Bygone Treasures - Christmas Keepsakes

By Michael Rice

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Mother had some strict rules regarding Christmas. If my sister or I were to suggest decorating the tree, eating a Japanese orange, or cracking a nut before Christmas Eve, we were told, "it would spoil the holiday." Each generation has its own Christmas traditions, and there are folks who truly believe their houses should glow with lights by November 1st, and that Santa really lives in a photo booth in the mall. They're happy, and, speaking as a traditionalist, I cheerfully defend their decision to celebrate in their own personal way.

Fortunate are those who have had old Christmas ornaments and knick-knacks passed down to them. In the 19th century, German craftsmen produced "kugels," which were glass ornaments with brass caps, often shaped like fruit or vegetables. These are both fragile and expensive. A 4-inch kugel strawberry ornament is currently valued at $600! Germany also produced cardboard angels, sheep and manger scenes, which were sprinkled with gold and silver glitter, and these too are very collectable.

Two events in the past 150 years have helped build our current perception of Christmas. In 1863, Thomas Nast, a writer for Harper's Weekly, drew a cartoon image of Santa wearing a belted suit instead of a robe, passing out gifts to Union soldiers. As colour lithography advanced, Santa became known for his red suit with white trim, and the image became cemented when Coca-Cola adopted it in 1931.

The year 1903 saw the manufacture of the first electric socket set of Christmas lights. Predictably, these were highly unstable, resulting in widespread singing of "See the blazing house before us - fa la la la la." In the following 20 years, bulbs ceased to be hand-blown and safety regulations were introduced. Bulbs in the shape of personalities emerged in this period. A three-inch bulb of Saint Joseph from this era is valued now at $350. From the end of the Second World War through 1960, you might recall sets of "bubble lights," with eight to 20 sockets. An Everlite eight-socket set of mini-bubblers, with its original box, now books at $200.

While the word "scraps" brings to mind what might be left on a Christmas dinner plate (like beets or sprouts you didn't like as a child, and still don't now), there is also the scrapbook type of scrap. These are cut-to-shape figures on coated, coloured cardboard, which were hung on the tree as ornaments. In this case, size does matter. Values go up as size increases, and secular images are worth more than those with a religious theme.

Having referred to cracking nuts, I must mention nutcrackers. Nutcrackers, in some form, have been around as long as nuts, from when our Cro-Magnon ancestors tired of smashing their food to bits with large rocks. We're most familiar with the modern nutcracker look of "chopsticks on steroids" - plated steel poles hinged at one end with gripper grooves to hold a nut when pressure is applied. These are functional, but not sought after by collectors. Not to overuse the term "figural," the type you may have inherited or acquired years ago could be made of brass or wood in the shape of a dog, a crocodile or a shapely pair of lady's legs. Reproductions abound, but if original, they fall into the $50 to $300 range.

Do modern Christmas collectibles have value? This huge category includes limited edition plates, bells, ornaments, life-sized figurines, Christmas cards and biscuit tins, to mention a few. In most cases, any secondary market value falls below the original issue price due to numbers made. One notable exception is the first Hallmark Star Trek ornament, the Starship Enterprise, which, with its box, sells in the $150 neighbourhood. Strong interest from Trekkies keeps the value high.

I'm often asked about values for used Christmas cards. Usually these date from the 1930s through the mid-1960s, and are simple-design boxed cards. These have no value monetarily, but can be used for scrapbooking, if there is no family sentimental attachment.

You may recall my column on old postcards from last year, and I must mention that pre-1920 postcards depicting full length Santas in robes other than red are much sought after. Other paper items worth retrieving from storage include large-size calendars given as premiums by stores at Christmas, with those from the Hudson's Bay Company as an excellent example.

While I've mentioned cash values extensively, often values lie in the good times memorabilia recalls. There is no collector value in ticket stubs from a 1980s "Breakfast With Santa" at Eaton's. Memories of taking my small children there to watch (I suspect) a slightly tipsy Santa, the world's oldest magician and two perspiring young ladies wearing Ewok suits serving scrambled eggs are - priceless!

Comments and suggestions for future columns are welcome and may be sent to Michael Rice Box 86 Saanichton, B.C. V8M 2C3, or via email to

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