Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Get Your Christmas Tree All Spruced Up

Americans decorate everything: ourselves, our cars, apartments, bicycle, dogs, cakes -- and our holiday trees! It's that time of year when a girl's thoughts turn to sugar plums and fairies -- AND holiday ornaments.  Case in point:  the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree, a New York tradition that dates back more than seventy five years. (Image courtesy of

Jean recently wandered into that amazing East Village emporium, John Derian Company, drawn in by the amazing display of holiday ornaments in the window.  Huge insects larger than her hand caught her eye first, but she was soon distracted by the large array of ornaments of all sizes and shapes throughout the entire store.  It turns out that it is one of three of the company's shops all in a row between Bowery and Second Avenue.  The first had the widest selection of modern glass ornaments, the second had nautical-themed ornaments and the third had antique ornaments. (All of the John Derian ornaments shown here are from the first location.)

Suspended from the ceiling of the store was a large goat head ornament.  It was more exquisite than it sounds. Check it out for yourself:

There were hundreds of ornaments by theme: insects, dogs, birds, cats, circus animals, food, drink, plants. And they ran the gamut from the everyday object (chevre cheese)

to the most exotic examples of dogs like Lhasa Apso and Chow dogs, and the more familiar firehouse dogs, better known as Dalmations.

From the mundane to the unexpected - when someone says "bird", who among us automatically thinks "ostrich"?

That experience got us to thinking and doing a little research (always a dangerous thing!).  We started our search with Wikipedia and branched out from there. (Sprinkled throughout the post are additional, amazing German glass ornaments from John Derian and from our own collections.)

The first decorated trees in the 15th and 16th centuries were adorned with apples, fruit, nuts, white candy canes and pastries in the shape of hearts, stars and flowers. (Who hasn't made a popcorn garland at some point in his or her grade school career?) Below are garlands of glass beads and a little cat ornament, courtesy of John Derian.

Glass baubles (spherical ornaments) were first made in Lauscha, Germany by Hans Greinder (1550-1609) who produced garlands of glass beads and tin figures that could be hung on trees.  As their popularity grew in the late 16th and early 17th century, glass figures and decorations were produced by highly skilled German artisans using clay molds. Original glass ornaments were in the shape of fruit or nuts.  Artisans heated glass tubes over flame, then inserted the tubes into glass molds, blowing the heated glass to expand into the shape of the mold.  After the glass cooled, a silver nitrate solution was swirled into it, a silvering technique developed in the 1850s by Justus von Liebig.  After the nitrate solution dried, the ornament was hand-panted and topped with a cap and hook. Lauscha glassblowers produced a wide range of designs and soon all of Germany was buying Christmas glassworks from Lauscha. The best blown glass ornaments in our estimation are those with a bit of whimsy. This circus elephant from John Derian balances on a drum shaped stand.

In the 1840s, that trend-setter Queen Victoria got into the act, influencing all of Europe.  After a picture of Victoria's Christmas tree appeared in a London newspaper decorated in glass ornaments and baubles from her husband, Prince Albert's native Germany, demand for Lauscha's ornaments grew immediately and the town began exporting internationally.

The Illustrated London News' image shows Victoria and Albert and their six children and Victoria's mother Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfedl, aka the Duchess of Kent.  It was dubbed by Charles Dickens to be Albert's German toy, a Christmas tree.

In the 1880s, F.W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha's baubles during a visit to Germany and made a fortune importing the German glass ornaments into the U.S.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Valerie has her own little collection of Christmas baubles.   Having decided not to have a Christmas tree in deference to the environment, she nevertheless found it hard to forego the joy of the tree and the childhood memories it revived, so she still keeps her eye out for Derian-like decorations, and hangs them on the wall (from December till… till… till she gets around to taking them down).  One year, at the National Academy Museum and School, she came across a trove of art ornaments, and scarfed them up.  There was the Van Gogh ball,

The Toulouse-Lautrec ball,

the Escher ball,

and last but not least, the Velasquez Infanta ball.  Every year the poor Infanta has the dubious distinction of being the sole Christmas decoration that Valerie takes to the office.  Losing the Infanta would be tolerable.  Losing any of the others would be a crisis.

At the much missed Conran's, Valerie picked up a porcelain version of an origami crane,

Around five years ago at the now equally missed Pastec, she found a spouting whale,

And one year at the Union Square Christmas market she was excited beyond all reason to find a felt fish.  (She was probably the first person on her block to own a felt fish ornament.)

Do you have a favorite ornament?  Take it out and enjoy it this holiday season. And do tell us about it.


  1. That is a store now on my must-visit list! Stunning art there, and I must have a spouting whale. Thanks for the history too, xox.

  2. I enjoyed this post immensely and loved seeing the unusual ornaments (really, goat cheese??). I used to buy tree ornaments when I was in my 20's and 30's, thinking that someday I would have a tree to hang them on, but that never happened. I do have a Dr. Seuss Grinch one that I'm rather fond of, and a little ballerina mouse that was a gift (from someone you know).

  3. Hanging ornaments on the wall! What a great idea. I have a collection of vintage ornaments, but haven't taken them out for years. Thanks for the inspiration!

  4. Sorry, but that's like asking which one of your children is your favorite!! They're all loved for their unique characteristics. I get a potted tree every few years, usually a Norfolk Island Pine...but I do miss the smell of a "real" tree. Thank you for a delightful excursion. XXOO

  5. We have a Michael Jackson ornament from the 80's that we love.
    Glad You stopped by John Derians- one of our favorite stops in the city!