South Park Magazine

History preserved in glass

When Charlotteans gather around their Christmas trees this December, they might give a nod of thanks in the direction of Britain’s Queen Charlotte, for whom the city is named, and her granddaughter, Queen Victoria.

Charlotte, the wife of King George III, is thought to have introduced the tradition of a live tree by having a yew tree brought to the castle, just as it would have been in her native Germany. Victoria loved the idea of a live tree, and popularized it throughout England by letting her much-grander, decorated version be pictured in a woodcut in a London newspaper in the 1800s.

About the same time, the tradition of the blown-glass ornament was started by German glass artists who turned from making chandelier beads to making tree ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts.

The experiment on the part of the glass-blowers spread across the Atlantic to the U.S., where families of means quickly snatched up the bright baubles. F. W. Woolworth got rich importing them, and by the 20th century, had brought 200,000 into the country.

Now, the glass ornaments that are descendants of that tradition are an integral part of 21st century celebrations – even more so because vintage is hot these days.

No matter what the period, says co-owner Susan Kooiman of Charlotte retailer Peppermint Forest, they are “little icons of things that reflect people’s lives.”

In the 1800s, they may have been food or farm animals, she says, while in the 2000s, they range from pizza slices to garden tools to hoodies with sports logos attached.

An entire wall at the retailer, 11729 Carolina Place Parkway, is devoted to Merck Family Old World ornaments in many of the shapes she mentions. “People just stand at that wall and pick them for different people in their family. A lot of people will collect an ornament every year for each child.”

At the Southern Christmas Show, coming up Nov. 10-20 at the Park Expo and Conference Center, regional retailer Christmas Mouse will decorate an entire tree with the Merck Old World ornaments.

Though resin and plastic figures are also available, owner Rob Marshall says the blown glass “has been around forever and it’s one of those things that people connect to. One of those feel-good things.”

‘A cool Christmas’

The Southern Christmas Show itself is celebrating a vintage theme this year. A representation of a typical 1950s-‘60s home, complete with patio, carport, and Andy Williams singing on the stereo, sits just inside the entrance of the show, at the Park Expo and Conference Center, 2500 E. Independence Blvd.

Through lighted living room windows, the thousands of visitors expected at the Nov. 10- 20 event can spy a mid-20th century aluminum tree lit by a revolving “color wheel.” For those born later, that’s a spotlight with revolving colored lenses that illuminated the shiny “tree” glittering in so many homes during that era.

There’ll be toys of the period, a vintage TV set, and a photo display of Southern Christmas Show visitors’ family celebrations from the 1955-’65 period.

Elsewhere in the show, there’ll be rooms decked out by professional decorators, an Old Towne of 50 shops, a Christmas Tree Lane with dozens of Fraser firs professionally decorated, and an Enchanted Village of doll houses and miniature scenes decorated by the National Association of Miniature Enthusiasts.

Choirs will sing, electric trains will whiz around their miniature tracks, holiday fashions will be displayed, and chocolates, fruitcake and strudel will be sampled

Nothing, however, will outshine the forest of glittering trees. Christmas Mouse alone will dress 30.

In a turnaround from its cozy, “gather-by-the-fire” Old World glass, the retailer will have one tree completely devoted to Egyptian glass. Elliptical, round, conical and bell-shaped, the translucent glass relies on rich color and pleasing lines for its appeal. The gold trim is applied and the red, green, blue and purple hues are baked in Egypt, which has a long history of glass-making, Marshall says. As a treat for fans of women’s fashion, this year there’ll be a “shoe tree,” with tiny replicas of jungle-striped high heels, glittery sandals, ballerina slippers, tennis shoes and even Uggs, the trendy unisex boots with sheepskin interiors.

Victoria and her court may not have known what to make of the “shoe tree,” but we’ll bet that the women, accustomed to bitterly cold winters in stone castles, would have been captivated by Uggs.

More informationPeppermint Forest: Southern Christmas Show: