Stacy Smith can’t see the forest for all her trees — the 15 ceramic Christmas trees that form a veritable woodland in her whimsical 1920s-era home in Greensboro’s Fisher Park neighborhood. She’s created a winter wonderland that serves as a backdrop for an annual holiday party that’s become a standing-room-only event. “I try to keep them grouped together,” Smith says. “The trees, not the guests!”
Like most forests, Smith’s collection began with a single tree. A few decades back, her husband, Frank, lost his grandmother. “When we were going through her things, I saw this ceramic tree with variegated boughs and lights on the tips, and I just pounced on it,” she says. After that, she began adding a tree or two a year, and her forest steadily grew.
“It’s much harder to find vintage ones now,” Smith says. “You can make them at those ceramics places, and I’ve even seen new ones at ALDI — but I enjoy the thrill of the hunt.”
The once-kitsch tree has become, once again, richly coveted. Jack Gorham, a self-described “junk guru” and manager of Collector’s Antique Mall in Asheboro, has seen the devotion firsthand in the collectors who flock to his store.
“These were prolific items that touched the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s,” Gorham says. “And then — boom — in the ’90s, they became relegated to the bottom of the yard-sale bin with the Pyrex.”
Blame it on changing aesthetics, as the technicolor hues of the ’80s faded into the earth tones of the ’90s. The decline also could be attributed to production issues: American factories that created the molds went out of business due to the cheaper manufacturing of goods overseas.
Found in attics and on eBay, in antiques shops and collectors’ holiday displays, mid-century ceramic Christmas trees are enjoying a colorful resurgence in popularity. photograph by Stacey Van Berkel
Collectors know which names to look for: Atlantic Mold Company copyrighted one of the first ceramic Christmas tree molds in 1958; a stamped date appears on the bottom of the tree. But date markers can be misleading. Companies like Atlantic, Dogwood Ceramic Supply, Arnels, and Holland Mold stamped the year the mold was made, not the actual production date of the tree.
Gorham estimates that the period of ceramic tree dormancy lasted around 25 years. It ended as the millennial generation — those born between 1981 and 1996 — came of age and began moving into their first apartments, buying their first homes, starting families. Those ceramic trees that they remember their grandparents bringing down from the attic became desirable — and the trend blossomed.
“They are so much in demand,” Gorham says. “In my 30-plus years of being in this business, ceramic trees are one of the major modern items that draw so many people in.”
Gorham remembers how he used to shell out five bucks for the trees at yard sales and ask $30 or $40 for them in his shop. Today, the demand for the trees has caused their value to triple.
The beauty — and value — of ceramic Christmas trees is in the eye of the beholder.
While the rarest of ceramic Christmas trees can fetch hundreds of dollars, Gorham thinks that the true beauty — and value — of these nostalgic works of art is in the eye of the beholder. “It’s very personal. Maybe it’s because your aunt had a white one or because your first one was tiny or because you remember putting together the triple-tiered one,” he says. “It’s hard to put a price on memories.”
It’s certainly difficult for Smith, who also collects vintage Santa Clauses and nutcrackers. Her ceramic trees range in size from 12-inch conifers flocked with sparkly snow to three-foot-tall numbers in varying shades of green to a lone white beauty. Her actual Christmas trees are just as bountiful. “I have three or four put up every year: two smallish ones, a silver tree with blown-glass Radko ornaments, and a pink tree with food-themed and glass cocktail-drink ornaments,” she says.
For Smith, though, it’s the ceramic trees that hold the most meaning. “They just remind me of a simpler time,” she says. “We find ways to fill our home with the things we love.”
To commemorate our 90th anniversary, we’ve compiled a time line that highlights the stories, contributors, and themes that have shaped this magazine — and your view of the Old North State — using nine decades of our own words.