The Darker Side Of Christmas – 5 Dark and Deadly Elements of Christmases Past

Getting sick of all the holiday cheer? Looking for something a bit more sinister to feed your Grinchy heart? Check out this list of morbid, unusual and downright bizarre facts about Christmas days of yore.

Getting sick of all the holiday cheer? Looking for something a bit more sinister to feed your Grinchy heart? Check out this list of morbid, unusual and downright bizarre facts about Christmas days of yore.

1. Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, How Deadly Are Your Branches

See What Happens If You Don't Water Your Christmas Tree? - Gothamist
Keep your Christmas tree well-watered if it’s real, and if you’re using a vintage artificial one, be careful of the lights you use.

Christmas trees as a North American tradition date back to the early 1800s, having been brought over from Germany by the Moravians. The habit of dressing them with lights (originally candles) likely comes from a combination of the 17th Century German Christian’s Christmas tree and the Pagan Yule log. While this made for some brilliant looking trees, the candles the Victorians adorned their trees with could be deadly. It was difficult to secure candles to the tree, and tipsy flames could lead to disastrous fires. In 1882, the first electric Christmas lights were created, but early electric bulbs could get quite hot and still become dangerous on a tree that was too dry. In the mid 20th century, artificial trees made of aluminum became popular, and one might think that with that, the danger of electric lights was eliminated: not so. According to the CPSC, you should “never use electric lights on a metallic tree. The tree can become charged with electricity from faulty lights, and a person touching a branch could be electrocuted.” This is why mid-century trees went with colour wheels under the branches, as opposed to hung on the tree itself. Planning on having a sparkling, glowing tree? Maybe opt for a festive fire extinguisher to match it.

vintage Penetray Christmas tree color wheel rotating light in box, works
The safe option for lights on an aluminium tree.

2. Let It Snow, Let It Snow, (Don’t) Let It Snow

It won’t set on fire, but it will cause cancer!

While you’d be hard-pressed to find anything new made with asbestos nowadays, it was widely used in the 20th century in a variety of products – including fake snow. If you’re not familiar with the product, it’s a fibrous silicate mineral and carcinogenic linked to the lung disease asbestosis, as well as a rare form of cancer called mesothelioma. Basically, it’s not stuff you want around. It is particularly dangerous when the fibres are loose, and able to be easily inhaled – an unfortunate fact for those who worked on the Wizard of Oz, and were covered in it during the infamous poppy scene. If you’ve inherited something that you think may have asbestos, contact your local waste disposal centre to learn how to get rid of it safely.

Look at all those lovely little asbestos fibres. Sadly, not even the worst thing to happen on that set.

3. Mad As A…Glass Blower?

Antique Kugel Christmas Ornament History | Martha Stewart
Colourful, sparkling, and no longer deadly!

You’ve likely come across “mercury glass” ornaments or decor in your festive shopping, as this popular “silvered” glass has been a holiday staple for years. But the cheap, plastic “mercury glass” that you’d buy at a hardware store is very different than the true glass ones from upscale retail, which is different still from the proper ones from the 20th century, that themselves differ from the original ones that actually contained mercury! And it’s a good thing, because mercury is linked to a whole host of health problems, the most extreme of which is Minamata disease, a horrible neurological disease that can lead to insanity and death (and what inspired the phrase, “mad as a hatter“). While the very first mercury glass ornaments were made of mercury and tin, the difficulty, cost, and toxicity meant that very quickly the process was switched to silver nitrate, which is far less dangerous (sometimes even used in medicine). Still, the name stuck, and remains a fun little reminder of the deadly materials of yesteryear, and begs the question – what are we using today that our great grandchildren will shake their heads at?

4. Snapdragon – Fun For The Whole Family!

“In my day, our raisins were on fire! And we were happy to have the heat!”

Ah Christmas, the time of year when we gather ’round with friends and family over presents, hot cocoa, and burning raisins we toss into our mouths – wait. Burning…raisins? Yep, that’s Snapdragon! A popular Victorian game that actually dates back to the 1600s. You take a bowl of brandy (off to a good start), toss in some raisins and light it ablaze. Then, sitting in a circle, everyone takes a turn reaching in to try and snap a raisin and extinguish it in their mouth. It seems the one who was the least burnt…won? Look, this was not only before tv and movies but before electricity as well, so even reading on Christmas might have been difficult. Might as well play with fire!

5. Creepy Christmas Ballads

Opinion | Have Yourself a Merry Little 2017 - The New York Times
Think the lyrics are depressing? Look up how they got poor little Margaret to cry so convincingly.

Murder ballads are a genre of folk song that deal with horrific events, usually murder, and relate what is often a true story to the listener. Chances are you know some – El Paso, Stagger Lee, Mack The Knife – some are upbeat and almost fun while others…well, you really do feel like you’re listening to a song about murder. But what may surprise you is that there are Christmas Murder Ballads, songs that, despite their dark content, somehow get included in lists of “Christmas music”. “The Murder of the Lawson Family” tells the story of a real-life murder that took place on Christmas day, 1929. “Delia’s Gone” is a first-person classic, based on a true story of a young Black woman being murdered Christmas Eve, 1900, by her white boyfriend. Then there’s goofier, but still rather dark hits like “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer“. And while not exactly creepy, if you’re looking for a sad xmas tune, look no further than the original lyrics to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”, sung by Judy Garland in Meet Me In St.Louis;

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
It may be your last
Next year we may all be living in the past

Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us, no more

Have yourself a merry little Christmas
Let your heart be light
From now on our troubles will be out of sight

Faithful friends who were dear to us
Will be near to us, once more

So what do you think? We’ve got more, should we do a part 2? Have any you think we should add? Let us know in the comments – and happy holidays!


A Very Vintage Christmas: Sourcing True Vintage Holiday Decor

Minimize waste this holiday season by sourcing and reusing vintage and antique Christmas ornaments.

Today’s Sustainable Sunday is going to look at one of the ways you can minimize waste this holiday season; by sourcing and reusing vintage.

Those stockings you’ve hung by the chimney, with care, likely spend at least 11 months of the year tucked away safe – as do the ornaments, table decorations, lights etc. etc. And this is nothing new: families have carefully stored their delicate, often expensive ornaments away for generations. Because of this, finding vintage Christmas decorations is usually pretty easy. So if your tree is looking a little bare, and you haven’t inherited any or built up a collection of your own, I suggest starting with some classic pieces that will bring that nostalgic holiday feeling along with them – here’s some of the most popular styles of vintage Christmas decor, along with the approximate dates of their peak of popularity.

Cardboard Dresden Ornaments (1880-1910)

These precious little embossed ornaments originate in the Dresden-Leipzig area, which is how they got their name. These small, delicate pieces were made by dampening cardboard to make it flexible, and then pressing it into a stamping die to emboss it. Some were painted, many were gilded, and they came in shapes that ranged from exotic animals like peacocks and polar bears to sailboats, sleighs and stars. While they were mass-produced (by hand) in their day, their delicate nature means that there are relatively few that remain today. True antique Dresden ornaments can cost you a pretty penny, so if you find one at an estate sale or swap meet, be sure to snatch it up!

Putz Houses (1920-1950)

According to this article about the history of these cute little houses, putz is German for putting or placing things together to create a scene: more specifically, it comes from the German word putzen which means to decorate or adorn. While there have been many iterations of small Christmas villages through the years, the ones referred to as Putz Houses are generally no more than 5″ tall, made of cardboard and covered in fake snow (mica) and glitter. Originally coming to North America from Eastern Europe, after WWI the mass-production of these little gems shifted to Japan. The Japanese didn’t share the same Christmas traditions, but they perfected the process of manufacturing them and based them off of American home design, so until WWII the majority of our little homes were shipped from overseas. You will find similar cardboard houses made post-war – some again coming from Japan, many made in the USA – but there is significantly less detail to the designs, and most diehard collectors are only really interested in the Japanese originals (see above – far left is a mid-century collection vs the more detailed originals from the 1920s).

spun cotton ornaments (1880-1940)

Referred to as “spun cotton”, these are basically felted ornaments that come in a wide array of shapes and sizes. As with many of the ornaments we still love today, these originated in Germany, first appearing in the late 19th century. Early examples are often of fruits or even vegetables, and later iterations include little people or fairies. They were initially made by winding cotton around a basic wire frame, but later examples would consist of tightly wound cotton pressed in a mold. If you wanted to try doing your own sometime, I’d recommend using a felt hook.

Kugel Ornaments (1850-1910)

Another type that originated in Germany, these heavy, glass pieces are quite valuable, if they are a true Kugel. While the word kugel means “ball” these hand-blown ornaments come in a variety of shapes, often fruit. First made in the mid 1800s, the originals were so heavy they couldn’t hang on trees, and instead were suspended from the ceiling. By the 1880s, lighter versions were hitting shelves and making their way to North America. Apparently the way to distinguish an original from a reproduction is to examine its cap.

Shiny Brite Ornaments (1930-1960)

Vintage Shiny Brites are what you are most likely to encounter while thrifting for old Christmas ornaments. Originally made in – you guessed it! – Germany in the 1930s, these beautiful, sparkly balls and bobbles were created by ornament maker Max Eckardt, who had the genius idea to coat glass with silver nitrate, making them shine longer than any others on the market. The originals came only in silver, but as their popularity grew in the 1940s and 50s the company expanded into everything from red and green to bright pink. Mass-produced and popular for decades it’s not difficult to find some, although their resurgence in popularity means you may be paying a fair bit for each. A word of warning – these are very, very delicate. Their thin glass can be crushed in your hand if you’re used to dealing with glass balls from the past 20 or so years, so keep these away from little, or slippery hands. And if you’re a stickler for the real thing, be sure to check the top cap – these have been reproduced and imitated for decades, but nothing beats the real thing.

Got any classic Christmas styles you think we should add?
Let us know in the comments.

Retro Christmas Countdown – Xmas in the 20th Century

While Christmas dates back hundreds of years before, it was the start of the 20th century that saw the turn towards the lavish and very commercial holiday that we all know today. Here’s a very brief history of Christmas traditions from the last century.



The first Christmas card was created in 1843 by John Horsley, and by the turn of the century the Victorian’s love of sentimental greetings had made this a popular tradition.

The Victorian styles of decorating carried into the start of the 20th century, with gilded nuts, candles and paper ornaments adorning trees.

This decade also saw the creation of what was to become one of the most popular children’s toys of the century; the Teddy Bear. Named after President Roosevelt, the charming story of the origin of this toy and its name can be read here.



As Christmas rapidly became a highly commercialized holiday, more and more companies used it as a means of selling their products, and the image of Santa Claus began to morph into the one we are familiar with today. It was in the 1910s that Santa’s now unmistakable look, with red suit and pants trimmed in white fur, matching cap and long white beard, began to become the norm.

While a legend has grown that claims Coca Cola invented the modern-day image of Santa, that is not quite the case. Prior to the famous Coca Cola Santa (who was created in 1931), the jolly elf had been portrayed as anything from tall and lanky to a munchkin-sized man. Norman Rockwell had painted a Santa who is strikingly similar to the 30s Coke version all the way back in 1911, however it wasn’t until Coke began regularly producing consistent looking Christmas ads that the current version of St. Nick really began to stick.

For an interesting pictorial history of Santa, check out this link.



By the 1920s the upper class had traded-in their candles for electric Christmas lights, and trees were as lavish and daring as the fashions of the decades.


With the rising popularity of the wireless (radio), the 1920s also saw the first Christmas radio broadcast when, in 1922, Arthur Burrow presented “The Truth About Father Christmas”.


Rockefeller Centre, 1931

In the midst of the Great Depression few had money to spend on food and clothing, let alone Christmas gifts and decorations. Still, the tradition of putting up a tree hung on, with many families owning decorations they had purchased in the more prosperous 1920s. Homemade ornaments also adorned the tree, made out of things like the foil paper saved from cigarette packs. As previously mentioned, Coca Cola started to advertise with their own version of Santa, and upbeat Christmas songs were enjoyed on the radio. Advertisements still bombarded shoppers with ideas for the perfect Christmas gift, only their tactics had changed; a focus on the practical and sometimes financing options were promoted.


The popular character Rudolph, everyone’s favourite red-nosed reindeer, was created in 1939 by Montgomery Ward. Although it wasn’t until a decade later when Gene Autry released the song that we’ve all learned as kids.



The 1940s saw the Second World War, and with that came rations and a reminder that the war effort should be supported above all else. Sales in non-necessities like Christmas lights dropped dramatically as many companies changed their focus to assist in the war effort. War bonds were promoted as a perfect gift for any family member or friend, and Santa himself switched his classic red & white outfit to don army duds and support the cause.

With many families missing fathers, brothers and sons overseas, Christmas could have been a bittersweet time. However, back home the masses were reminded to keep their spirits up while fighting the good fight, so many Christmas celebrations resumed some of the splendour they had seen before the Depression.



The post-war boom made the Christmas of the 1950s one of the biggest and gaudiest yet. The Baby Boom meant there were lots of families with youngsters, and so the toy market was buzzing. Wide-spread prosperity meant most were lucky enough to be able to afford Christmas celebrations, and women’s magazines, eager to encourage them to return to the home, now that the war was over, pushed for the ideal Christmas season, full of elaborate recipes and decor.

Television was also becoming popular and with it came a host of Christmas specials. Stars like Nat King Cole and Bing Crosby recorded Christmas songs and popular shows like I Love Lucy recorded special Christmas episodes.



By the 1960s, the fads of the 50s were firmly cemented; every toy imaginable was available on the market and they were advertised directly to children in between the cartoons they watched on tv. The Christmas shows we still see today – Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer, Santa Claus is Coming to Town and Frosty the Snowman – first appeared on the airwaves and decorations were more colourful and outlandish than ever before.

There was significant variety now as well. Christmas trees could be anything from your traditional green pine, to the popular aluminum trees that came in silver, aqua and even pink! And don’t forget the fake snow! The concept of “Kitschmas” was truly born in the 1960s.

What’s your favourite Christmas decade? Tweet your replies to @BygoneTheatre #RetroXmas 


Vintage Christmas Printables

In need of some last-minute decorations or gifts? Check out these sources for great vintage printables and hand-make a card, gift tag, wreath or garland. Be sure to tweet pictures of your creations to @BygoneTheatre! Click on the images for links to the original sites.

Graphics Fairy
Graphics Fairy has hundreds of Christmas printables.


Vintage Holiday Crafts features many turn-of-the-century Christmas cards
Vintage Holiday Crafts features many turn-of-the-century Christmas cards


Beautiful gift tags from Christmas Charisma.
Beautiful gift tags from Christmas Charisma.


True to its name, Free Pretty Things For You has some adorable prints, a bit more modern and colourful than the others, plus ideas how on to use them!
True to its name, Free Pretty Things For You has some adorable prints, a bit more modern and colourful than the others, plus ideas how on to use them!


Miss the kitschy-fun wrapping paper of yesteryear? No fear! Aunt Peaches has some scanned so print to your hearts content.
Miss the kitschy-fun wrapping paper of yesteryear? No fear! Aunt Peaches has some scanned so print to your hearts content.