Written by Shelly Horn

Poet Alexander Smith wrote that Christmas is the day that holds time together.

In a sense, Westminster’s Carroll Gardens testifies to the truth of the aphorism. For the last 20 years, Carroll proprietor Alan Summers has carefully selected and imported mouth-blown, hand-painted German Christmas ornaments. The ornaments evoke Fifteenth Century German craftsmanship through 14 generations of European glassblowers.

“These are like the ornaments you remember from your grandmother’s tree,” said Summers.

Their rich history, however, predates their arrival in the United States. The art of glassblowing originated in Venice under the Romans and eventually the craft made its way to Germany. Because wood was needed for the fire to make glass, 15th Century German glassblowers were nomadic, moving after depleting a location of its burnable
timber. Roughly two centuries later, the craft became much more family-oriented.

As more families entered the glassblowing business in Germany, competition grew and many families struggled. In the 1880’s, H.G. Woolworth began importing these glass ornaments to the United States for sale in his 5-and-10-cent stores. By the turn of the century, he was importing more than 200,000 glass ornaments, thereby improving the life of these artists.

“These early imports were sold in Woolworth stores at two for 5 cents,” said Summers.

After World War II, the glass industry collapsed. Most glassblowers fled to West Germany, then known as the U.S. Zone. Those that could not leave East Germany were forced by the Communist regime into factories where they helped create machine-blown balls. As a result, in East Germany unique molds as well as mouth-blown glass skills were lost for several
generations. The artisans who made it to the U.S. Zone were able to reestablish the glassblowing industry, settling in the border town of Neustadt.

Creating the ornaments is time-intensive and a labor of love. It can take up to seven days to produce an ornament. A glassblower chooses a hollow glass tube made of potash, sand, and limestone. The glassblower manually rolls the tube over a hot flame until it is bendable. Once the glass is the same temperature on all sides, the glassblower fits it into the mold. The mold is clamped around the semi-molten glass while the blower breathes steadily into the glass tube to force the glass into all of the mold’s intricate crevices.

“That’s how you can tell the difference between factory produced ornaments and mouth-blown,” said Summers. He pointed to an ornament. “You can see the mark left from the mold.”

Once the glassblower removes the mold, he passes it again through the flame to set the glass. A day later it is silvered. Once the silvering process is complete, the ornament is then painted with a base coat that provides the foundation color. When dry, the details of the ornament are hand painted. Every color is individually applied. Craftsmen can apply as many as 40 painting steps before a detailed ornament is completed, taking anywhere from two to four days.

Westminster Gardens has a wide variety of these hand-painted ornaments, many of which are imported from Marco MŸller, a fourteenth-generation glassblower who works with his sister, who hand paints them. Summers also sells hand-made ornaments from the Czech and Slovak Republics and Poland.

Summers carries a wide variety of baubles, from traditional trees, birds, and Santas to pickles and frogs. The ornaments cost between $2.85 and $40, with the largest selection priced under $10.

Each figure has a story to tell. For instance, a pickle Christmas ornament may strike Americans as odd, but it is an old German tradition. “In old world Germany, the pickle ornament was hidden deep within the branches of the tree,” explained Summers. “The children would search the tree on Christmas Day for it. The pickle finder was rewarded with an extra gift.”

For many years, frogs have been regarded as symbols of good luck in business. A frog cannot hop backwards or from side-toside. Because it is only able to move forward, the frog has become a symbol of prosperity and financial security.

“The frog makes a perfect gift for a new couple, a graduate, or a person starting a new business endeavor,” said Summers.

As you browse the unique ornaments at Carroll Gardens, you can read such explanations on accompanying cards. The printed legends may help make your choice. For more information about these ornaments, stop by Carroll Gardens at 444 East Main Street, Westminster or call (410) 848-5422.