By Diane White McNaughton
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas—from back in the day.
While technology has dazzled us with lawn-sized synchronized light displays, pre-lit artificial Fraser fir trees with LED lights, and apps that allow you to control your twinkling light displays from your office, many season-loving central Pennsylvanians are opting for a more traditional holiday vibe, with fresh evergreens, vintage ornaments, and gold and silver accents.
Musical snowglobes, country Santas, natural pinecones and berries, cascading ribbons, nutcrackers, and tinsel are also making a return appearance. Aluminum trees, color wheels, Shiny Brite ornaments, Bubble Lites, and retro snowmen are also de-Grinching our days. Ceramic lighted tabletop trees, kissing balls, old-time jingle bells, handmade painted Santas, and retro stockings are also re-emerging to re-create a winter wonderland and take us on a walk down Memory Lane.
Yes, these ARE your grandmother’s ornaments.
But these ornaments are more than just bright baubles.
Psychotherapist and author Amy Molin, featured on GoodMorningAmerica.com, says that Christmas decorations can take families back to a simpler time and help people understand their own identity. We reconnect to our childhood when we put up decorations, and may help us feel more connected to a lost loved one, she says. Studies also show that those who decorate early are also says to be happier people. In this day of uncertainty, illness and isolation, it sure can’t hurt.
Vintage ornaments don’t have to be only those handed down through the generations from your great-grandmother. Replica ornaments from our Wonder Years can be found both online and in person, including at Pottery Barn, Etsy, Amazon, Christmas Tree Shoppes, Lowe’s, Stauffer’s of Kissel Hill, Blooms by Vickery, The Garden Path, Paper Moon Flowers, and more.
The Shiny Brite company produced the most popular ornaments in the nation throughout the 1940s and 50s. First produced in Germany in the early 1900s and imported to the U.S. until the late 1930s, businessman F. W. Woolworth and German immigrant Max Eckhardt then collaborated with U.S.-based Corning Factory to perfect the traditional ornament-making methods and make them available stateside, according to Better Homes and Gardens.
Though tinsel itself dates to the 1600s, tinsel surged in popularity in the 1960s, just before the lead-based decoration was revamped for safety reasons.
In 2001, Christopher Radko, producer of fine, hand-painted ornaments, began reproducing Shiny Brite ornaments and packaging them in vintage styled boxes.
Today’s vintage Santa figurines come in all shapes and sizes. However, blow mold Santas, made popular with the new-fangled plastic technology of the ’60s, and fun-size Santa mugs, popularized by Holt Howard company, are deemed to be highly collectible.
The Civic Club of Harrisburg on 612 North Front Street is getting into the vintage holiday spirit by decorating their historic home together Dec. 1.
According to Mary Beth Lehtimaki, Club president, white, green and silver dominate their color scheme in the riverfront Mansion known as Overlook, built in 1903.
“Many hands make light work,” and also guarantee a fun time for socializing, she says.
In past years, the club hung a fresh wreath with red poinsettias on the front door. Green and red plants are also placed under every archway outside. Inside, the fireplace mantels are dressed up in holiday glam.
One mantel features all silver, with white lights, small trees and reindeer. A stained glass ornament hangs in a window.
The Christmas tree in the main lobby is adorned in reds and golds.
Another mantel holds Santa figurines and reindeer, in a bed of cottony snow.
Dauphin County’s Fort Hunter Mansion in Susquehanna Township also dresses up its home, erected in 1814, with evergreen and ever-timeless ornaments.
“In the Fort Hunter Mansion, we focus on traditional, fresh decoration, with a nod to the kind of decorating that might have been done by the last residents of the Mansion,” Park Manager Julia Hair says.
“Christmas decorating wasn’t the all-consuming exercise in the late 1800s/early 1900s that it is today. The Mansion decorations are basically the same every year in that they are natural materials and are traditional, but within that framework, each decorator has some freedom to use different materials or add a different twist,” she adds.
In addition to the Mansion, Fort Hunter sponsors a popular Festival of Trees display, which will be held in the Centennial Barn this year. Several different tree decorating styles are showcased. And for creative interpretations of the holiday spirit, the Fort Couture (Christmas Tree Dress) exhibit in the Stone Stable, “adds bling, innovation and inspiration,” Hair says.
Fresh greens are donated by members of the Civic Committee of the Garden Club of Harrisburg, who do the actual decorating in the Mansion, she says. The committee trims the branches in their own backyards to provide materials for the decorations, bringing “different evergreens for variety and interest.” Hair says.
In the Mansion, candles in the windowsills and on mantels sparkle, as do the hand-blown glass ornaments on the tree. On the decorated trees and dress forms, “there is much sparkle to behold – ornaments, bedazzled ribbons, tree lights,” Hair says.
“There are vintage ornaments on the tree,” she says. “Only a few are original to the residents of Fort Hunter Mansion; they are very fragile these days. Many of the ornaments are reproduction vintage, which we sell in the Fort Hunter Museum Shop, which are also available online this year.
“Only one tree is in the Mansion, and this year we are contemplating a tabletop tree which is more accurate to the Victorian period than the larger trees that we are accustomed to,” Hair says.
Like Overlook, Fort Hunter Mansion is decorated by Dec. 1. Fort Hunter is open for guided tours Tuesday – Sunday through Dec. 23. Tours are by pre-paid reservation only and are offered at a COVID-19 discount price of $5 per person.
Tour times and capacity are limited to ensure visitor and staff safety. Face masks, social distancing and hand sanitizing are required of everyone.
“I have learned that old buildings have a beauty and grace that very often do not need a lot of adornment to be enchanting,” Hair says. “Candlelight and evergreens are simple and are enough.
“Simple elegance can sometimes take your breath away,” Hair says.
“Experiencing a lovely building like Fort Hunter has a kind of magical quality to it with the candlelight, beautiful trimmings, the feeling of connecting to the past. It seems to capture people of all ages. I think younger children may have trouble understanding Christmas in a time before blinking lights and electronic gadgets!
“Some families visit every year as a part of their holiday tradition. That tells me that being in this place is something they want to repeat. Visitors are often intrigued with the different kinds of dried flowers that are used in the decorations and leave the tour full of enthusiasm to do something like that for themselves. Sending folks off with inspiration might be one of the take-aways.”
While some of the decorations are more modern, most are time-honored.
“Decorations seem to reveal the personality of the residents,” Hair says. “In Fort Hunter’s case, the simple natural elements reflect what looks to us like a simpler time. And this year especially, we all need to be surrounded by the nostalgia that holidays often bring, whatever that nostalgia is for each one of us.”