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Shattering tradition: Why Christmas ornaments ain’t what they used to be

Mountie ornament, $29.99 at Flatiron’s Christmas Market (416-365-1506).

Joesph Saraceno/Prop styling by Jason Charles Hatton for Judy Inc.

'I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company

of children assembled round that pretty German toy,

a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of

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a great round table, and towered high above their heads.

It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers;

and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects."

– A Christmas Tree by Charles Dickens (1850)

Dickens's lesser-known holiday story goes on to describe the bits and baubles hanging from the tree's branches, including sugar candies, wooden toys and glass beads. His sense of awe over the spectacle is due largely to the fact that, in mid-19th century England, the concept of a Christmas tree was more new trend than holiday tradition. In 1841, Queen Victoria and her Bavarian-born consort Prince Albert had popularized tree trimming when Windsor Castle's festive firs were widely covered by the British press for the first time.

Albert's ornaments came from his native region, the duchy of Saxe-Coburg, specifically, a small mountain town called Lauscha. The German city resembles the sleepy, snowy villages of yuletide stories. It was here that the Müller and Greiner families set up a small glassworks in 1597. Using the nearby Thuringian forest as a timber supply to power its kilns and sand from a local quartz quarry, they produced everyday housewares such as goblets and bowls and more specialized items including artificial human eyeballs. They also created beads that were strung into decorative garlands and, by the mid-1800s, their glass ornaments were being imported by Woolworth's to distribute across the United States and Canada.

Today, those families still operate over a dozen glassblowing facilities in the area and supply retailers around the world with festive ornaments that maintain a hand-crafted tradition. They're not the only advocates of heirloom quality in the multi-billion dollar a year global holiday-decor market (according to IBISWorld, seasonal decor sales will be $29-billion in the U.S. alone in 2016), though it's becoming increasingly difficult to trim your tree with something more special than plastic balls bought in bulk.

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At Flatiron's Christmas Market in Toronto, it's Yuletide year-round. The specialty retailer has been in business since 1986 and, among its options for traditional ornaments, it specializes in the shiny tinsel, glass balls and other holiday fare created in Germany. Over the past fifteen years, as it's become harder to source festive decor from Canadian and American manufacturers, co-owner Ted Genova has taken to designing and commissioning his own – this season's offering includes distinctly Canadiana characters like mustachioed Mounties (pictured at left) and toque-wearing beavers – from the glassworks in Lauscha and carpentry workshops in neighbouring towns such as Seiffen.

"It was a mining region and when the mines ran out, the townsfolk in a hundred different little villages started doing woodworking," Genova explains. "In every house, you see they are making nutcrackers – $300, the real thing – and you have to have a diploma to be able to do it. People want the authentic stuff, to treasure and pass down." Descendents of those original Thuringian glassblowers operate the Deutsches Weihnachtsmuseum (German Christmas Museum) in northern Bavaria and continue to produce ornaments according to traditional methods. The largest is Inge-Glas, a 14th-generation producer with a catalogue of more than 10,000 antique ornament molds, including the good-luck pickle.

Canada used to offer a multitude of options for locally crafted holiday sundries. You could buy artificial Christmas trees from Melmax Decorations in Cowansville, Quebec for decades, and source tissue paper for wrapping gifts from a series of mills along the Welland Canal in Southern Ontario. But the tree operation closed for good in 2014, and the new parent company of the paper mills has refocused its output on personal-hygiene products. All that is locally made is not lost, however. In Canada metalsmith Christmas traditions seem easiest to maintain, if the success of Amos Pewter and Seagull Pewter in Nova Scotia and Nature's Gold in Ontario are any indication.

In master tinsmith Greg Pietersma's Chesterville, Ont., workshop is a collection of implements from the 1830s to the 1860s. Over the years, he's collected guillotine tools, anvils and mandrels while simultaneously scaling up automated production to meet demand for Pietersma Tinworks's signature stamped stars and swirls of Victorian tinsel (picture glittering swizzle sticks, not strands of shredded plastic). Pietersma first trained as an apprentice in the seasonal theme park Upper Canada Village outside of Cornwall in the early 1990s. "I think the thing that attracted me was the fact that there weren't a lot of people doing it," he says. Soon, Martha by Mail, Lee Valley Tools and the PBS Selections catalogue were placing orders by the thousands and he does brisk business at the holiday edition of the One of a Kind Show in Toronto every November.

One of the things Pietersma says he learned from studying the trade's history "is the sense that tinsmiths really were innovating all the time – and they were very progressive. If you look at the tools of the trade in 1830 versus 1860, it's a completely different trade." Each strand of tinsel used to be twisted by hand, but Pietersma adapted tools and drills to mechanize the cutting and stamping processes. "The focus and approach was that the automation wouldn't take anything away from the product," he says.

Pietersma attributes the success of the tinsel to its environmentally friendly nature ("a replacement for the plastic icky tinsel people had grown up with") and that, even though it's made in Canada, he can continue to sell it for a reasonable price (25 years ago a tin was $12 and now costs $15). On the day we speak, he will press about 4,000 stars.

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"One of the big catalogue companies tried making their own in the Philippines, out of aluminum," he says, describing the ongoing pressure to move production offshore. "But it doesn't shine as brightly."

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Nathalie More

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