First Day of Fall: Decorating an Amazing Christmas Tree

Gina Tomelleri of Country Garden Antiques (a long-time favorite of interior decorators, set designers, and collectors in the Dallas Design District) and I decided to spend a hot beginning-of-Fall afternoon talking Christmas, as one would do. What better way to spend a hot day than to have a chat about a cooler, brighter, loving time of the year, pondering decorations, colors, creative alternatives, and amusing yet practical solutions to some seasonal decoration issues?

JS: When did this vintage Christmas obsession start?

Gina: A long time ago. We have been in business for 28-29 years, and I always went to estate sales, and I always bought vintage Christmas, but at that time – as far as I know – there was only myself and one other gal interested in vintage Christmas that many years ago. So, whenever there was an estate sale, we usually got the vintage Christmas, which started accumulating. I used to bring it out at Christmas time and then pack it up the rest of the year until I ended up with so much – because people would bring it to me, sell it to me as well – I decided to devote an entire room in the store.

JS: Basically, keep Christmas around all year.

Gina: It is possible that this “obsession” started years ago when I was in college because I came home from college at Christmas time. My mom got a fake tree for the first time, an artificial Christmas tree with all brand-new ornaments. And I said, “What happened to the vintage ornaments?” She answered, “Oh, I got rid of those old things.” That must have triggered something in me that was latent for several years. When we decided to get into this business, I decided to start vintage Christmas because I really like it. We acquire ornaments everywhere we go.

JS: Christmas ornaments come from all corners of the world. Does the USA have a history of its own regarding them?

Gina: Shiny Brite is made in the USA. They saw a market for it because they saw what was happening in Eastern Europe, Germany, etc. Americans were catching on quickly, and Shiny Brite was intensely interested in making ornaments. They started making them in the USA decades ago and sold them at department stores such as Woolworth. The decorations I find now are primarily from the USA. However, quite a few are from Eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Germany (West and East for period reference), and more rarely from Ukraine and Russia.

JS: Is your focus simply on Christmas ornaments per se or other decorations? What can we find when strolling through the Christmas room?

Gina: Many other Christmas things, like paintings of Winter scenes with much snow, those are also hard to find; old felt stockings, tree skirts that go around the bottom of the tree, old vintage Christmas cards, small Santas, elves, and other Christmas characters, ceramic items, in short, any knickknack that you can find. Though primarily, I focus on the actual Christmas ornaments.

JS: Is there any particular ornament that is “trendier” than others? I imagine that some decorations may follow the fads of the moment due to color or shape.

Gina: Yes, colors change, and they will typically be color wheel opposites. So, the traditional red and green may move a little bit on the color wheel to pink and chartreuse, purple and orange, blue and gold, etc. Generally, the color preferences go with what is trendy home décor or fashion – though classic combinations in silver or turquoise are timeless and are those that I sell the most of.

JS: Your Christmas-devoted room is all year round. When do people start buying Christmas ornaments?

Gina: Let’s take the current year, so Christmas 2022. The buying already started in August, slowly. It starts heavily in October and the following months, but December is probably the busiest time. Generally, I also sell in January because people are still in the mood. If someone is from out of town, they follow the mantra “the time to buy an antique is when you see it,” and they will buy all year long. We rarely sell online unless it is a rare ornament; my husband Alan will put it up on eBay, for example.

JS: I think mid-December may be a tad late, though plenty of us procrastinate until the last moment.

Gina: It takes some people a bit longer to get into the mood.

JS:  Is there an ornament that is more sought after than others?

Gina: Oh yes, tree toppers are one of them. Also, the rarer colors, such as black and brown, are the hardest to find. Purple and orange follow suit; those were available starting in the ‘60s. There just were not enough of them made, and that is what makes them uncommon. I do not know whether they are being kept as a family heirloom or broken over time; this is another instance of “buy when you see them.” All sorts of shapes are collectible: pinecones, bells, little houses. The older ones are more of interest to a serious collector, say items like small cottages and Santa’s, because they are not made in a plain color. Difficult to find, truly. 

JS: Have you had any “special” customer requests over the years?

Gina: Yes. I had designed a “rainbow” tree, which started with purple, then blue, kind of an ombre effect, and a customer from New York City came and wanted the tree and every ornament. So, I packed everything up very carefully and shipped it to him, and he said that not one single ornament broke. There have been times when companies came in and wanted nothing but pink and orange – typically, they would come in and pick their own, and I put them together. Other times, someone wanted a single color in a massive quantity, and I put together a few boxes for them.

JS: Maybe I am in the minority thinking that Christmas ornaments are tied to a family tradition, passed down from generation to generation. At least it was that way for me, through many moves from country to country. We lost a few ornaments over time, but I still have some; some are vintage ones I acquired in the last few years. Seeing more and more people getting rid of them brings me sadness, as if they are easily replaceable. For me, they are tied to memories, as I said, and those are irreplaceable. A round-about way to get to the question. Are vintage ornaments easier to find because of tradition’s breakage (no pun intended)?

Gina: As far as I know, and as I said earlier, myself and another gal in Dallas were the only ones that used to buy vintage Christmas, but now many people are buying and then selling online, on places like Etsy, eBay, etc. It is harder to go to an estate sale now and get a quantity of vintage Christmas ornaments because there is a “new” niche industry selling them online. There are also many more people in line at an estate sale than there used to be looking for just those. Talking about tradition and handing down ornaments: I think many people are more into alternatives for Christmas decorating, like putting ornaments in a compote or on a mantle instead of just using them on a tree. There are a lot of different things you can do with ornaments.

JS: I need to put my hands on what I buy first, so I am not an online buyer regarding delicate things like these. I am concerned about buying “untouched.”

Gina: Right. There are many things to watch for as it relates to the condition. Does it have the original cap? Is the cap broken? Is the ornament cracked anywhere? It is easy to overlook or not pay enough attention to those things. I do not buy online because I have no idea of the quality of what I am going to get, whereas if I hold it in my hand and see it, then I know right then. Also, you do not know if they may mix in new ones with vintage ones.

JS: How do you go about grading those ornaments? Is it something you do at all?

Gina: It just has to do with the rarity of form, color, and different shapes. Typically, back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, they would sell a box of ornaments, and most were plain, but some were indent ornaments or maybe a fancy shape, like a bell. So, as it naturally happens – because there is breakage over time – those unusual shapes and indents, the glass glitter, that sort of thing, are harder to find and more expensive than the solid balls.

JS: You mentioned caps. Do you also provide vintage caps to someone who maybe has the ornament but has lost its original cap?

Gina: I have like a little “ornament hospital” that has little clips for birds, for example, the spun-glass tails, etc. Those I generally reserve to complete my own sets that may need tender, loving care. I will sell empty Shiny Brite boxes because people love to store vintage ornaments in a vintage box – I have started doing that in the last couple of years though it is a bit harder to manage as I need boxes for all those ornaments that come without one. I did have a person come in once from Anthropologie, wanting to know if they could buy all the Shiny Brite boxes without the ornaments in them.

JS: I imagine that would be a “no.”

Gina: Simply put, what will I do with thousands and thousands of ornaments and no boxes to store them? That year, a few months later, the installations in their stores were scenes of people decorating a tree, and they had a Shiny Brite box atop a stack of empty boxes. I have no idea where they got them, but it wasn’t from me.

JS: “Technical” question: I grew up with live trees, and we used – being daredevils back in the day – real candles on the tree. We would get in trouble doing that now. Now there are electric lights of all sorts to put around live and artificial trees, some hotter than others. Will the heat given off these string lights damage vintage ornaments?

Gina: Yes, eventually it will. Lights can fade the colors and, if hot enough, they could damage the ornament itself. Probably not a good idea to keep the lights on all day or longer, especially when using vintage ornaments.

JS: We loved Christmas as kids, yet we also dreaded the aftermath of using candles. The wax would invariably drip unto some ornament or another: we would have to find a way to clean them up for use the following year. Thankfully my parents were not that obsessed with getting them all nice and clean because they thought the wax drips lent “character” to the balls. One way we used to remove it – because you cannot just go and peel it off – we would warm up the ornament just enough to soften the wax and then wipe it off very carefully. It did not always have a happy ending, as the balls were delicate. Though wax on ornaments is hardly something to be found nowadays, do you have a suggestion on how to remove wax or other stains without damaging them? Is there a safe way or keep it as it is?

Gina: I would keep them as they are, character and all. People do not come across wax anymore, or hardly at all. I sell the clip-on candle drip savers; if someone uses them, they are typically short-lived for a photo opportunity. So not for a dinner event or something like that. The thing that I run into more than wax is the flocking: a white, frosty powder that they used to spray on the trees to give them a natural, snow-covered look. That process has ruined many an ornament.  You can use things like a toothbrush or sometimes even a razor blade (not an activity for children) and attempt the removal. You have to decide if it pulls the color off. Are you going to be ok with that? Theoretically, there are people offering services online to restore ornaments.

JS: What is the most unusual ornament you ever had?

Gina: I think it was an Italian, annealed spaceman. The figure of the astronaut was hand-blown; the helmet was like a Braniff airlines space helmet, made of glass. It was very unusual, but I already had in mind whom to sell that ornament to – and I did. After a while, you get to know your customers pretty well.

JS: Most expensive Christmas ornament ever?

Gina: For me? There was a Santa with chenille legs – it was worth about $200.  I do not deal in them, but there are Dresden ornaments, German paper ornaments, that are thousands of dollars sometimes.

JS: Understandably. I would think those are far more delicate; it would be risky.

Gina: Exactly. My stock is hands-on; people can look through them, handle them (carefully), and gather what they want. You cannot do that with those expensive, delicate ornaments.

JS: The most beautiful Christmas tree you ever saw?

Gina: Probably it was the one of a friend of ours, Betty Bell, who collects Dresden ornaments and feather tree ornaments, and her feather tree is probably the most beautiful I have ever seen. It sat on a music box that turned round and round. Truly wonderful. She used to have a Christmas party every year (she hasn’t done them for the last couple of years since Covid), and the guests would be ooh-ing and aah-ing over the beautiful, delicate, precious, and costly ornaments. She had a feather tree, which is one of my favorites. Though vintage feather trees are a rare find, there are new ones, but they aren’t as good a quality. They are passable, and many people have opted for them.

JS: The most beautiful Christmas tree I ever saw was when I was a child in Germany in the ‘70s. It was in the town square, a live tree about 16 feet tall. From a child’s perspective, it was gigantic. It was covered in glass ornaments, an explosion of traditional colors in all hues. I remember one night, it started snowing with a light breeze, and these ornaments started tinkling against one another in the wind. We were so worried it might get so windy that all the ornaments would break! Even after decades, I have this mesmerizing sight in my mind. It embodied the perfect Christmas tree. From that memory to now: I am not dedicating as much effort to our Christmas tree as I used to, but I still like to make it meaningful and carry memories with it – though I am leaning towards a different approach, perhaps without a tree.

Gina: Depending on what type of ornaments, you can use them in less traditional ways. I used to have a Christmas tree with a mixture of pastel ornaments. When Valentine’s Day came around, I’d leave on the pink and the red, pull everything off, and maybe add more hues of pink. I’d pull off the red at Easter and add more pastel colors. You can always use a tree; they have even come up with Valentine’s, Easter, and Halloween versions. It’s not just Christmas anymore.

JS: If someone were to have a wedding at Christmas time and wanted to decorate, say, a room or an outside space (in Texas, we can, the weather is seldom in tune with the season), what would you suggest they do?

Gina: I would go heavy on the lights if it is a space outside and if it is an evening wedding. If glass ornaments were to be used, they are better suited for an inside arrangement. I would suggest focusing on the table as opposed to a tree. I sold ornaments for Christmas weddings, and one was challenging because the colors chosen were orange and grey. While orange ones are abundant, grey is more challenging to find unless you go with new ones.  They bought a grey ribbon and tied the orange ornaments to make it work.

JS: Since you mentioned ribbons as a bridge on missing colors, do they make an unexpected difference?

Gina: They can turn the ordinary into the extraordinary. I sell vintage ribbons for that very reason.

JS: I know weddings were held differently than usual in the last couple of years, mainly due to Covid. More outside than inside, smaller venues, and smaller crowds. What was supposed to be a temporary, forced solution has become a fad, a trendy thing that has changed how one thinks about decorations. For example, with Halloween coming, I have seen trees come to light with a variation on Christmas ornaments.

Gina: There have been such trees for a long time for Halloween. Black and orange, white and purple. More plastic, shatter-proof.

JS: Let’s talk about the infamous debate: live tree versus artificial tree.

Gina: I like that the feather trees that started in Germany, which were the first artificial trees, were made of organic matter, like goose feathers. They are perfect because they are light; you can control the branches and how far apart the ornaments can be spaced. There is a lot of visual space, and I like those. I also have a fondness for the big, fat, white trees from the ‘50s. They show off the ornaments well.

JS: Speaking of colors, usually a Christmas tree is green or some shade thereof, and though feather trees are also common in that color, white ones offer many more possibilities. Does it matter what color you put as a contrast color to a tree? Say green would get lost in greenery, and white ornaments may disappear on white.

Gina: It’s all individual; it’s all your choice. My preference is for the ornaments to show up and stand out; I like a very pale green or white tree because then the ornaments are the stars of the show, as opposed to the background they are on, i.e., the tree.

JS: Is there such a thing as too many ornaments on a tree?

Gina: That’s a tricky question. Many people in my business say, “more is more.” The only issue may be that the tree may fall over if you put too many ornaments. That’s too many! Other than that, I know that some put them way deep in the branches, there may be twenty ornaments on each branch, and it looks fabulous, though it is very time-consuming. And, of course, there are those people that keep the Christmas tree up all year round because it is so much work.

JS: We have to talk about cats and Christmas trees…

Gina: Ah, that is why I sell plastic ornaments as well! There aren’t many vintage ornaments that are plastic, but there are some, and I have a few. It’s always the cat; it’s never the dog. I have people coming in, and they will specifically say, “I have a cat; I need ornaments that aren’t going to break!”

JS: Though it does not matter how careful one is, take the plastic ornament precaution: if the cat is determined, there is no defense.

Gina: Reminds me of when my mother always put the tree on top of the piano because she didn’t want us to be messing with it. She had a shorter, smaller tree. Cats may not be deterred by that, though.

JS: Aside from having such a vast selection of Christmas ornaments and focusing on selling those, are you involved in other sides, such as the staging of scenes?

Gina: Yes, I am. I enjoy doing that too. I love taking a pile of “stuff, ” seemingly unrelated, and making it into a beautiful little scene or a diorama. I have done some small jobs, and I know others who do more than that, like the mantle, the outside, lights, etc. My focus is more on setting the table or a single tree. Give me a call!


2 thoughts on “First Day of Fall: Decorating an Amazing Christmas Tree

  1. I loved reading this, vintage Christmas ornaments are just the best. Most of mine are hand made glass ones, and all have a special memory of something attached even if it was just a trip to my favourite place on earth where they used to have a shop by the harbourside that sold the hand made glass ones. They sure take some packing away after Christmas to keep them safe 🙂

  2. Congratulations! You just got me in the mood for Christmas. Enjoyed your conversation and memories of Christmas.

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