "We couldn't meet all demands for the Enterprise," she adds, "but it's not the most expensive. Some of our light and motion ornaments go up to $45 and people still buy them."
Of collectible relics from an earlier ornament age, Robert Helsley, Baltimore antiquarian, can speak with authority. He points out that as a commercial industry, Christmas ornamentation is only about 100 years old. "In the first years of Christmas tree decor, over a century ago, ornaments were largely handmade, before the days of mass production," he says.
"These early examples of ornaments have a special value and they were beautifully made. My interest is in the first images of a Victorian Christmas, the days when Santa Claus was called St. Nicholas or Father Christmas.
"He was a man in longer robes and with a longer beard than today's image. He shows up on beautiful chromo-lithographed postcards that use early printing techniques and in ornaments,and in German belsnickles, which were papier-mache or plaster statues from 3 inches to 15 inches high. These can range from several hundred dollars in value up into the thousands. "Father Christmas also comes as German blown-glass images 5 inches tall with clip-ons for attaching to trees or wreaths," he notes. These are expensive rarities, he says, and so are "snow babies made out of cotton," which can sell for hundreds of dollars. One German ornament Helsley collected showed a glass Santa cavorting on a Zeppelin balloon of World War I vintage.
"The important thing is that the uniqueness of any item is what adds to the collectibility of it and the value, too," he says. Mr. Helsley's items are shown at Antique Galleria on the city's North Howard Street Antique Row, at the Antique Depot, Ellicott City and at the South Pointe Gallery in Adamstown, Pa.
Museum gift shops are often a good place to look for future antique ornaments. The Brandywine River Museum at Chadds Ford, Pa., continues its traditional series of "critters, angels and stars," a folk-history collection of tree and mantel art. The items, made by volunteers, have been featured on the White House Christmas tree and include Americana figures -- Betsy Ross and Ben Franklin among them. (The museum shop is open next week but closed on Christmas Day).
At the other end of the scale, imagination can overcome budget problems for tree trimmers who don't want to sink big bucks in the ornamentation -- and it doesn't have to mean daisy chains of popcorn. Some sort of prize of the year for recession-era decor is due the designer Carla Frank and sponsor Gallagher, Evelius & Jones, attorneys, for a remarkable tree that was among the 100 competing in the city's second annual "Festival of Trees" last week at Festival Hall in the Inner Harbor.
Here was a unified and attractive tree decorated solely with simple colored-paper cutouts: white snowflakes, yellow stars, red spirals, swags and the profiles of bluish larks. One wondered why it looked so graceful, coordinated and joyous.
The answer: The designs were meticulously copied from cutout themes created by Henri Matisse, the French master of color and outline.
Tips for collectors
Here are some tips on collecting ornaments:
*Though often valuable collectibles, many 1950s electrical ornaments, bulbs and chains are not fire-safe. Bulbs should be removed from sockets when the tree is not attended.
*The highest-price collectibles generally available are too expensive to risk hanging -- Victorian glass that was first imported into the United States from Germany during the 19th century.
*The oldest Christmas tree ornaments are only about 200 years old, and many were made by German tinsmiths.
*Historians say the Christmas ornament business didn't really take off in the United States until the brilliant 19th century retailer, Frank Woolworth, of Lancaster, began importing German trinkets for trees to sell to the Pennsylvania Dutch.
*Pre-World-War II lighted-glass-bulb ornaments are now in the collectible class.