Crafting handmade Christmas memories

For Fran Mickel and others, the art of making tree ornaments is priceless

November 26, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Fran Mickel wrapped a length of pink ribbon around the top of a small fruit can, dabbed the ribbon with Fabri-Tac permanent adhesive, and secured it around the can.

Next she glued a strand of red cord on top of the pink ribbon and manipulated a strand of purple beads into position.

"I never know what I'm going to do when I get started on an ornament," said the 79-year-old Sykesville woman, as she dabbed the beads with glue. "Sometimes I change my course half-way through."

Mickel was creating one of about 1,000 beaded ornaments that she used to decorate the Christmas tree that she showcases at the Carroll County Arts Council in Westminster.

While the National Retail Federation estimates that the average American will spend $46.49 on commercial decorations this year, some Carroll County residents are returning to the tradition of simple, handmade ornaments.

"I love to look at the commercial trees," Mickel said. "But when you make your own ornaments, the creative sense you have inside is satisfied."

Tree adornments have gone full circle for some people, Mickel said.

"They started out homemade and got more elaborate over time," she said. "Now more people are going back to the traditional ornaments."

The first Christmas trees were decorated with fruits, nuts and candies that were eaten when the tree was taken down, said illustrator Wendell Minor, of Washington, Conn., who co-authored a children's book with his wife, Florence, called Christmas Tree! The book includes a short history of Christmas trees and their decorations.

"Originally, Christmas trees magically appeared on Christmas morning," said the 62-year-old who has illustrated more than 2,000 works. "Candles served as the lights, and on Christmas morning men stood with buckets of water just in case the tree caught on fire. Tree lights appeared around 1901."

Christmas tree decorations boomed with the premiere of glass ornaments that were made in Germany in the mid-19th century, said Catherine Baty, curator of the Historical Society of Carroll County.

Glass ornaments made by Shiny Brite, a company established in 1937 by Max Eckhardt, have grown in popularity. The ornaments were lacquered by a machine and hand-decorated.

"People are buying both original Shiny Brite ornaments, and reproductions in antique shops," she said. "The originals are hard to find, but reproductions are being made."

Currently, Shiny Brite is a registered trademark of ornament designer Christopher Radko, who began creating hand-painted, glass ornaments in 1986, after 2,000 glass ornaments on his family's Christmas tree were broken.

The demand has grown so much that in 1986 Radko designed 65 ornaments. This year he's featuring 1,100 designs that start at about $20 each.

Hallmark is known for its keepsake tree bobbles that depict movie characters, television programs, cartoon characters and specialty interest topics such as Barbie dolls and NASCAR.

In 1973, Hallmark premiered six glass and 12 yarn ornaments. This year, the company has created more than 200 keepsake ornaments. Top sellers include: Barbie, Star Wars, Star Trek and the Pirates of the Caribbean ornaments, said Deidre Parkes, a Hallmark spokeswoman.

"People want the themed ornaments," she said. "So we try to create ornaments to offer something for everyone."

Once the ornaments are selected, decorating the tree gives families a chance to express themselves creatively, said Minor.

"The Christmas tree is the most secular, iconographic symbol we have for the holidays," he said. "It's almost an anthropological study of humans."

Regardless of their sentimental value, said Cheryl Vecera, a member of the Pins and Needles Club of Westminster, people are expressing themselves more with store-bought ornaments.

After 40 years of making pinecone elves, Styrofoam balls covered with sequins and beads and felt snowmen and stockings, the members of the club stopped because of declining interest in their wares.

"The items we made weren't high-priced ornaments, so people don't want them anymore," Vecera said. "And Christmas decorations aren't about red and green anymore. I'm hearing more and more about rose-colored trees with matching decorations than anything else."

Even her children prefer store-bought products, she said.

"I remember stringing popcorn and cranberries to put on the tree," she said. "Now when I try to give my grown children the ornaments they made for the family tree when they were young, they say they aren't hanging that junk on their tree."

Mickel said she enjoys making ornaments too much to let decreasing interest or nonconformity stop her.

"All year long, I sit on the floor and make my ornaments," she said. "I really like making pieces that have a medieval design."

Mickel's ornaments benefit a group that helps build and repair houses for the needy in West Virginia.

"Making ornaments for me is a work in progress," Mickel said. "I do it because I love it when people see them and say, `wow.' There's a limitless supply of balls, shapes, colors and possibilities when you make your ornaments. This is my ornament tradition."

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