The Wonders of Mercury Glass and Tinsel

My family had a wonderful collection of mercury glass ornaments when I was a child. My earliest memory of those ornaments dates back to when I was just 3 or 4 years old, when one of the ornaments broke. I was probably responsible.

But, the most amazing thing about the broken ornament was that, as bright and colorful as it was on the outside, the broken ornament revealed an interior even more wondrous. The interior surface was silvery and shiny, and it reflected my image, though distorted, like a mirror.

I was enthralled and amazed. My mother was horrified. There sat her toddler at the dining room table, playing with broken glass. She promptly took the broken shards away from from me and disposed of them in the trash.

To me, the ornaments themselves were wonderful works of art. The craftsmanship of these ornaments was far less than that of ornaments I’ve seen since, but these were much more than just colored glass globes. They were of many shapes and sizes: round, bell-shaped, and spindle-shaped. The exteriors seemed to glow with their own faint light, catching the illumination of the lights on the tree and sending that light on a new path to warm the room.

The surface of each ornament was further decorated with intricate, lacelike patterns of glitter, implying that these were priceless treasures, and not the common Christmas ornaments they really were.

When decorating the tree, my family carefully unwrapped each glass treasure from its cocoon of white tissue paper. My sisters and I could smell the slight musk of the basement still lingering on the paper as we unwrapped and hung the ornaments on the tree with wire hangers which, though carefully stored the previous year, seemed to have entangled themselves into a Gordian Knot, the result (no doubt) of the late-night revels in which the wire hangers must have engaged during the 11 months they spent in the basement.

The final touch to the tree was silver strands of tinsel which, my sisters and I were instructed, were to be carefully placed one by one on the branches of the tree. We faithfully complied. At least at first. But, as the evening drew on and the task of hanging tinsel began to lose its appeal, we would begin to get a little careless with the tinsel, especially on the higher branches a bit above our reach. These higher branches received great clumps of tinsel, thrown into the air from below, which we assumed would sort themselves into individual strands as they fell, thus saving us the trouble of separating the strands ourselves.

And it seemed that, with time, the strands of tinsel did just that. The great masses of tinsel disappeared and the individual pieces migrated to other branches as my parents clandestinely redistributed the tinsel when my sisters and I were out of sight.

Over the years, the traditions of decorating the Christmas tree changed as the ancient mercury glass ornaments broke and were replaced with newer ones, as tinsel was replaced with garland, and finally as my sisters and I grew older and moved away to lead our separate lives.

Written for the Advent Calendar of Christmas Memories – Day 2.

Copyright © 2007 by Stephen J. Danko

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3 Responses to The Wonders of Mercury Glass and Tinsel

  1. Another covert clumper – I love it!

  2. Jasia says:

    Your beautiful writing comes out in this touching post, Steve. Thanks for sharing. I remember those old mercury glass ornaments. In fact I’m certain that some of the ones I inherited from my mom are just that.

  3. suburbanlife says:

    Once in a while one comes upon the old mercury glass ornaments in second-hand stores, and they are wonderful to see, because their whimsy is so much more fun to look at than what passes for sophisticated decorations these days. I love it that you were a tinsel tosser. That stuff built up a terrific charge in cold winter climates and was a pain to put on strand by strand, as it stuck to sweaters and pants and practically leaped off the branches onto people passing close by the tree. I hate to admit it but I love tinsel, and if our cat didn’t insist on eating it and walk about with tinsel strands trailing from his rectum, I’d still use it. G

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