Today’s guest is Tom Jerman, a collector of Santas, who has also written a book about the history of Santas. Learn how he became interested in collecting Santas, why he became fascinated with the history of Santa, and when he decided to join the Golden Glow.
Wreaths are decorative displays that can be found in homes and businesses throughout the year; however, for many, wreaths are a seasonal decoration, and the holiday most often connected with wreaths is Christmas. Although they have become a holiday tradition, many do not know the long history and assorted meanings associated with wreaths.
The word wreath comes from the word writhen that was an old English word meaning “to writhe” or “to twist”. It is believed that wreaths date back to the Persian Empire, ancient Egypt, ancient Greece, and the Roman Empire. The idea of hanging wreaths was not necessarily done as a home décor idea. Wreaths were often hung on doors as a sign of victory and/ or to signify status in society. Julius Caesar often wore a twisted laurel wreath as a symbol of his importance; but, many believe he was also a little vain and wore them because he was going bald!
Christmas wreaths are also connected with the pagan holiday of Yule which was celebrated by ancient Germanic and Scandinavian peoples. Yule marked the onset of the winter solstice and was a 12-day festival held in honor of the returning sun and the seasonal cycle. Wreaths of greens or straw often contained a five pointed star in the center and were prominent decorations during the celebration.
Perhaps the most well-known use of wreaths comes in connection with Christmas and with Christianity. The circular shape of the wreath is said to symbolize eternity and the unending love of God. In the late 16th century, the use of wreaths during Yule was adopted by Christians and became a custom in the form of an Advent wreath. An Advent wreath was traditionally made of evergreen branches, holly, and red berries. Each of those parts had a significant meaning of its own. The evergreen branches stood for eternal life…ever green. The red berries and the thorny leaves of the holly represented the crown of thorns worn by Christ and His blood shed while wearing it. An Advent wreath was meant to hold 4 candles: 3 purple and one rose. The candles stand for hope, peace, joy (rose), and love, and are placed in the wreath one at a time, one each of the four Sundays that run up to Christmas. Sometimes a fifth candle, which is white, is added to the center. It represents Christ and is lit on Christmas Eve.
For many people, Christmas wreaths are not meant to be religious symbols. Today a wreath hanging on a door, a municipal light pole, or on your Christmas tree may be inviting the spirit of Christmas into your community or home along with good luck.
For those of us who collect antique and vintage Christmas, wreaths come in many sizes and are made of many different materials. Communities often hung very large wreaths on downtown light poles or on buildings. Some communities still do that today, although, because of cost, we are seeing less and less of these municipal decorations in the center of towns.
You might find wreaths on vintage cards and wrapping paper.
Some ladies might wear a wreath brooch.
There are also lighted wreaths for use in the window, on the wall, or at the top of your tree.
Wreaths come in all sizes, from the very large for hanging over the mantle to very small for hanging on your Christmas tree.
The variety is almost endless and each wreath is a reminder of traditions, colors, lights, and the joy of the Christmas holiday.
Shall we call it tinsel, lametta, rain, or icicles?
Should we use just a little or lots and lots of it?
Shall I place it on the tree one strand at a time or throw it on in clumps?
Save it for next year? Toss it out with the tree?
So many dilemmas surround tinsel!
Many of us decorate our Christmas trees every year with tinsel, but why? Who thought tinsel up in the first place? And, why, for heaven’s sake, hang it on an evergreen tree at Christmas? Let’s check out some facts about tinsel!
The word “tinsel” comes from the French word, estincelle, meaning “spark.” As to who invented tinsel, no one really knows, or at least remembers. We do know, however, that it was first used in Germany in the 1600s. It wasn’t that shiny plastic stuff we can buy these days; it was actually made from shredded silver. At first, the silver was hammered so that it was very thin and then cut into long thin strips. Before the 19th century, tinsel was actually used for adorning sculptures rather than Christmas trees. It was also often used in churches to simulate the starry sky above statues of the Holy family and the Christ child.
It is also unknown which genius thought to drape some over the branches of an evergreen. Tinsel is thought to have made its first public appearance in England in 1846. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were pictured in the Illustrated London News, standing with their children around a Christmas tree decorated with tinsel, candles, and small ornaments. Because of Queen Victoria’s popularity, decorated trees became the height of fashion in Europe, Britain, and in the East Coast American societies.
These early Christmas trees were also decorated with real, lighted candles, and the silver, combined with the flickering flames and light from the hearth, created a twinkly effect that gave a similar effect as the modern day string of lights. Sparkle, sparkle! Silver tinsel did have its drawbacks. Because it was made of silver, it tarnished, often before Christmas had even arrived. The smoke from the lighted candles did not help, either. They caused the tinsel to turn a black color on one side, which didn’t look very attractive. Besides, tinsel made from all silver was expensive and usually only the more wealthy families could afford it.
By the early 1900s, mainstream Americans were looking for less costly ways to decorate the Christmas trees in their homes. Manufacturers started producing tinsel made of aluminum and copper. This tinsel gave the same festive sparkle as the silver tinsel, but for a fraction of the price. Plus, this tinsel could be used year after year. But, even this tinsel wasn’t perfect. The aluminum paper in the tinsel was extremely flammable, which was a terrible choice for Christmas trees that were still decked out in candles. That problem was solved, however, when World War I began and all of the copper production went towards the war effort. Tinsel disappeared from the Christmas trees in most households.
It wasn’t gone for long. Tinsel manufacturers believed that tinsel deserved a place on Christmas trees. After all, it really did make those evergreens sparkle and shine! Makers worked hard to come up with something that could be hung in every home. It needed to look just right and be inexpensive enough for everyone to purchase it. The manufacturing choice was lead.
Lead pushed new breath into the gasping tinsel industry. Soon lead tinsel was a standard Christmas decoration along with ornaments and electric lights. It actually became so popular in the 1950s and ‘60s that lots of people believe that tinsel was a ‘mid-century fad’ rather than a tradition that had been around as long as the custom of Christmas trees themselves. It was a hit for sure. Lead tinsel was beautiful. You had to put it on the tree one strand at a time. It didn’t tarnish and it would hang straight down, giving the tree that dripping glittering icicle effect. Perfect!
This popular form of tinsel was considered one of the safer forms of decorations to have in every home. In fact, newspaper articles on holiday safety even touted tinsel as being “fairly” safe and that “even if the kiddies decided to swallow it, it will cause no problems or poisoning.” Hold it right there! As we know today, tinsel made from lead wasn’t “fairly safe” at all. Lead is poisonous. In the 1970s, the US government began setting limits on how much lead could be in any product. Even though tinsel manufacturers had switched to using lead foil to keep the tarnish proofing and the sparkle, by Christmas 1972 lead tinsel was off the shelves.
Back to the drawing board! So, if the tinsel we can buy and use today isn’t made of silver, copper, aluminum, or lead, what is it? Today, tinsel is made of polyvinyl chloride…PVC plastic. Machines shred the shiny ribbons of plastic to make those long wispy strands that still add a bit of sparkle and shine to our Christmas trees. Brite Star, a Philadelphia based company, is responsible for about 80% of the tinsel on the market, according to The Wall Street Journal. It began production in the mid-’50s. The company claims to have produced enough tinsel to reach the moon and back! It isn’t as elegant as the kind made from real metals and, because it is so lightweight, it’s less likely to stay put. However, the newest tinsel still brings that vintage “bling” to the holidays without poisoning your family!
After all of that, we still have not answered those questions. How much? What do we call it? One strand at a time or toss on a handful? Take it off and use it next year or toss it out with the tree? Well, I suppose it’s like everything else. It’s up to you, with maybe a little bit of your parents’ voices whispering in your ear. For me it means…old tinsel…there is no such thing as “too much”…we call it tinsel or icicles…one strand at a time…and it all comes off one strand at a time, put back in the box and used again next year. How about you?
Candy canes are now as much a part of Christmas as evergreen trees, ornaments, and presents piled under the tree; but no one really knows their entire history. We do know that they originated in Germany about 300 years ago. You might be surprised to know that they were not always red and white with a curved top to look like a cane. They actually started out as a plain old straight, white sugar stick most likely used by parents of the 1600s as a pacifier. They evidently were not too worried with the condition of their offspring’s teeth!
Although created around 1670, it wasn’t until 1844 that a recipe for straight candy sticks was published. About the same time is when they were used to decorate Christmas trees for the first time in America. In 1847, August Imgard, a German-Swedish immigrant in Wooster, Ohio used the white sticks to decorate an evergreen in his home. The rest of his family liked it so much that they continued the tradition. It was common to hang sweets, baked goods, and fruits on the trees, so candy ‘canes’ were the perfect addition. Around 1900, the red stripes were added and the sticks were flavored with peppermint or wintergreen. You can even find evidence of this by looking at antique postcards. Postcards before 1900 do show candy sticks decorating Christmas trees; but, it is not until after 1900 that the striped sticks begin showing up on the cards.
An interesting aside, that affected even the candy cane, was that there was a great debate about additives in candy and in foods in general. The sticks were still straight in the late 1800s and some candy makers added stripes by hand. Some of those bright colors in candy actually contained hazardous substances like the red which included lead oxide and mercury sulfide. This was allowed since there was no regulation of additives in food and candy. In an 1885 cartoon for Puck, the dangers of additives in candy were illustrated by showing the “mutual friendship” between striped candy, doctors, and the undertakers! Well, let’s go straight to the candy store for some! In 1900, the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act began to regulate additives in candy and other foods.
Now, how did these straight sticks get their crook? There are lots of stories about that as well. One story is that a choirmaster in Germany’s Cologne Cathedral convinced a local candy maker to bend sugar sticks into the shape of a shepherd’s crook so that restless children attending Christmas mass could hold on to the treat as they enjoyed it and remain quiet. No one is really sure if this is true or just a convenient legend. Evidence shows that the sticks remained straight for years to come. One thing for sure is these candy sticks were labor-intensive to make. They were hand-made, colored and shaped and were very expensive to purchase. So they were not really for the masses; but, were a treat for those who had the money to spend on luxuries. In the 1920s, cracker businessman Bob McCormack began making candy canes as Christmas treats for his community in Albany, Georgia pulling, twisting, cutting, and bending them by hand. They were so popular that Bob started his own business called ‘Bob’s Candies’. The candy remained a local treat as they were not easily shipped. They were fragile and were prone to take on moisture, becoming sticky. In the 1950s McCormack’s brother-in-law, Gregory Harding Keller, a Catholic priest, invented the ‘Keller Machine’ which turned straight candy sticks into curved candy canes automatically. And the world was made a little sweeter that day!
Okay, we could now mass produce the sweet treats; but, what about packaging and shipping? About the same time as Bob’s brother-in-law invented the Keller Machine, Bob’s son, Bob Jr., created a packing device that wrapped and sealed the candy in moisture proof plastic wrappers. Bob Sr. also came up with a box that held the canes in place for shipping. Now Bob was finally able to ship his candy canes far and wide, eventually making Bob’s Candies the world’s largest candy cane producer! And the rest, as they say, is history!
Bob’s candy canes are still being produced today, although under the Ferrara Candy Company name since 2005. You can still see Bob’s name on the front of the red and green box, however. Now over 2 billion candy canes are made every year! You don’t have to just choose peppermint with red stripes. You can get candy canes in many colors and flavors…cinnamon, butter rum, mac and cheese, pickle, and even clam flavored. No thanks! I think I’ll stick to peppermint!
Today, candy canes continue to decorate our Christmas trees and stuff stockings. They help to stir hot chocolate and are crushed and sprinkled on top of cookies and other desserts. Their images have adorned Christmas cards and wrapping paper. They have turned into decorations and taken their place as one of the most beloved symbols of the Christmas holiday. They are arguably the most popular holiday candy with the longest standing history. Enjoy some this holiday season.