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His Vintage Ornaments Inspire Warm Christmas Memories

The vintage expert explains why he values his Christmas ornament collection most of all.

Vintage expert Bob Richter; photo by Ethan David Kent
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I grew up going to flea markets and auctions with my dad, and yard sales and thrift shops with my older brother, Johnny. During one day’s outing with my dad, he handed me a box of charming old ornaments—a blue jay, a Santa Claus, bells, ice cream cones. “It’s time you started collecting something,” he said, “and I know you like Christmas.”

That’s how my love for the vintage Christmas lifestyle got started. Maybe you’ve seen me on PBS’s Market Warriors or other shows, sharing advice about bargaining, design and antiques galore, but vintage Christmas decorations are still my favorite things to discuss. Today that original box has grown into a collection of thousands of ornaments, lights and decorations. I can’t wait to bring them out every year.

In my living room I have a nine-foot Balsam fir, my “Evergreen Lady,” where I hang many of those ornaments Dad gave me more than three decades ago. But that’s just one of my trees. I’m a big believer in having a tree in every room, and I decorate about 20 a year. Many are tabletop size, some artificial, some live, and easy to tuck into corners. Joy at every turn!

I always begin decorating right after Thanksgiving—if I can wait till then. As I unwrap each treasure, memories flood in. Ornaments made of glass and metal. Plastic and paper. Handmade and factory-made. From the 1800s to a few decades old. I remember where I got the piece and from whom. Like the

One of Bob's many Christmas trees, festooned with vintage ornaments; photo by Bud Hayman
One of Bob’s trees, festooned with vintage ornaments

time my German grandmother handed down to me the Father Christmas ornament she bought in the 1930s. Or the antiques collector who put aside some pieces he knew I’d appreciate.

While I decorate each tree for my own pleasure, I find a true Christmas spirit in sharing my trees with family and friends. Nearly everyone says something like, “My grandmother had one of these,” or “These remind me of my aunt.” The ornaments call up memories we all have in common.

A tall, thin white tree with white lights sits on a mahogany demilune table in my foyer, a warm welcome for folks coming in from the cold. The Balsam is in the next room over, where I also keep my “Hollywood Tree,” so named because it has a bit of the glamour of the late ’30s and early ’40s, with its hand-painted silver ornaments dazzling against the tree’s white branches.

I put two tabletop trees in the dining room, one on the buffet and another on the main table. For the bedroom I like a serene tabletop tree. There I lean toward a selection of Victorian paper “scrap” ornaments, which are typically illustrations of children or angels affixed to wreaths of early tinsel or wire. Or I use only pine cones—something that has a calming vibe for a good night’s sleep.

I go all out in my guest room display. I decorate a small tabletop tree with white lights and glass balls. Under it I place a 1950s light-up Santa given to me by my brother, Johnny. As I put it all together, it feels as if I’m channeling his kindness. One December afternoon when my mom brought me home from a checkup, I was delighted to find a little tree Johnny had set up in my room. I want my guests to feel as cared for as I did when they see a tree set up just for them.

I think a tree in the kitchen is warm and welcoming, if a bit unexpected. My tree sits in the center of the island and has become a focal point for elaborate holiday vignettes. Last year I adorned it with knee-hugger elves and spinner ornaments that twirled from the heat of old-fashioned lighted ice balls. Snowman and Santa Claus blow molds of hollow hard plastic, popular from the 1940s to the ’70s, flanked either side, cheery company for my morning coffee.

In the bathroom I keep a few vintage bottlebrush trees—ever so slightly kitschy, sturdy and easy to put up and take down. Plastic ornaments here hold up well against steam from the shower. I also have a multi-colored bottlebrush star featuring a foil rosette with small mercury glass balls and American flags.

If you look closely, ornaments are really a snapshot of history. I have star ornaments from the 1950s that remind me of women’s jewelry popular in those days. I hang the stars on a mirror in my hallway for some extra sparkle. And I’m always on the look-out for “un-silvered” ornaments from the mid-’40s.

At the start of World War II, precious resources were rationed. Many American ornament makers ceased adding the inner silvering, and used paper hangers and caps instead of the metal ones. One of my dearest from back then is a simple pink ball with a thin string attached to the top. It reminds me that people made do with what they had. In fact, my guess is that in those times, people needed Christmas more than ever.

I have special places near my trees for other vintage Christmas pieces. A chalkware set of the Holy Family from the 1950s resides on the living room coffee table. A porcelain Baby Jesus found at a flea market spends each Christmas front and center on my dining room table. Glittered cardboard stables stand freely and hang on the tree.

Past meets present in my vintage Christmases with cherished friends and family. But whether a house has one tree or many, what matters is the sentiment behind it all. A house with a Christmas tree, decorated simply or lavishly, just feels like home. One filled to the rafters with joy from every ornament on every bough.

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