Sunday, January 5, 2014

Happy New Year: Do You Recognize These Antique Ornaments?

Our first big snow storm of the year hit on trash and recycling night this week and the City of Philadelphia (which is not known for it’s multi-talking skills) has thoughtfully given us a week-long reprieve for taking down the Christmas tree and provided me with some time to tell you a little story.

My husband and I had friends over for pre-dinner and post-dinner cocktails one night during the Holidays.  Mid-way through the post-dinner cocktails, one charming pal squinted at the tree from across the room and wondered aloud about several ornaments.  He wondered because they looked…well, vaguely familiar — in fact — oh my goodness, didn’t his very own family have the same ornaments, long-forgotten in someone’s attic?
Nothing unusual in that you may be thinking, there are millions of ornaments made every year.  What is she going on about?  But each of these ornaments was handmade by myself or one of my immediate family members.  There are nineteen of them (ornaments, not family members) and they hung from our family tree for many, many years.

In the early 70’s, for several years in a row, my mom had the idea to whip up a batch of plaster, pour it into plastic molds and, once dried, pop out a variety of ornaments for the four of us to paint while gathered around the dinner table in the evenings.  There is a trumpet blowing angel, a fish, a candle, a peacock, three wise men, a Santa, the head of a snowman, a Christmas tree, a wreath, a Christmas stocking that says Noel, a gingerbread man and two “ornament” shapes.  There used to be a funny little, sperm-shaped, baby Jesus, but I think he may have been over-looked one year and taken out to the curb with the tree after Christmas.  I’ve looked everywhere and he is not to be found.   It’s our very own mystery of the baby Jesus — I suppose we should have put a little tracking device on him like they do in public nativity scenes now because the baby Jesus is so often stolen.

The history behind these ornaments is not unlike a Davis Sedaris tale.  Such a wholesome, family-bonding project for the four of us, wouldn’t you think?  But my dad had always had one-too-many martinis and my mom was Martha Stewart before there was Martha Stewart - expecting nothing short of perfection in all things large and small.  My brother and I were sullen and resentful of the extended time around the table, cruelly separated from our friends.  I remember a year when my boyfriend sat in with us, but his artistic skills were deemed unacceptable by ‘Martha Stewart’ and he was not invited back.  
Nevertheless, as I pack each one away, I smile to remember a time spent together laughing, bickering, competing and decorating.  They are fragile bits of plaster, glitter and gold that represent our bonds of love and disfunction as well as a somewhat creative family gene pool.

In almost 30 years of Holiday gatherings, before last week, exactly no one had recognized or remembered these ornaments.  I had come to believe my tiny family, alone in the universe, had thought to decorate small plaster ornaments for Christmas.  Now it appears there were others.  Do you recognize them?  If you’re old enough, perhaps you and your own family decorated little ornaments just like these?  The thought of a larger community of us — each with their own sacred, crazy-family tales to tell  — thoroughly warms my heart.

Happy New Year,  
E. England


  1. Dear Nine Dragons Photography, I have a few of the vintage ornaments and am looking for the mold to make more. I would love it if you happen to have that mold or would know where to find it. I made these at a young age with my mom and she has lost or killed the mold. I would love to make with my children. I believe there was also a baby Jesus.

  2. Hello Heidi! I'm fairly certain the mold is long gone, but I think I have the box it came in packed away with the Christmas ornaments. When I pull them out this year, I'll check, maybe we can track down the company and find new molds! Cheers! E.