Do I Miss The Real Thing?

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

We bought our first “fake” Christmas tree in 1986. That we live in the desert had something to do with it; just as harvest pumpkins set out on doorsteps tend to sag by Halloween, cut conifers generally shed their needles within a week. I grew up in Wisconsin and the U.P., so you can imagine what a difficult transition that was for me, not to mention I am German, Norwegian and Swedish. But with the advances in the reproduction of the real thing over the years, I am now quite happy to see our “fake tree” come out of the bag with all the lights on it, ready for the grandchildren to decorate.

We have collected ornaments since 1959 when our oldest child was a baby. By 1965, I started a tradition of buying at least three new ornaments each year, one for each child. Many of my favorites were handmade by their paternal grandmother, others were finds at Christmas bazaars. Some came from the crib mobile. In the 1970s – new times, new life, new location – we added some tie-dyed candy canes, Mexican tin stars, and straw angels. Now we have quite a few made by  grandchildren, some with their photos in them. Max and Em painted miniature cardboard birdhouses one year.

Every so often we found some irresistible manufactured ornaments: glass “space ships” from a junk store in Flagstaff; string balls from England, where I also found opaque plastic, pastel balls crafted in Germany. Levy’s Department Store (long gone) had some Victorian santas on sale one year. This year my husband returned from London with a crown symbolizing the Queen’s Jubilee. And after Christmas at Ace Hardware (of all places) I found what might be that last surviving Made in the U.S.A. glass ornaments. For half-price, $3.49 a box of six, I bought 36 frosty blue, 3-inch balls, decorated with scenes in glitter, and made in Roswell, New Mexico by a company based in Irving, Texas – owned by the fourth generation of German immigrants, the Krebs family.

If you go to, you will see that this is a very technically-savvy business. Close ties with family members operating factories in Germany, make it a global enterprise that keeps them (as they say) “on the cutting edge of what is on the horizon…” It is a bit worrying to me that, “In a continued effort to be the leader in the glass ornament industry,” the company has started working with “some of the leading glass factories in Asia.”

I have tried very hard this year to avoid buying anything made in China. I’m not the only one.  Some clothing labels are reflecting this backlash.Several catalogs this year were careful to explain that items were designed in the U.S.A. but assembled elsewhere. The famous wool shirts from Pendleton in Oregon are “imported” but still made from cloth woven on American mills.

I’ve complained to my favorite local businesses about the dominance of China-made goods and they shrug their shoulders. People want things cheap. It takes me back to a summer day in Hertfordshire when I was on a hunt for a genuine English teddy bear for a new grandchild. It was my firm belief that every child should have one. Our English cousin Linda and I had wandered into a promising shop in Ross-on-Wye, saw many cute bears, but most made in China. I was surprised, since Merrythought bears were still made in the U.K (and they are still made by the same family in the original Victorian factory in Shropshire). I grumbled as we went out the door, and the shopkeeper followed us to the pavement. “I heard what you said, and would love to have some English teddy bears to sell,” he told us, “but nobody will pay the price.”

A decade later, handcrafting English teddy bears had become a cottage industry, just like making bobbin lace was in the pre-industrial age. These entrepreneurs have filled a niche. The last English bear I bought I found in a toy shop in the Lake District in 2005. There were so many unique bears to choose from it took me half an hour to make up my mind, partly due to the expense.

As you may know, English teddy bears — for that matter, real bears — do not look like Disney Studios made them. They often have long and peculiar faces. The one I settled was smallish, hairy, and cost $150. I gave it to our newborn grandchild with great pride, hoping she would learn to love it and carry it around all through childhood. I haven’t seen it since. For all my effort and the love that went into the search,  I did not stop to think that her mother, a descendant of Berbers living in (French) Morocco, might not share the Anglophilic tradition. I heard later that she wasn’t even sure what kind of animal it was.

Arizona Sonora Desert Museum

Happy January from Tucson!


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