A long day's journey to birthplace of the glass Christmas ornament

Jacques Kelly

December 17, 1990|By Jacques Kelly

When 10 cents or a quarter would buy a fragile miniature telephone, or elephant or trumpet, I would spend a Saturday morning at the Greenmount Avenue Woolworth's selecting a pTC glass jewel for the Christmas tree.

But there is something about the magic of delicate glass Christmas finery that drew me to Lauscha, the German mountain village that was home to this art.

This past winter I was traveling in pre-unification East Germany and stopped at Gera, a city of 100,000 residents. On a whim, I got the hotel clerk to call a cab and took a 100-mile side trip to Lauscha, the place that invented the glass ornament as we know it today.

On cue, a taxi pulled up and we set off on a half day's trip. To communicate with the driver, I had my 17 key words of German I'd committed to memory 25 years earlier in Father Francis Schemel's Loyola High School German class. The words, rendered in faulty pronunciation, worked. We talked the whole day.

The roads of Thuringia wind and dip around green meadows and valleys as perfect as any postcard village. We passed hayfields, breweries and rusty, polluting steel mills. Railroads wound around the cow pastures. But no motels, gas stations, roadside convenience stores or billboards spoiled the view.

If Lauscha were in the United States, the highway leading to it would be strewn with factory outlets, Christmas ornament boutiques and restaurants where the staff dressed as Santa's elves. But not in Socialist East Germany. No capitalism here, at least not then.

At the start of the trip, the weather had been typical early March, cool and sunny. But, about an hour into the quest for the silvery glass, it changed to a white snow sky. We were climbing into the mountains covered with spectacular, ram-rod straight green pine trees, as high as a seven or eight-story building. The trees have thick, hanging boughs, dark bark and midnight green needles. I could smell Christmas country.

We wound around the hillsides, and, as if on cue, it started snowing. Within a few kilometers of Lauscha, the snow had stopped, but there was enough from an earlier storm to have high banks. It looked like deepest winter, even though it was crocus and forsythia weather only a few towns away.

Lauscha reminded me of Baltimore's Woodberry neighborhood, where the mill hands' houses sit perched on the side of the Jones Falls Valley.

The home of the Christmas ornament industry is a village, not a city. All the houses are covered with dark slate, set in patterns. It makes them look as if they'd been shingled with coal. The highest point in town is occupied by a church. There were several small glass factories tucked in around the houses. The same families -- the Muellers, Greiners, Prechts and Gitters -- have lived and worked here for centuries.

The town square might hold four or five cars. The streets seem to climb at 45-degree angles. I slipped on the snow en route to a little glass museum, which has a modest collection of the glass that's been made there for the past four centuries. Before ornaments became such a staple, Lauscha's artisans made beer and wine glasses, pitchers, tumblers and marbles. I was not prepared to view a whole display case of artificial glass eyes, another specialty of the village.

The first glass Christmas ornaments were made in the 1840s as a highly localized industry. Tradition has it that a glass blower used a pine cone cookie mold to make the initial ball. The industry caught on.

Huge orders from Woolworth's and other American chains helped swell production. Old photos show the villagers carrying ornament-loaded wicker hampers on their backs as they descend the steep streets. The glass blowers also made miniature Christmas reindeer so thin and that a breeze might shatter them.

Before World War I, this postage stamp village made 95 percent of the world's glass ornaments. There was later competition from Austria, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

After World War II, and the partition of East and West Germany, many of the treasured glass molds left Lauscha secretly, via a secret compartment in an auto that made border crossings on the holidays when visits were permitted.

But alas, on this day, there were no wonderful ornaments to buy here. No antique -- or modern -- heads of the Kaiser, or jack o'lanterns or zeppelins. There were a few glass blowers with shops along the main street, but they seemed to be making the equivalent of East German lava lamps.

I stayed about an hour here and we headed off to the city of Erfurt. We dipped down the mountain, the snow disappeared and March stopped behaving like December. And the cab fare, for the whole day's outing, in preunification prices, was $40.

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