Nothing looks more festive than glittering ornaments on a Christmas tree.
And today they come in more shapes and sizes than ever for gift-giving or for your own tree.
There are whimsical pieces, beautifully crafted mouth-blown glass ornaments from countries around the world — even vintage finds.
Ornaments are popular because “Christmas is a constant,” and there are so many ornaments available for special occasions, said Melanie Jensen, manager at Callisters Christmas, 16900 W. Blue Mound Road, Brookfield.
“They tell the story of your life. They are being purchased for the family tree or for gifts. … I see the same people every year. ... They come in and say ‘so and so did this.’ What ornaments do you have for that?
“Maybe they got ornaments themselves when they were younger and now they are buying them for their kids. They come in for that first Christmas ornament, for potty training, their babies' first steps, the first day of school, or for a child in band or drama,” she said.
Callisters is open seasonally but also sells its pieces at some state fairs and in some malls. Jensen has been dealing with ornaments for 30 years.
Randy Hilgers, co-owner of the Alpine Gift Haus in the Cedar Creek Settlement in Cedarburg, said he believes people love ornaments because they are out for only a short time each year and are associated with the holidays.
“Unlike pottery that you leave out all year, you put your ornaments away, and when you bring them back out they rekindle those memories,” he said.
And he has customers in all age groups.
“Grandparents buy them each year because their grandchildren have collections. The millennials are also starting to buy ornaments reminiscent of their childhood,” and young couples and young singles buy ornaments to start new traditions for their new families or to continue traditions.
Last year, when COVID hit, was the best year for sales ever at his store, he added.
“People wanted to salvage some joy in their lives. They weren’t going to let go of Christmas even though there was a pandemic,” he said.
He sells primarily glass ornaments. All are mouth-blown and hand-decorated. Many are from Europe, with a large number from the Czech Republic.
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Jensen said many of her customers are younger too, and are buying new styles of ornaments geared toward their age group.
“A lot of younger people are buying ornaments as gifts. They buy things like houseboats and trampolines that have some sort of meaning. They (the manufacturers) are going after younger customers. This year, they came out with avocados because the younger crowd likes them,” she said.
“We also have an updated fireplace with modern colors. It’s not a traditional fireplace with a red stocking. It’s gray and white with a plaid stocking. It’s like the kind of fireplace you would have in a modern home,” she added.
There are also ornaments for those who are expecting, stacks of books or a dorm door that can be personalized for the college set; there’s even an ornament showing Bernie Sanders wearing his mittens and a mask.
Other whimsical ornaments look like little rolls of toilet paper or Santa getting the jab as a reminder of COVID, french fries or chicken nuggets ornaments, a stick of butter, tequila bottle and a tequila shot, and a basketball hoop.
Ornaments for children include a Dinacorn, Bluey and Bingo, a Cocomelon school bus, and the characters in "Paw Patrol."
“The Dinacorn is half unicorn and half dinosaur, and it’s selling like crazy,” Jensen said.
For foodies, she said, you can find peanut butter and jelly ornaments, a Moscow mule ornament, a craft beer ornament, Hostess Twinkies, cupcakes and snowballs, ranch dressing, hot sauce, cream puffs, soy sauce, and tacos.
Prices at her store range from $6.95 to $80.
The most expensive ornaments in Jensen's store are those in the Christopher Radko line, which is frequently collected.
Hilgers said he sees customers looking for ornaments in more traditional styles, and pieces in lines that are collectible. JingleNog and Inge-Glas are popular lines.
“JingleNog does very extravagant pieces. They’re made in Poland. Inge-Glas has been around for a very long time, and they’re very collectible. Some people will only buy Inge-Glas ornaments from Germany.
“We also have more traditional pieces from the Czech Republic. They’re a huge seller. There are also pieces from Poland that range from ultra-traditional to ultra-modern.”
He said the Old World Christmas line, originally made in Germany but now made in China, is also sought after.
“They are mouth-blown and hand-decorated one at a time. People have been collecting them for years,” he said.
His store also has tree toppers, which are also considered ornaments.
“Most of them are glass. They are made in the same process as the ornaments. They’re mouth-blown and hand-decorated.”
Pieces in his store range from $5.95 to over $200 for a large tree-topper.
“They can be found as small as 1 inch to about 10 inches. They are teardrop-shaped, olive-shaped, round, and some are square," Hilgers said. "We sell a lot of every style. We also have figurines like Santas and snowmen.
“One year, we couldn’t keep icicle ornaments in stock. They were mouth-blown glass and were twisted and they were 3 to 4 inches long. We also have a lot of bird ornaments. … Some of them have real feathers for tails. Cardinals are huge. We sell a ton of them every year,” he said.
His store has a lot of repeat customers.
He said a couple from La Crosse comes in every year and buys two to three high-end pieces. Other regulars come from Texas, Washington State, the East Coast, Florida and California.
There are also customers who buys due to necessity.
“One of my customers lost all her Christopher Radko ornaments when her tree fell over. She replaced with all with Thomas Glenn pieces over a six-year period. She bought a dozen each year.”
Jensen said her store also sells a lot of personalized ornaments. She estimated that 90% of her stock can be personalized at no extra charge.
Styles frequently purchased and personalized are related to sports, pets and families.
“We have 100 different dogs, from Bishons to Yorkies. You can add their names. There is an ornament showing a family of four with a dog that can be personalized.”
While new ornaments sell well, so do older pieces.
Sue O’Gorman, owner of The Gathered Home in the Roost Mercantile in Lyndale Farms, Pewaukee, sells vintage mercury ornaments from Poland and Germany, Shiny Brite ornaments from the '40s and '50s, and vintage whimsical ornaments made in Germany, Poland, Demark and Japan.
“They are all highly collectible and so hard to come by. Their popularity has increased and their prices continue to rise, primarily the Shiny Brites. … The Shiny Brite ornament are getting hard to find, and some people will pay a handsome price for them … ”
“The ornaments from Japan are made out of spun cotton and tulle and chenille. For example it could be a 2-inch high angel. A piece from Germany might be a half of a pinecone, a little troll or a pixie,” she said.
Prices for ornaments at her shop can range from $1 to about $15.
Kim Jenkins, owner of LuLu and Olive vintage, also in the Roost Mercantile, collects Christmas ornaments from the '40s to the '70s for her own tree, but also sells them at her shop.
“I love the nostalgia of the old ornaments, and the patina. They’re worn and I wonder where they might have been. They (manufacturers) try to re-create them now, but I don’t think they are as pretty as the old ones. I love the way they look, and I get excited when I open my boxes of ornaments. They make me happy,” she said.
The Christmas tree at her home is decorated with white lights, old ornaments, a pink vintage garland and an old tree-topper, she said.
“I have hundreds of ornaments. My whole tree is filled with vintage ornaments. … Some people like to collect just vintage Santas. I like them all. But I do gravitate to anything that has pink in it. I have a lot of pink going on” when decorating the tree, she said.
She said she finds old ornaments for her home or business at estate sales, flea markets, and occasionally at thrift stores and rummage sales for $1 to $5.
In addition to accenting her tree with the pieces, she puts them in bowls, adds them to a small tinsel tree, hangs them on garland, and puts up antlers so she can hang ornaments on them.
Among collectibles, Shiny Brite pieces are probably the most well-known, but any old ornaments are collectible, she said. But when Shiny Brite ornaments are in their original boxes, you can expect to pay more for them.
At her store, prices range from $3.95 to $7.
Hilger said he has six trees in his home and he decorates them with 600 to 700 ornaments, both old and new. One year, he had 21 trees.
“In the dining room, I have all fruit and vegetable ornaments on two trees. I have 100-plus ornaments from my great-grandparents. (The ornaments') has faded, but they’re not broken. They’re just not as pretty as they were 100 years ago. … If they could tell a story, it would be an incredible story.”
It’s hard to date old ornaments because some companies are using the old molds to make ornaments today, Hilger said.
“You need to know the backstory, you need to know where someone got them from,” he said.
Kevin Milaeger, vice president and co-owner of Milaeger’s stores in Racine and Sturtevant, said he has been collecting old ornaments for most of his life, and that he has been focusing on Shiny Brite pieces for the last 20 years.
Blogs on these pieces can be found on the Milaeger’s website under “Kevin’s blog,”
He has about 2,000 ornaments that he uses to decorate the trees at his home.
“We have several trees. One big one and a number of small ones. And all of them have mostly antique ornaments on them,” he said.
He also collects old pieces to sell at his stores. At any given time, there might be 400 to 500 ornaments available at each location. Half of these ornaments are made in America, where the Shiny Brite line is most prominent, he added.
He said the first Shiny Brite ornaments were made by light bulb companies.
“They were perfectly round in the beginning. They were from 2 inches to 3 or 4 inches in diameter and came in all different colors.
“As time went on, the company began making them in different shapes — for example, bells and lanterns. … The Shiny Brite was one of the first brand names in the ornament world. Most of them have stamps on the caps that say 'Shiny Brite made in the USA,'” he said.
Prices for old ornaments range from $3 to $4 for smaller pieces to $10 to $15 for the larger or more sought-after pieces, he said.
People who buy Christmas ornaments should care for them correctly, whether they are old or new, said Randy Hilgers, co-owner of the Alpine Gift Haus.
“None can withstand getting wet, and don’t store them in attics or basements. The extreme heat or cold is bad.
“Wrap them in an acid-free tissue paper or keep them in their original boxes. Cardboard boxes are good, but plastic boxes are no good because they trap in moisture.
“If they get dusty, just clean them off with a paintbrush. But do it carefully, especially if the ornament has glitter on it or you might lose some of the glitter.”
Take extra care when cleaning old ornaments because they are fragile, he added.