Mid-Century Russian Christmas Ornaments

November 28, 2013 in Editorials

My interest in Russian heritage began years ago while reading my great-grandfather’s circa 1890 journal. I learned of his part in saving the then young Prince Nicholas’ II life in an assassination attempt by a Japanese policeman. This event is lesser known in the history books than his eventual murder in 1918 by the Bolsheviks. The assassination attempt occurred in 1891 while the 23-year-old future Czar was visiting the Eurasian continent during the Grand Embassy Tour of 1890-91. My great-grandfather, Paul Andreas Dithlefsen captained the cruiser “Parmiat Azova” which transported Nicholas. The sea travel portion of the tour totaled 22,000 km. During a stop at Kobe upon entering the Empire of Japan, Nicholas survived a stabbing by a religious zealot who was part of the police escort. Great-grandfather Paul was gifted a Faberge scarf pin as a reward for whisking Nicholas out of harm’s way and back to Russia.

This favorite family story inspired me. For years, I read about the Russian life, fell in love with “Doctor Zhivago” as so many did, and marveled at the opulence lifestyle, the elegance of the palaces and architecture in St. Petersburg. What followed in Russian history during WWI changed everything for the country and its people, though, when the entire seven-member royal family was slaughtered in July of 1918. The reign of the Romanov family was over and Nicholas was the last Czar to rule Russia. It was a terrible time in their history and everything changed for the Russian people under Soviet rule.

Prior to the Russian Revolution in 1917, Imperial Russia celebrated Christmas as a religious holiday pretty much as throughout Europe, the Americas, and most other Christian territories. Family Christmas trees were popular, and decorated with glass, paper, and cotton ornaments, primarily imported from Germany. German ornaments were considered the ultimate in Christmas decorations and were prized in many Christmas ornament collections.

Following the 1917 Revolution, the Soviets instituted Atheism and banned all religions and religious observances. Christmas celebrations were vehemently discouraged during the 1920s, and were completely outlawed in 1929. But due to popular pressure, in 1936 the holiday celebration was restored to help boost national morale. When the Christmas holidays and celebrations were banned and the production of ornaments ceased, a void existed in the economy. Realizing this, it was decided to again produce the glass ornaments. The resumption of manufacture helped some to bolster a struggling economy. However, the holiday was moved to January 1 and became a non-religious New Year’s celebration. Religious symbolism was removed, St. Nicholas was renamed Ded Moroz (Grandfather Frost), and the decorated tree was called a ‘New Year’s Tree’. In fact, the newly designed and unique figural ornaments were sold through toy catalogs (although not actually given to children for play).

New Year’s Tree ornaments were produced in the USSR during the 1930s to 1970s. Most were hand-painted hand-blown glass, but other popular ornaments were made of spun cotton, usually in the shapes of fruits, vegetables and people, and embossed foiled cardboard Dresden-type ornaments. All were available only within the Soviet Republic, and were never exported beyond the boundaries of the “Iron Curtain”.

Soviet Russian ornaments were created in a simple, ‘folksy’ style with a lot of whimsy and bold color. Motifs were based on fairy tales, peasant folk, airships, fruits & vegetables, family life and prosperity. During the 1950s and 1960s, the heyday of the ‘space race’, rocket, cosmonaut and space themes were popular. Shimmering “Ice” ornaments are clever and seem to be unique to the USSR. They are partially silvered, so the light sparkles both inside and outside the ornaments. Many are lacquered in jewel-tone colors creating a luscious candy effect. These amazing ornaments were unique to Soviet Russia during the Communist era only. Glass ornaments have not been produced in Russia since the 1970s, and are now quickly becoming a popular holiday decorating trend here. We are fortunate to be able to satisfy the popular demand for these ornaments in this country through several “pickers” who comb the attics of St. Petersburg and villages searching for these old ornaments for us. Recently, we acquired several hundreds of these blown glass ornaments that had been forgotten in an unused warehouse since the fall of the Soviets in 1991. Many of these ornaments are now on display at our six antique mall locations and many, many more will be added to the trees throughout December.

Several examples of these ornaments are shown in the accompanying photos – birds and owls, penguins, children, Grandfather Frost (St. Nicholas-Santa Claus), Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, a cosmonaut, a light house, sparkling, shimmering Ice ornaments, spun cotton fruits & vegetables ~ this represents but a small fraction of the enormous variety of different types of USSR ornaments that are available. Their unsophisticated charm is addictive – you won’t be able to collect just one!

Just a reminder, make plans to visit Gaslamp Too, 128 Powell Place, Nashville for their “Tea at Two at Two” program on Dec. 10, at 2 p.m. The guest speaker is none other than Christmas Nostalgia’s Robert Runge, who will be presenting a program on Christmas ornaments and décor.

Check out all of our Christmas displays at locations listed in our ad on this Busy Bee front cover. We have recently installed an extensive collection of Christmas décor at the newly opened Antiques on 231, at 320 Cumberland St, Lebanon – quickly becoming one of the very best antique malls in Lebanon, be sure to stop in!

By Diana E. Bullock-Runge of Christmas Nostalgia

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