Sunday, December 14, 2014

An Unusual Glass Ornament Steeped In British Folklore

Chronica Domus
My green 19th century "witches ball" photographed alongside a German silver kugel ornament, and two miniature Japanese green baubles dating from around World War II
Photo: Chronica Domus


I've been busy excitedly rummaging through boxes of ornaments selecting those that will grace our Christmas tree, which will be decorated within the next week.  I try to be organized about such matters as the storage of my hundreds of vintage and antique glass ornaments which I've amassed over the period I've been living in the United States.  I endeavor to sort them by color, wrap the larger ones in tissue paper (acid free if possible), and then place them all in large plastic storage boxes until they are needed the following year.  You will be hard pressed to find another plastic item in our household but these boxes are the best solution I've come across for safe storage.

Over the past two decades, I've been agog at the sheer volume of vintage glass ornaments that I've been fortunate enough to unearth from places like local flea markets, antiques shops and shows, as well as from thrift stores. I've concluded that such ornaments were probably destroyed by the thousands during the German bombing campaigns of World War II in England, hence their rarity there.  Why else have I had such a difficult time locating them?  One can find newer reproductions, of course, but the more fragile older examples are as rare as hen's teeth.

The majority of my collection dates from the 1920's to 1940's, with a few later examples and even several earlier ones.  Most were produced in Germany at the famous glass factories of Lauschen by mouth blowing glass into molds.  I've also collected many Japanese examples dating from America's occupation of Japan after World War II, and some later ones (1950's) from the other famous European centers of glass production, Poland and Czechoslovakia.

I remember my mother adorning our family tree with similar ornaments when I was a young girl so perhaps that is why I'm drawn to decorating my own tree with these beguiling ornaments which have mellowed to a wonderful dull sheen over the years.

Several summer's ago, when ambling through the covered antiques market in Covent Garden, London, I came across a monumental green glass ornament that reminded me of a much smaller silver example in my collection.  I'd never seen anything approaching the scale of this heavy glass orb.  I asked the stall-holder about it and he explained to me that it was a "witches ball". The huge bauble, which is six inches in diameter, came complete with the original decorative brass hanging chain, embossed with baskets of flowers, and twisted little connecting rings, crowned with a brass cap and a large round hanging loop. I was further informed that according to British folklore, these witches balls, typically made in green, silver and gold, were hung in windows or in front of looking glasses during the 18th and 19th centuries to ward off evil spirits and ill fortune. I was fascinated by the history of this glass treasure and could not pass it up, even if it meant that I had to carefully hand-carry it across the pond on my journey home.

I am delighted I did so, as each year when unwrapping my ornaments to decorate the house at Christmastime, the enchanting witches ball always takes my breath away. Although its folkloric origin is far removed from Christmas traditions, which also happens to be the case with many other symbols of a modern Christmas, this witches ball fits in seamlessly holding court over my large collection of more diminutive ornaments.  I've since learned that the balls are rather rare, and the chain even more so.

Have you a favorite or meaningful ornament that you enjoy displaying during the Christmas holiday season?  Do please tell me about it.

16 comments:

  1. Congratulations on your perfect and lovely example of a witch ball. I read about these when I started collected glass and bottles a long time ago, and they were rarities even then. Some fire extinguishers and fishing floats resemble these, and are very collectible as well. The best part of yours is that amazing brass chain--I would have bought that by itself if I had seen it for sale!
    --Jim

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    1. Hello Jim,

      Yes, that brass chain must be a rarity as I have not seen another like it. The embossed decorations on the chain remind me of the antique embossed tin candle clips of the same era.

      Somehow, I've acquired some of those fishing floats that you write about in your comment, in a beautiful aquamarine color. I love the swirls and bubbles in the glass and often group them in a bowl at Christmas.

      Several years ago when friends of ours rented their Victorian-era house in San Francisco, they found one of those glass fire extinguishers in their basement. My husband advised our friends to remove it from the house and take it to a nearby fire station as the stuff held within it is toxic, and one would not want to deal with the outcome of that mess if the glass ever broke. It amazed us all how it survived intact for so long.

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  2. That is a beautiful ornament! Do you think it would have been typical for these witches balls to have a permanent spot in the home? Yours is truly perfect for Christmas in that vivid green.
    Our Christmas ornaments are a real hodge-podge and none of them are very thrilling with the exception of sentimental hand-made ornaments, I need to work on my decorating for Christmas generally.
    Your post has inspired me, lovely photograph too.

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    1. Hello DaniBP,

      You are correct, the witches balls would have remained in place year round. In fact, I've seen a silver one hanging in the window of a little terraced Georgian house somewhere on my travels through England since acquiring my green ball.

      I do have several sentimental ornaments made by my daughter at school during the early years that I don't hang from the tree, but do keep in a special box. One year, she made a very beautiful crystallized candy-cane ornament from borax, which looks like crystallized sugar.

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  3. My mom (85 now) still has her silvered glass Christmas balls in graduated sizes, large medium small. She bought them in the 1950s.

    The thing I wish I could still buy is tinsel made from tin that was sold in the 50s and 60s. It had a wonderfully old-fashioned crinkly look.

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    1. Hello Diogenes,

      Yes, I too love that old crinkly tinsel, but don't have any in my collection. I do have a few ornaments with bits of this tinsel as decoration though. I love the mellow silver tones.

      Your mother is fortunate to still have her collection of silvered balls. I buy a few more each year for my collection (they are getting harder to find), as inevitably I manage to always break one or two each Christmas.

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  4. CD,
    I love your witch's ball. My favorites are those that survived years of use from my own childhood. They are small glass ornaments that were from the local "department" store in our neighborhood. (In this case, department store might be a bit of an exaggeration but they carried a bit of everything).
    I love the memories this time of year brings about?
    xo,
    Karen

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    1. Hello Karen,

      Yes, this time of year certainly brings long held memories to the forefront as ornaments are unwrapped and hung on the tree, and favorite foods are made.

      I do have a few of my childhood ornaments that my mother kindly gave to me when I moved to my home in California. One particular favorite, a glittery Rudolph graces our tree each year.

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  5. I'd never heard of a Witches Ball, but it's absolutely beautiful, especially that brass chain! Stunning!
    So interesting you're able to pick up vintage ornaments from Germany and Poland fairly easily in the US, compared to the UK. How I wish I could get the glass ornaments vintage.. but they're hard enough to buy here new (and horrifically expensive). I have themed my tree around things that mean Christmas to me as an Australian, so have bought glass ornaments in that vein - bunches of cherries and strawberries, birds, flowers, butterflies and grasshoppers. A few european images in-between, but it suits our Summer Christmas a little better than ornaments of icicles and snowflakes. Oh, and then there's the tinsel. The children love it, and go completely overboard with it. And I let them and then pick bits off over the next few weeks!

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    1. Hello Heidi,

      Your tree sounds absolutely lovely and very suited to Christmas spent in warmer climes. I do hope you share an image of it on your lovely blog once it is decorated.

      I used to love playing with tinsel as a young girl. In those days, tinsel was a little thinner than it is today. I don't have any in my collection but do own several strings of glass beads that take the place of tinsel.

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  6. I love the story of your witches ball CD and how it lords over your tree. I do hope we'll have a pic. The very best Christmas tree ornaments always have an interesting back story like that.
    Our special Christmas tree ornament story comes from 1969 while GSL was in Kindergarten in Connecticut. Our teacher told us that we'd each be making our own ornaments to include pics taken and she instructed the girls all to wear their prettiest dresses and us boys to make sure we had fresh hair cuts. Little GSL loved everything about Christmas and trees and took this tasking quite seriously and the day before I climbed up into a cupboard where I knew some scissors were kept and proceeded to trim my own lush blond locks. I quite liked using scissors and watching my hair fall to the floor only was interrupted by my dear mother who didn't find my little exercise nearly as enchanting. She nearly fainted and then raced me to the barber shop for emergency surgery. The barber was able to make his patient look a bit more presentable and to this day my mother loves telling all her visitors the backstory on that oval ornament placed prominently in front with lacquered macaroni and a grinning little boy with what looks like a bald spot on the front of his head.

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    1. Dear GSL,

      I winced as I read through your marvelous recollection of your encounter with scissors at too young an age. Your mother was right to get you to the barber in the nick of time. I would love to see that little ornament so perhaps you'll include it in a post on your blog soon. Oh, and I love that your mother keeps the story alive each year by displaying your ornament and retelling of her horror.

      My own daughter had an adventure with scissors many years ago and is still paying the price today. She hacked off a thick strand (thankfully towards the back) as it wasn't behaving as she would have liked and did not cooperate when she tried to style her hair.

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  7. Hello CD,
    What a marvelous ornament and talisman. Antique and contemporary ornaments collected over the years are what give trees their unique character. Your witch ball would also be considered good for feng shui if hung in the window or over a door to retain essential life energy or Chi within the house. I have many sentimental favorites within my collection including those I painstakingly made with thousands of sequins, straight pins and styrofoam. But I think the ornaments carried back from our travels have special significance (including one from the gift shop at St. Martin In the Fields on Trafalgar Square!). They remind us of how the holidays are celebrated around the world.
    Best,
    KL Gaylin

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    1. Hello KL Gaylin,

      I had completely forgotten about those sequinned ornaments until I read your comment. They were very popular in the 1970's if I recall correctly.

      So nice to learn that you've visited St. Martin-In-The-Fields and you bought a special ornament to grace your tree. I remember spending a wonderful hour there one afternoon chose to Christmas, listening to a beautiful classical guitarist play carols. It was a magical experience.

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    2. I am in the sequined ball category...made tons of them and others decorated in ribbon and pearls in the 70s and they still decorate my tree. I wish I had started collecting some of the antique glass balls to add to the tree but I really never looked for them until recently. You are so lucky to have boxes of them. Are you going to show us the finished tree?????

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    3. Hello Lindaraxa,

      Although vintage glass ornaments are becoming harder to find, I have no doubt that you too will have a little collection soon enough if you continue to look for them (year round, I might add). A friend of mine was inspired to start her collection just a few years ago after seeing my tree and now has enough to decorate her own.

      Your wish is my command so yes, I shall post a picture of the finished tree.

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