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Shiny and Bright

View the full feature with additional photos and information in the November/December 2013 issue of Evansville Living.

Lucky for us, each holiday season we hear from readers insisting they know someone who has “the best” holiday décor. Of course, it’s  our job to explore these tips. Before the glass and garland were packed up last season, we visited four acclaimed holiday home decorators to learn how they impart the meaning of the season. Here, they share their visions to inspire yours.

Hosts of Christmas Past

Margaret and Dennis Haire’s love of vintage Christmas items fills their home and fuels a small business  By Jane McManus • Photos by Heather Gray and Hannah Jay

Margaret Haire pointed to a circa-1915 figurine of a small boy, dressed in red cotton batting, pushing an oversize snowball that once held Christmas candy or a surprise for a child.

“This is probably my favorite,” Margaret says, “because his face is so sweet. I just like the simplicity of it.”

The figurine is one of hundreds of mostly German antique Christmas ornaments and figurines that Margaret and her husband, Dennis, have collected since the early 1980s.

Working together, it takes Margaret and Dennis about three weeks to unpack and display their entire collection.

“And I refuse to do it until after Thanksgiving,” Margaret adds emphatically. “I love Thanksgiving.”

Margaret’s favorite ornament is one of a number of Heubach figurines the couple has collected. Heubachs were produced in Germany in the early 1900s and are noted for their active poses and hand-painted bisque faces. According to Margaret, the doll heads were produced at a factory. German housewives then wrapped pipe stems around a core made of glue and saw dust and then covered the stems and core with cotton batting to create a figurine. Heubach figurines almost exclusively depicted actions taking place in the snow, she says.

“It was a cottage industry,” Margaret says. “It’s so interesting. It’s whimsical.”

“The fact they’re still around 100 years later and they’re so fragile,” Dennis adds, means that the Heubach figurines have stood the test of time.
Margaret’s interest in collecting antique Christmas ornaments is rooted in her hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where she has fond memories of creating ornaments with her grandmother, also named Margaret.

“I still have a few on my tree,” she says.

Margaret started off collecting German glass ornaments before moving into collecting Santa Claus figures.

The collection of Santa Claus figurines shows the evolution of a lean, stern German Father Christmas with a long coat from the 1880s to around 1900, to when Santa became a little more rotund in the era after World War I. His coat also was shorter, “and he wasn’t quite so stern,” Margaret says.
National distribution of newspapers and magazines and the 1823 publication of the poem, “The Night Before Christmas” progressing through Coca Cola ads of the 1930s reshaped the American public’s image of St. Nicholas.

A Santa from the early 1880s has blue eyes, wears a long, hooded robe, and sports a white beard made of rabbit fur. Another Santa, sitting atop a cotton snowball, has a shorter coat and dates to the 1920s. Many of these ornaments contained candy.

“It was both a decorative and practical use,” Margaret says.

Another Santa rides a donkey whose head nods. “Nodders” — large Santa figurines — often were used in department store windows to draw attention. “The German craftsmanship is beautiful,” Margaret says.

Dennis points to a horse-drawn wooden cart, which is particularly rare. The cart, made of wooden rails, holds the sign referring to Santa Claus as “Dealer in Good Things.” Margaret added a circa-1918 Santa candy container standing on the back of the cart among a collection of Christmas presents. Dennis, who thinks the cart dates to 1903, says he discovered a newspaper ad rolled inside the Santa advertising two suits with a coat for $22.85.

A hand-carved music box dating to the 1950s was a gift to Margaret from her mother Mary Margaret Reynolds Burt’s best friend shortly after Margaret’s birth. The music box still plays the German Christmas carol “O Tannenbaum.” On top, Father Christmas leads a group of angels celebrating the arrival of St. Nicholas. The celebration of St. Nicholas Day remains a German tradition.

Margaret and Dennis also have collected feather trees in different sizes. Margaret says the trees were made with dyed goose feathers that were then attached to wire branches. The branches were wrapped around a paper-covered wooden trunk and were then placed in a painted wooden base.
Feather trees were created to resemble the white pines of northern Germany, according to Margaret. The branches were sparse and spaced widely apart, which showcased glass ornaments.

The trees became popular in the United States when Theodore Roosevelt became president in 1901 after President William McKinley was assassinated. Roosevelt, a conservationist, not only promoted the use of feather trees but also advanced the development of artificial trees and Christmas tree farms out of concern for preserving the country’s forests.

Though most of the couple’s Christmas collection spends the off-season in storage, a few things remain on display all year.

An antique corner cupboard in the library of the home on Evansville’s East Side displays a group of Heubach child figurines and Santas playing in the snow. “I think that is so cute,” Margaret says.

From a high shelf, several Belsnickel candy containers and bottle brush trees keep a stern watch over activities in the library. German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania brought with them the image of the Pelze-Nicol (Nicholas in Fur), the “alter ego” of St. Nicholas who would leave switches or coal for misbehaving children to remind them of their naughty deeds. Though the pronunciation was altered to “Belsnickel,” he continued to visit children at Christmas time.

When asked why they enjoy having such a large collection of Christmas decorations, Margaret says it’s because she thinks “they are beautiful and unique.”

“Who wouldn’t want a Santa Claus on a polar bear?” Dennis adds.

Margaret and Dennis also had a small business that bought and sold Christmas decorations, and so the items were an investment, as well.

“I also love that it’s an expression of the true meaning of Christmas,” Margaret says. “St. Nicholas initially represented secret, selfless giving and generosity, and the Protestant Reformation sought to point to Christ, the ultimate gift to mankind.”

Where Memories Are Made   By Jane McManus

The work table in Evansville resident Margaret Haire’s basement is strewn with a collection of oddities, including disembodied dolls’ legs, pieces of old rabbit fur, and small vintage bells.

“She reuses old vintage things to create a new decoration,” says her husband, Dennis. “It creates an item that has never been made.”

Margaret and her husband have been serious collectors of antique German Christmas decorations since the early 1980s. Around 1990, she began making small replicas, giving some as gifts. The couple then wondered if people might be interested in buying some of Margaret’s creations.

“The antique Christmas ornaments had become so expensive, I thought there must be a market for people who wanted to buy affordable quality recreations,” she says.

From that, “Maggie’s Memories” — named after the couple’s daughter, who is a fourth generation — was born. She signed a licensing agreement with a distributor and, in 2007, the first offerings of “Maggie’s Memories” went on sale to retailers across the U.S. and Canada.

In 2011, four years after the launch, Early American Life magazine included Margaret’s work in its Directory of Traditional American Crafts.

Each year, Margaret creates several new Christmas decorations, putting the prototypes together in her basement. The 2013 models include a little girl in a dark red snow suit, holding a candle and a wreath, as well as a young boy holding a bell, standing next to a small house constructed from a hollowed tree trunk, the inside of which can be lit with a battery-operated candle.

“We think about it throughout the year and look for pieces,” Margaret says. “It makes something more unique and in a less expensive way.”

In one of her creations, Margaret re-purposed a pencil into a candle and turned an old planter vase into a ceramic sled. She and Dennis create the pieces with the help of Delores Coomes, an Evansville resident who works for the couple.

Margaret will be available to sign her creations on Dec. 14 at Rose Marie’s at Lea Matthews Furniture & Interiors from noon-2 p.m. and 3 p.m.-5 p.m. Also, Emanuele Fontanini, a fourth generation member of the House of Fontanini, creators of the Fontanini nativities, will be available to sign any Fontanini nativity set purchased during the event

Maggie’s Memories collectibles are sold at Rose Marie’s at Lea Matthews Furniture & Interiors; Gehlhausen Floral; La Petite Demoiselle in Evansville; T Marie’s in Newburgh, Ind.; and at Memories Past & Present in Henderson, Ky., as well as online at maggiesmemories.com.

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