Christmas Trees, Old or New, Remain Stars of the Holidays

Photos Provided Feather trees are perfect for displaying antique ornaments. Columnist Maureen Zambito’s tree is trimmed with vintage paper mache ornaments that include the characters from the “Nutcracker” ballet.

Merry Christmas, readers! I can’t believe it’s Christmas Eve AND the last Sunday of Advent, making it an especially frustrating day for those of us who are last-minute shoppers!

For example, as I wrote this column last Wednesday, I was getting frantic because I hadn’t bought a tree yet! Years ago, I used to assemble and decorate a fake tree every holiday, which was easy and always available. However, I switched to a real evergreen when my fake tree began to show its age and my children were old enough to enjoy the tree cut-down and set-up.

Now I may just have to go back to an artificial model since this lateness doesn’t put me much in the holiday spirit! Artificial trees have come a long way over the years and are now hard to tell apart from the real thing.

Who doesn’t love the Christmas tree tradition? Whether big or small, fresh cut or artificial, the magic of a fir tree in the house, decorated with precious ornaments, makes it the star of Christmas.

Everything old sparkles like new on a tree and offers the perfect spot to share our best vintage Christmas and collectible ornaments. One tree that is perfect for nostalgic ornaments is the feather tree.

These strange little trees are one of the old Christmas trimmings that have found a renaissance with today’s homeowners, decorators and merchants. Many of today’s popular stores have reproductions now available for shoppers.

But for antique-savvy shoppers, only the genuine Victorian models will do. These include the original 19th-century German-made versions and continue up to the 20th-century American-made imitations that were sold through the Sears catalog. Japan also produced feather trees for the American market in the early 20th century.

Tabletop Christmas trees first became stylish during the Victorian age as a German cottage industry developed and produced quality trees that featured lightweight and plentiful feathers substituted for pine needles.

These trees are generally three to four feet tall and are constructed from wires, wrapped with green dyed goose, turkey or swan feathers. Many have red composition berries on the branches; some have candleholders.

The branches are bendable but styled very straight. The trunks of these trees are usually wrapped in brown tissue paper. Most often the tree trunks stand upright in painted wooden boxes, trimmed with poinsettia and holly designs. Other models sport painted cast iron stands.

Considered the first artificial Christmas tree, a Victorian feather tree is easy to display no matter how limited your space. They became less popular in the mid-20th century as large real trees became the common choice and artificial trees turned to modern looks like aluminum and realistic floor models.

I’m lucky to have one of these German goose feather trees, although mine dates to the early 20th century. It is easy to decorate because the branches are stiff and spaced out well, so ornaments hang nicely.

My feather tree suffers from years of use. I had to rewrap the trunk with green floral tape to strengthen it a bit after a fall, thanks to a pet cat. But I can’t imagine not setting it up in my bedroom. Children, and now grandchildren, expect it.

I trim mine with “Nutcracker” ballet figures given to me by my mother when I was a child. Made by Gorham Silver, these treasures are painted paper mache characters. It makes the tree special, especially now that my granddaughter, Maggie Benson, is a member of Oglebay Institute’s ballet company which performs the “Nutcracker” at both the Mansion Museum and Towngate Theatre in Wheeling every holiday.

When purchasing an antique feather tree, be sure to examine it closely and to see if it’s been reinforced or altered in any way. Also test the brittleness of the feathers. If you do own an old feather tree, treat it carefully and store it out of sunlight, dampness or heat. Air should circulate around the tree.

You might want to consider covering it with a pillowcase when not in use to keep it clean. These trees bring joy for generations if cared for properly.

For comments or suggestions on local treasures to be featured in Antique of the Week, Maureen Zambito can be reached via email at zambitomaureen@hotmail .com or by writing in care of this newspaper.