The Gift of the Christmas Kugel

By Stephen Cook in Arts & Music, Community

About this time each year we embark upon our yearly safaris into our basements, attics and overflowing garage storage spaces searching for our treasured Christmas collectibles and decorations. This interest in displaying holiday keepsakes and sharing the joy of decorating our homes initially came into fashion in the early decades of the 1800’s. Christmas Trees, popularized in the Old World by Martin Luther, were introduced to the New World largely by the newly arriving Pennsylvania Dutch however the symbol of the Christmas Tree did not gain popularity until the mid- 1840’s. This celebration is a far removed celebration from one hundred years prior when Quakers and Puritans prohibited such revilary by proclaiming that whomever was found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, which was not aligned with their prescribed days of faith and observance, were liable to a fine of five shillings.
In the early 1800’s, most traditional Christmas Trees were adorned with edible decorations, such as peppermint sticks, gumdrop candies, sugar-coated nuts and fruit slices. In addition, hand-made ornaments, molded paper figures, fancy ribbons, and paper cut-outs were cradled in the branches and boughs of  these trees. By the late 1880’s, German merchandise from Nurembourg toy makers appeared and later still, in the 1890’s, Japanese parasols appeared as decoration. Toys themselves in the mid 19th century were not a common occurrence and were usually seasonal items at local hardware stores. At the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, as cities and towns expanded, the availability of toys and gifts grew. In 1897, the T. Eaton Co., of Yonge Street, Toronto, published what was to become their annual Christmas Catalogue. The promotion titled “Canada’s Greatest Store – The Greatest Goods to the Greatest Number” embellished the front cover. However, it was what was inside and in the first three coming pages beyond the cover that drew the attention of children, gift givers and recipients alike. Popular toys and prices were presented along side easy to see hand drawn images. A short inventory consisted of sleighs at thirty five cents to a dollar twenty-five each, trumpets and tops from five cents to fifty cents each and tin trains from fifteen cents to one dollar each. Merchants, in and around our area, would have begun selling Christmas decorations around the 1880’s which included items such as paper bells, butterflies, crowns, lead and tin stars, wax animal figurines, angels and images of the Christ Child.
When it comes to secular Christmas decorations, one of the most popular 19th century Christmas traditions is the early blown glass ornament.  The quintessential glass ornament for Christmas Tree decorating being the German kugel. In Germany, during the 19th century, in the town of Lauschan, glassblowers produced glass tubes and glass beads that were sold to merchants all across Europe. These glass tubes and beads became the seed for a growing interest in Christmas ornaments in the 1800’s. The tubes and beads became the impetus for the ‘glass sphere’ or kugel. In the historic German town of Lauscha, glass blowing has been a time honored activity since 1597 and still is even today as glass fibre optics companies carry out their business in the town. Kugels first appeared in the 1820’s taking on the form of brightly colored glass spheres and molded shapes. They were used in homes and gardens as gazing balls or reflection balls owing to their silver mirrored reflective properties. The kugel, which is German for “sphere” came into it’s own in Victorian households in the late 1880’s as a popular consumer item,  although the kugel had been introduced to the new world by Dutch immigrants about thirty years earlier. Sizes of kugels range from about one half inches to 30 inches in diameter, but 5 inches in diameter are typical. Kugels were hung from the branches of the Christmas Tree, while in some homes, glass kugels adorned entryways, hanging next to the Christmas Village or “putz”, as it was thought that leaving a kugel on display in the home throughout the entire New Year would bring good fortune to the home’s residents and guests. Today, kugel ornaments offer part nostaglia and part glitzy stylization to the adoration to our Christmas trees. Monitarily, true antique original kugels range from a few dollars to many hundreds of dollars depending on factors such as overall condition, manufactured source, and intensity of colour. During this time of year, kugels cost more to purchase and there is an increasing difficulty in determining original Victorian spheres from cheap, but cunning,  immitations.
In order to have a better chance of finding an antique kugel and pursue the treasured gift of the Christmas Kugel, those so inclined should watch for unusual colours those of  cobalt blue, cranberry and teal. Remembering that the colour of the kugel is in the glass. Clear glass with only the reflective silver lining showing are thought to be the most common examples.  The silver at times begins to breakdown and can be seen as such on some examples. The weight of the kugel is also a sign generally of authenticity, as heavier weighted kugels tend to be pre-1910. Further, the metal part of the top should be embedded into the top of the glass itself. Vergo Glass, located just outside of  Nancy, France, also began making kugels around 1920, sometimes called ‘boules panoramic’, but they ceased production during the 1930’s. These kugels are known for their art deco design and  “VG” is sometimes visible on the metal cap or as an addition to it’s plain ribbed deco design on the same metal cap. As Vergo Glass these ‘deco spheres’ are hard to locate, but are worth the hunt as are original victorian kugels. Happy hunting and Merry Christmas.


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