What the well-dressed tree is wearing this year


November 07, 1996|By Elizabeth Large

What an amazing thing an ornament is: as fragile as fine crystal, but able to bear the memories of all those holidays past.

With the weight of so much tradition behind these bright reminders of special times, it seems strange to talk of trends. Angels and snowmen, red-coated Santas, silvery stars -- surely these are constants. But the truth is that ornaments, like other home accessories, follow the whims of fashion.

The current decorative interest in "green" themes is reflected in Old World ornaments shaped like fruits and vegetables. You can find them everywhere, from garden catalogs to upscale gift shops. There are mauve and yellow peaches and grapes, marvelously realistic carrots and fat green pea pods -- even a charming potato, eyes and all.

Along the same lines, ornaments related to gardening are available almost anywhere that sells holiday decorations. Those who buy them are looking for ornaments that are meaningful to them in the context of their lives, not simply pretty decorations. America's favorite leisure-time activity has been translated quite literally into ornaments shaped like hoes and rakes and seed packets.

At the Christmas Spirit shop in Annapolis are ornaments with little sayings like "Gardeners know the real dirt." You can find handcrafted angels with rakes, straw hats and terra-cotta pots at Dahne & Weinstein in Lutherville.

And speaking of angels, surely they've been one of the most important and widespread decorative motifs of the last few years. Of course, you would expect to find angel ornaments anyway at Christmas time -- but perhaps not the sheer number that now grace gift shop shelves. Angels of every race and ethnic group. Folk-art angels and jazzy contemporary ones. Handblown glass and lacy Victorian angels. All very traditional in a way, and yet very much in the mainstream of what's happening in decorative accessories.

"The Christmas business used to be very traditional," says Rob MacCool, owner of the Ornament House in Harborplace. "Now it's very fashion-oriented. The themes and colors come out of home decor. It's trim-a-home more than trim-a-tree."

Probably the main reason for this change is that ornaments have become one of the country's hottest collectibles. The statistics are astonishing. Between 1994 and 1995, ornament sales increased 43 percent, according to a survey done for the collectibles and giftware industry by Unity Marketing. The survey found that ornaments are the second fastest growing category of collectibles (behind music boxes).

Although sales are still strongest around Christmas, people are buying ornaments year-round. They give them as gifts and use their collections to decorate their homes as well as their trees.

A gift can be as simple as one ornament, perhaps an overblown red rose by Chistopher Radko, one of the top names in Christmas collectibles. It looks more appropriate for June than for December.

Or it can be quite elaborate. (Read costly.) Whitehurst, an Easton-based importer of glass ornaments, has just introduced "The Bride's Collection," a boxed set of 12 exquisitely handcrafted glass ornaments done in cream, gold and glitter. The set is designed to be an important wedding or anniversary gift. Each ornament, from the teapot to the heart, involves a wish of happiness for the recipient; the story of the 12 wishes is detailed in the vellum scroll that accompanies the set.

It's hard to imagine actually hanging ornaments like these on a tree, where the careless brush of a sleeve might reduce them to a thousand silverly slivers on the floor.

But consider what Phillip V. Snyder says in The Encyclopedia of Collectibles:

"It seems somehow alien to the spirit of Christmas to lock away even admittedly fragile ornaments from the hands of children, when a little common sense and discretion can keep these valuable items perfectly intact. The appropriate place for Christmas-tree ornaments is, after all, on the Christmas tree."

If you agree, you may feel more comfortable with some of the other, less fragile ornaments in stores this holiday season.

"Lots of showrooms were showing whimsical ornaments this year [at the wholesale markets for giftwares]," says Susie Smithers, buyer for Dahne & Weinstein. The Lutherville gift shop is carrying, for instance, ridiculously fat little cats, pigs, and cows made of papier-mache. There are also Battenberg lace angels with cat, dog and bunny heads.

The Kellogg Collection on Falls Road has nonbreakable ornaments appropriate for an Old English-style Christmas, such as tole Santas, jointed and painted. They are reminiscent of antique toys.

Many of the Victorian-style ornaments are more durable than they look. "Our Victorian ornaments are one of the biggest sellers in the store," says Lynn Levi, manager of the Designer Showcase in Stevenson. These are made with lace, ribbon, pearls and flowers, and hang from cord or satin ribbons.

But no story on what's hot can end without mentioning what's not hot, including this one.

According to Mary Lou Armstrong, president of Whitehurst Imports, "Stars and moons are out. Celestials are definitely fading."

Just as they are in the home-furnishings industry -- although it's hard to imagine any tree without at least one Christmas star. Sometimes tradition just takes precedence over fashion.

Pub Date: 11/07/96

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