Published: December 5, 2017
By Greg Smith
NEW JERSEY – Tony Annese welcomed me at the door to his home with a rosy smile, the same sort of smile that a father beams when introducing his family: of pride and joy. The pride in his face traced back to the reason for my visit – Annese had invited me to experience one of his collecting passions in all its glory, a light-filled, overflowing wonderland of collectibles that raised their head only once every calendar year. The joy in his smile was nothing short of youthful and radiant, brimming over with a sense of merry and wonder. It was emblematic of the kinds of things that Annese collects and the sort of person that he is: a Christmas person.
Although the group is universally accepting, it should be noted that “Christmas people” are a special subset of holiday revelers. The term denotes a category of passionate collectors to which Annese has belonged since the late 1980s when he began collecting in the genre, a happy coincidence that was abetted by his interests in Americana, toys and trains. It was a natural progression, with many of these objects represented together in the same auction sale catalogs or sold by the same dealers on adjoining tables at antique toy shows.
While Christmas has its roots in the end-year celebrations that reach back thousands of years, it was not until the late Nineteenth Century that we begin to see the Christmas trades evolve, the ones that would go on to produce what we now affectionately refer to as Christmas antiques. The Central European enthusiasm for Christmas had given rise to an entire market for blown-glass ornaments, merry décor and carved wooden figures that sprang up as cottage industries in remote mountain villages.
Along the German/Czech border in the forest-filled Erzgebirge region, small towns, like Seifen, that were once small mining villages, began to turn to toy and Christmas production when the mines started to run dry of silver and tin. In 1854, before the market had taken off in the United States, Seifen established its Toy Production School, priming the region for an eventual boom in Christmas crafts.
In the United States, Christmas celebrations had slowly risen in popularity up to the 1870s, though commercialization had largely fallen flat. Decorations and gifts were expensive. The common person could not be blamed for overlooking them in favor of modesty. That is until the 1880s, when Woolworth’s, the “Great Five Cent Store,” capitalized on the market, importing and selling “baubles,” as they called them, for prices that everyone could afford. The company is largely credited with popularizing Christmas during this period, importing and selling more than 500 million ornaments between 1880 and 1939.
“It was a real shot in the arm for the Germans,” said Annese. “It gave them a new lease on life.” Toy production in Germany quickly spread throughout the region. Production quotas were met by families who made the ornaments and toys in their homes year-round, with young boys and girls working alongside their parents before taking the goods to a local warehouse for payment.
As I looked around Annese’s home at his collection of Erzgebirge carvings, his Italian blown glass ornaments that glimmer and fill the central tree, the Santa and Belsnickle figures with gift sacks slung over their hunched backs, the pull toys, reindeer containers, nodders, angels, nutcrackers, village and nativity scenes, candleholders and advertising, one idea became readily apparent: in Christmas collecting, more is more.
“We have no concept of moderation, Christmas is not an understated holiday,” Annese said. “Collecting, especially in the Christmas world, embodies the concept of ‘live your life with passion.’ A life full of moderation is for wimps. There’s always room for another ornament on the tree. And if you run out of space, you put them somewhere else – in a glass goblet or on a wreath.”
Annese has been collecting Christmas since the 1980s when he purchased his first item, a Department 56 village sold in Hallmark stores. It was not long before he moved on to antique items and found the impetus that would keep him wrapped up in the world for decades to come: the Golden Glow of Christmas Past. Glow, as it is known, is a 1,600-member Christmas collectors’ club that convenes once a year for a four-day celebration of all things relating to the holiday. The club fills an entire hotel with cheer as members engage in lectures, swaps, room-hopping, auctions, cookie contests, sales, socials and more. It is this tight-knit collector community that Annese credits with his long-active participation in the category.
“Glow really enriches my enjoyment of collecting,” he said. “I have to say that most of my best friends are collectors and I’ve met them through the organization.”
Every year, come early December, Tony Annese sets out on a trip to Central Europe where he begins his Christmas market tour. It is not long after his plane lands that he sets off with a group of collecting friends to the older parts of town where the Christmas markets set up shop in outdoor stalls for the month of December. It is here, at the source, that he has found many items that now make up his collection. Annese and other collectors of Christmas antiques do not hesitate to mix old and new.
“Christmas collectors are not afraid to evolve,” said Annese. “We move the dates and bring it up. So many other collectibles are stuck with a certain era and they stay there. Christmas will blend. Every Christmas collector I know buys new things.”
But that is not to say that the focus of Annese’s collection is a dazzling array of fresh-off-the-bench ornaments or modern outdoor blow molds. One of the joys of Christmas collecting comes in the form of nostalgia and the memories that collectors cherish from their youth: the warmth of family, cousins and grandparents; the sights and smells of a long dining table filled with food; the traditions in decorating the Christmas tree together. Annese recalls marveling at the bubble lights on his uncle’s tree as a young boy, unable to figure out how the long, clear glass cylinders with colored liquid inside could produce an infinite stream of tiny rising bubbles. The wonder, if not the mystery, of bubble lights never ceased for him. The lights now grace the trees in his front hallway display, endlessly bubbling upward.
The Italian blown-glass ornaments that fill his tree with whimsical and arresting color remind him of a lifetime of popular culture that he has witnessed.
“The glass ornaments are figural and I relate to the people. The makers usually picked subjects out of culture, whether it was comic book characters, on television or in the movies: Mickey Mouse, Captain Hook, Tinker Bell, a little lady on a Vespa, or ET – all of them made into ornaments. It relates to the whole culture of your life, all the memories of your life. Look at the tree and you can see them.”
Annese’s wall of Erzgebirge carvings is an apt blend of folk art and toy collecting. Each figure, about a foot or so tall, relates to the area of its origin. The angels are dressed in the distinct clothing style of the Biedermeier period and the men have on parade uniforms of the miner’s organizations that once dominated the area. As the carvings were often produced by an entire family of folk carvers, the figures vary in detail and complexity. Intricate and fine figures are generally attributed to the older, more skillful carvers in the family, while those with less detail or elaboration are credited to the younger members in the house.
Nodders can be found in almost every room of Annese’s home. With clockwork motions that provide the action and popular subjects of Santa, reindeer, elephants and other animals, nodders are staples of Christmas collecting. Many nodders depict the hunched figure of Santa Claus or Belsnickle, reminiscent of a time when the image of Santa as we know him today – the jolly, fat, white-haired and red-suited ho-ho-ho’ing old man – was a bit more gaunt and weathered, his face thinner and his suit not yet set in stone, appearing in different colors of yellow, orange, white or blue. As modern-day reproductions of nodders are few and far between, the figures offer a glimpse into the earlier days of the holiday when Santa was not yet perfected for the commercialization that the department stores or Coca-Cola advertisements popularized.
One of Annese’s favorite pieces in his collection is a Santa nodder, one of the first things he ever bought.
“It’s a wonderful clockwork Santa that I keep in my bedroom,” he said. “He nods his head, his face is outstanding, he has big rosy cheeks, glass eyes and a big smile so you can see his teeth. He’s a wonderful old Santa.”
And when the walls fill up, the tabletops run out and the floor space becomes unapologetically competitive, that is when the magic happens, when things begin to appear from a bottomless gift sack. We walked into Annese’s kitchen, with its walls filled with various advertising and 45 rpm vinyl record covers from a lineup of memorable Christmas songs, and Annese paused for a moment, bracing for the point of no return. He swung open his kitchen cabinets and, in lieu of food, spices or cooking pans, there were hundreds upon hundreds of Santa knickknacks that filled the shelves, all staring outwards, eagerly awaiting their time in the spotlight. Candleholders, ceramic figures, nativity characters, trains, bookends, cocoa mugs and glass ‘nip’ bottles, many of them featuring the subject of Santa in red, white and black, filled every inch of interior shelving.
The sheer volume in the collection – thousands of objects – comes from the fact that many items in the genre are relatively inexpensive. Some ornament makers and large store-display pieces will set a collector back, but the majority can be found for less than $100 each. And many ornaments can be found for less than $10, making purchases more abundant and commonplace. But that is not to say that Annese is indiscriminate. He has become more discerning and focused in the 40 years he has been prowling the market.
“The art of collecting is the art of saying no sometimes,” said Annese. “You can’t buy everything. Even if you had the space and the funds, you just can’t do it, it’s overwhelming. You have to say no. Sift through a lot, say no to a lot, find that treasure.”
And the search never ends for him. Annese can be found at the auctions, the toy shows and the group shops and, of course, at the Christmas markets.
There are many ways to experience the joy of Christmas. For Annese, it manifests itself in the physical object, displayed and admired in a flickering and arresting collection of jubilant abundance. For many, Christmas may come but once a year. For “Christmas people” the giving, the songs and, most important, the joy never cease. Nor does the spirit of collecting. The holiday is ever and always for collectors of Christmas antiques.
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