Coveted Vintage Christmas Ornaments and Collectibles to Look for in Antique Shops—or Your Own Attic

You (or your grandparents) just might have one of these valuable holiday collectibles tucked away in storage.

Close-Up image of vintage Christmas Ornaments

Decorating for the winter holidays comes with a built-in sense of nostalgia, as so many people work to recreate the feeling of their childhood's most magical moments. But sourcing your decorations from the Black Friday sale at your local big box store doesn't always give your space a comfortable, homey atmosphere; instead, it leaves you with a collection of nearly-disposable pieces—many of which won't last more than one season—that look just like everyone else's.

"Everyone thinks today's technology is so good, and everything is better now than it was back then," says holiday collector John Hanssen, a member of The Golden Glow of Christmas Past. "But you cannot compare the Christmas lighting, ornaments, or decorations of the early 20th century to what is made today. What they made back then, the labor involved, the quality, the innovation—there is nothing today that compares to what was made at that time."

However, turning to thrift shops, vintage stores, and antique malls for your holiday decorations guarantees you're using one-of-a-kind ornaments, figures, and décor for a completely custom finished product. "When you're looking for an ornament and you go to an antique store, you're creating something when you bring it home that is unique. You're not going to see it in everybody else's house," says collector, auctioneer, and appraiser Bene Raia. "It holds its value, and you can pass that down."

Instead of buying low-quality, inexpensive, or mass-produced ornaments and holiday décor in bulk packs from your local big-box store, look for intricate, handmade pieces with unique history and personality—especially in these categories.

christmas village ornaments
Kate Mathis

German Figural Blown-Glass Ornaments

These are especially famous for their quality and variety. "That was a cottage industry," says Hanssen. "You had individual glass blowers that simply made any type of ornament that came to mind; they would make the mold for it, blow the glass into that mold, and paint it. There's an unlimited variety of glass ornaments, because it was all up to the person's imagination."

Paper Scrap Ornaments

Careful scouting can also lead you to paper "scrap" ornaments—some dating as far back as the 1800s (although pieces that old are especially rare, says Hanssen). To make these, amateur crafters (and their children) would cut their favorite pictures out of magazines, attach them to cardboard, and decorate with ribbon, tinsel, and other festive adornments.

Beaded Balls

Raia likes looking for hand-beaded ornaments made from cloth-covered balls studded with rhinestones and pins; she has a collection passed down from a great-aunt. "I love buying things that have a story," she says. "When I'm looking at these handcrafted ornaments, I'm thinking about this woman who sat and stuck all these pins and tiny beads into this ball, and her patience, and how she must have loved doing it."

20th-Century Tree Lights

Though Hanssen collects "every aspect of antique Christmas," his favorite find is antique tree lights, which date back as far as the early 1900s. "If you look at lighting today, it's pretty generic," says Hanssen. "There's not a lot of innovation. Back then, the sky was the limit."


Turn-of-the-century string lights—called festoons—included eight colored bulbs, and were rented each year (by homeowners who had electricity) and returned to the company after the holiday. (Battery-operated lights became available during the 1920s.) The size C6 bulbs, which are slightly smaller than the larger C9 and C7 outdoor lights used today, worked in a series, so if one bulb went out, none of them lit up (much like the 1980s lights Clark Griswold relied on).

Where to Look

These bulbs are no longer produced, except occasionally for custom runs ordered by collectors who need replacement bulbs—but are still available in antique and thrift stores. "It depends on the type of light. Some are very common, because thousands of them were made, and there are some lights out there that a collector might have that's the only one known to exist," says Hanssen. "Once the bulbs burned out, they got thrown away, since people didn't save them." The ones that show up on the market today are likely strings "tucked away in Grandma's attic for many years," he says.

If you find any string of vintage lights—whether the original festoons of the early 1900s or the tinier bulbs of the 1960s—check the wiring for any frays as a safety precaution; Hanssen also recommends plugging the lights into an extension cord running from a tabletop dimmer, which will allow you to turn the lights on more slowly and prevent burst bulbs.

Victoria Pearson

Colorful Feather Trees and Tree Stands

You have plenty of options when it comes to contemporary artificial Christmas trees, but vintage and antique iterations incorporated a variety of materials to create striking—and purposely unrealistic—aesthetics. Look for full, fluffy feather trees in unexpected mid-century shades like olive and orange or twiggy, pine-inspired goose feather trees (these are just the right size for a tabletop display of your growing vintage ornament collection).

Aluminum Trees

Aluminum trees are a slightly controversial decorating choice (as the kids of A Charlie Brown Christmas can confirm), but they—along with many other pieces from the 1950s and 1960s—are increasingly sought-out antique options, as the Baby Boomer generation leans into nostalgia for their childhood holidays. "When people think of aluminum trees, they just think of silver, but they made aluminum trees in all different types of colors and designs, in heights from 2 or 3 feet up to 7 feet tall," says Hanssen. "You either hated them or you loved them, but aluminum trees are very popular right now."

Vintage Stands

Add a vintage tree stand for the full effect: Look for intricate metalwork and a rotating stand—but the best are fully illustrated.

Figurines and Décor

Whether your holiday decorating style is traditional, eclectic, or streamlined, antique shops will offer up figures and other décor items that help you create a personal, expressive space—not one that looks like every other tableaux in your Instagram feed. Source small pieces of furniture, perfect for displaying a salvaged nativity scene, or a refinished Radio Flyer sled ("Buy it in June," says Raia, when you're likely to get a good deal. "Antique dealers cannot even give a sled away during the year").


Handmade quilted stockings add a cozy element to a stairwell or fireplace, and wooden trucks, dollhouses, and other old-fashioned toys can serve as tablescape add-ons or festive window scenes.

Antique Santa and Elves

Raia also watches for Belsnickel Santas, a German version of Saint Nicholas, who wears an ankle-length, hooded coat and sports a generous white beard. Vintage Christmas pixie figurines are another popular find, she says; their cheerful plastic faces, felt legs drawn up to the knees, and impish smiles are mid-century icons that will look perfectly at home next to your kids' Elf on the Shelf.

Putz Houses

"The age group that was young in the 1950s and 1960s are getting nostalgic for the type of decorations they had growing up," says Hanssen. He recommends watching for Putz houses—small cardboard buildings designed to be lit from within by bulbs on a strand of Christmas lights, which diffuse a gentle glow out through plastic or cellophane-lined windows.

green garden variety place setting
Bryan Gardner

Unexpected Treasures

Lights, ornaments, and Santa figures may be obvious choices for adding a dash of vintage flair to your holiday décor, but the world of seasonal antiques includes plenty of items you might not have thought to put on your to-buy list.

Books and Photographs

Consider holiday-themed books—like an old version of The Night Before Christmas or a first printing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas—or antique Christmas photos, which Hanssen collects. "In the beginning of photography, it was a lot of portraits—you really don't see a lot of interior photos of someone's house or a store," he says. "That's what I look for—a family around the Christmas tree from the early 1900s." (Another benefit: If you're just starting an ornament collection, you can use dated photos to identify ornaments from different eras.)

Holiday China

Hanssen also looks for holiday china, including full sets, children's toy versions, and one-off branded plates that early stores gave out as part of their holiday advertising campaigns. "There were other giveaways from stores, too," he says, citing ink blotters, special edition Christmas toys, and glassware. "The old stuff is harder to find."

He organizes an open house each year to share his "stupidly large" collection—which he's been adding to since the 1980s—with friends, neighbors, and other collectors. "I love hearing the stories like, 'My parents had this on the tree,' or, 'My grandparents had that on the tree,'" Hanssen says. "It brings back memories for people and, you know, Christmas when you're a child—there's nothing that can compare to that."

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