Memories of Christmas Past: Tree with Vintage Glass Ornaments, Nativity, and Christmas Village

Glencairn Museum News | Number 12, 2011


Brother Bob Reinke Poses with His Vintage Tree and Christmas Village


Antique Santa and Other Ornaments


Floor-to-ceiling Christmas trees began to replace table-top trees in America during the second half of the 19th century. The tradition of decorating Christmas trees with hand-blown glass ornaments became widespread in the 1890s after F.W. Woolworth began taking regular buying trips to the town of Lauscha, Germany, to purchase stock for his chain of 5-and-10-cent stores. Popular figures included pine cones, church bells, birds with spun glass tails, Santa Claus carrying a Christmas tree, and fish, a Christian symbol for Christ. The ornaments on Glencairn’s tree were made in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and America.


Pre-War German Nativity under Glencairn Tree


A Christmas village beneath the tree, often featuring a Nativity scene, was popular with Christians throughout the 20th century. This tradition traces its origin to the Moravian custom of “putz” building, a practice common in Moravian and Pennsylvania German communities in America throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. The term putz comes from a German word meaning “to decorate,” and refers to a traditional Moravian landscaped Nativity scene. A typical putz or Christmas village might include a Nativity, a church, houses, people, and a wide variety of animals, all enclosed by a fence. The papier mache Nativity set beneath the Glencairn tree was made in pre-World War II Germany. The cardboard buildings with cellophane windows were made during the same period in Japan. The war temporarily put an end to imported Nativities and other Christmas decorations from these countries, but production resumed immediately after the war.


Antique Ornament with Child's Face


Brother Bob has given Glencairn Museum his entire personal collection of vintage and antique Christmas tree ornaments, gathered over his lifetime. He is a member of the Brothers of the Poor of St. Francis, which was founded on Christmas Eve in 1857 before a Nativity scene in a chapel in Aachen, Germany. The Brotherhood has as its special mission the care and education of abandoned youth and providing social services to marginalized people. In 1988, during the early stages of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, Brother Bob responded to an invitation of the Franciscan Sisters of the Poor to develop a community-based agency, F.A.I.T.H. services (Franciscan AIDS Initiative To Help), for those infected and affected. With strong community support and governmental funding the agency and its services grew, and today it serves 1,000 infected people monthly.


Tree with Medieval Head of Christ


Within the Brotherhood, Brother Bob served three terms as Provincial Superior and a term as Vicar General. In 2004 he was invited to the Church of Saint Ann in Hoboken, New Jersey, to be a Pastoral Associate. It was here that he celebrated his 50th Jubilee as a Brother in 2010.

While you are visiting Glencairn’s beautiful tree and Christmas village be sure to take in our current exhibition, Follow the Star: World Nativities.The exhibition is free, with donations welcome. Hours are: Noon to 4:30 p.m., Monday–Saturday through Jan. 14; closed on Sundays, as well as Dec. 12, 13, 14 and 24. For more information visit or call the Museum at 267-502-2990.