A vintage seller takes us on a tour of vintage Christmas and Hanukkah decorations and reveals how to find them
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’Tis the season of traditions! With a myriad of holiday aesthetics and observances dictated by faith or by fun, many a home will be decking the halls — but whether with boughs of holly or atomic mercury starbursts depends on the collector.
Regardless of preferred aesthetic, for vintage enthusiasts, the style of the season will often be dictated by nostalgia.
Fortunately, with every past decade came a unique approach to represent the holidays. Be it full secondhand style or subtle nods to past popular decor, it’s a great time of year for your home to highlight heirlooms, collectibles and vintage adornments from holidays past.
A staple of many a grandmother’s holiday decor is the long-beloved ceramic Christmas tree.
Introduced in the 1940s, the coniferous decoration rose to popularity towards the end of the 1950s and into the ’60s and ’70s. The Atlantic Mold Company is the most recognizable stamp found upon a vintage ceramic tree, thanks to their mass production of paint-your-own ceramics.
Primarily a table topper, these trees range in size from 10 centimetres (four inches) up to 51 centimetres (20 inches) — though finding larger vintage versions free of chips or damage means paying a premium.
Most are modelled with a base to hold a lightbulb and electrical hookup, with a hollow treeform to fit snugly over. These trees will illuminate your space with a rainbow spectrum of holiday colours, cast by tiny plastic bulbs inserted into the holes of the tree.
Once quite an affordable piece of decor, selling for around $10-$20 each, their collectability now means they can be found for hundreds of dollars, and even up to $1,000, in online marketplaces.
eBay, Etsy, antique stores
Atlantic Mold Company, ceramic Christmas tree, ceramic tree with base, Holland ceramic tree
The pinnacle of the Atomic Age, the metallic, futuristic vibe of aluminium Christmas trees once projected a view of the tree of Christmas future. With a sturdy metal trunk adorned with glitzy tinseled branches, this festive and shiny aesthetic is quite the departure from the traditional evergreen tree, and deliciously mid-century.
The Aluminum Specialty Company of Manitowoc, Wisconsin transitioned from the wartime production of brass and steel cartridge cases, steel battery cans, and zinc battery closures to the sparkling silver trees for which they’re now known.
The original prices were below $100 — and significantly less for the smaller, tabletop versions. High-tech sets included a colour-wheel projection as a more expensive option. Much harder to come by these days, vintage aluminium trees go anywhere from $150-$1,000-plus, depending on condition and rarity.
eBay, Etsy, Facebook Marketplace, vintage markets, yard sales
Atomic Christmas tree, tinsel tree, midcentury Christmas tree, vintage aluminium tree
Featuring nine branches adorned by candles, each lit in sequence to celebrate Hanukkah, also known as the Festival of Lights, the mid-century brass menorah is an elegant, minimalist piece of seasonal decor rooted in religious tradition.
Quality and craftsmanship feature heavily in their pricing, as does size and intricacy of design. For a cherished family heirloom, the value comes from being passed from one generation to the next, much more so than any other factor.
For many, the mid-century brass menorah exemplifies 20th-century design sensibilities by virtue of the marrying of culture with form with function.
Etsy, vintage markets
vintage Hanukkah menorah, 1960s menorah, Jewish brass decor
Pretty and precious, mercury glass ornaments have undoubtedly withstood the test of time — that is to say, aesthetically, at least. Too many collectors have witnessed the heartbreaking explosion of miniscule silvery shards when one tragically hits the floor.
Many are hand-painted and hung like little jewels, with origins in Germany, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia (as Czechoslovakia on maker’s marks), and the United States.
Most popular in North America and certainly with the most name recognition are Shiny Brites, which were manufactured by the Shiny Brite Company founded in the 1930s by Max Eckardt after several decades of importing hand-blown glass ornaments from Germany.
Provenance can often be determined by pattern or by signature on the metal tab hanger atop the bulb, either with a citation of a country or maker. Fun fact: Shiny Brite tabs were replaced by cardboard during the 1940s to accommodate wartime production rations.
Originally priced low for complete sets, mercury glass ornaments can now fetch between $5 to upwards of $50 per bulb, depending on origin, style and condition.
Remember to display with caution, because these beautiful baubles burst easily should they slip from a branch!
Vintage markets, eBay, antique stores
Shiny Brite, indent ornament, mercury glass ornament, Max Eckardt, Christopher Radko
More than simply a spinning top, the dreidel is a gambling game part of traditional Hanukkah celebrations. Collectors appreciate vintage and antique dreidels as an important aspect of religious tradition and as a representation of Jewish culture.
Dreidels can be found made from wood, bone and metal, as well as from a number of other materials. With origins in Israel and Eastern Europe, they can be handcrafted to feature intricate designs indicative of their region of production, which also determines their value to a collector.
vintage Dreidel game, vintage Hanukkah game, antique dreidel
Tablecloths, tea towels and other seasonal linens are sometimes overlooked, but equally collectible vintage holiday items. Made from durable materials (like cotton, for example) and featuring intricate patterns or elegant winter motifs, vintage linens can be the finishing touch to anyone’s holiday home.
With a variety of textile manufacturers worldwide, including those that have been lovingly handmade, vintage holiday linens are broadly available, which does translate to a lower cost for collectors and decorators.
A large, hand-embroidered tablecloth can be well appreciated for the skill of the craft. Likewise, pieces that feature fun prints and patterns — like a kitschy Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — will be much more enticing for any lover of the mod claymation classic from the 1960s.
Thrift stores, vintage markets, Facebook Marketplace, yard sales
Christmas crochet, vintage holiday embroidery, holiday needlepoint, Christmas linens, holiday tatting
Postcards, greeting cards, wrapping paper and other forms of ephemera are highly collectible pieces of holidays past. Many feature illustrations, images or photographs that truly provide a glimpse into the era in which they were produced.
Depending on the collector, a personal note or heartfelt sentiment might add value, while others prefer new old stock or previously unused items. Fragile and prone to deterioration, condition is the largest determining factor, though prices can vary from a few dollars to hundreds.
eBay, Etsy, vintage markets, secondhand bookstores
vintage Christmas lithograph, vintage holiday letterpress, Christmas greetings, holiday ephemera
Whatever you might be celebrating this December, sprinkle your home like snowflakes with secondhand seasonal decor. Old and new together in glad tidings. Happy holiday collecting!
Krista Montelpare is a writer, owner of vintage shop Cellary, and member of the Vintage Sellers Community.
This article originally appeared in the digital edition of our 2023 Vintage Gift Guide.