The ceramic Christmas tree is back! Why the retro holiday decoration is everywhere this year

In Jim Bulleit
In Jim Bulleit's Indiana Ceramics Studio.Courtesy of Jim Bulleit
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When I called the ceramist Jim Bulleit in his Indiana workshop the week before Christmas, he had a waiting list of 15 people who wanted him to make table Christmas trees. "Can you wait a second?" he asked as soon as he picked up. "I'm talking to a customer about a tree. She told me how she wanted her old one to be replaced."
This is a really common story, said Bulleit. Ceramics, especially older ones, are fragile and accidents occur when they are pulled from long-term storage. This results in a small but significant annual influx of calls to Bulleit from panicked people finding that they broke their mother or grandmother's vintage tree right before the vacation.
He can usually help. He has a collection of vintage shapes from the '70s and' 80s ("The top years for American ceramics," says Bulleit) and will spend hours each year with customers breaking down blurry family photos and smeared Polaroids to figure out which tree is the same is to the one they saw in their parents' house.
This year, however, said Bulleit, is a little different.
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"Ceramic trees have become increasingly popular because they're cool again," he said. "People have been driving her crazy over the last few years."
At first I only contacted Bulleit about this; I grew up with my great grandmother's ceramic Christmas tree as part of my mother's Christmas show. It's about 3 feet tall and a sort of opal white, dotted with tiny colored plastic bulbs. I assumed it was just a one-off decoration that she made in an art studio in her hometown of Virginia, but this year I saw them everywhere: Instagram pages for my favorite flea markets, an Etsy page that promises faithful replicas, Facebook Marketplace, Michael's craft shop.
I posted a photo of my great grandmother on social media and dozens of people replied with pictures of their own. There was a lot of overlap in the stories, though commentators from across North America got involved. Rhode Island, Colorado, Florida, Alabama, and Toronto. Many were either as glossy milky white or deep forest green (sometimes with snow-capped peaks), all with little twinkling lights. There was a lot of overlap in the shape, as if they were all from one of several shapes, and they all appeared to have been made by someone - mom, grandmother, aunt - taking a ceramics class.
Bulleit's mother was one of those women.
"They had garden parties, mahjong parties, and ceramic parties in the 60s and 70s," he said. "You go to someone's house, sit around with the greens, carve it all up, and then they fire it and come back and paint it. It just got really popular."
The holiday versions of these parties, where attendees could create ceramic Santas, nativity scenes, nutcrackers (and yes table trees), were hugely popular, especially because they coincided with the development of commercially cheaper lights and better shapes. These came from a few manufacturers such as Atlantic, Newell's and McNees, which is why most of the family's heirloom trees look the same regardless of the family.
These parties and classes remained popular for the rest of the decade, and people like Roxanne Hawn's mother continued to attend.
"My mother's best friend in high school owned a ceramics store," said Hawn, who lives in Golden, Colorado. "I'm pretty sure she made the tree as part of a class in her friend's shop. I don't see a date on the bottom of the tree itself, but I also made a Santa and a wife, Santa, and Santa Claus got 1979 on his foot. She probably made them all at once - or at least a year or two apart. "
But then the 80s hit and as Bulleit put it, copying the slogan of the now defunct "Ceramics Magazine", ceramics was no longer "America's most fascinating hobby". A number of ceramics stores and mold makers closed or consolidated during the 1990s when an influx of ready-made ceramics flooded the market. Over the next 30 years, ceramic trees entered the nasty outdated phase that so often falls between trend and vintage.
Now they are back on the market and are being enthusiastically received. The prices vary. Some of the vintage trees in pristine condition are $ 250 online, while one of Bulleit's bespoke trees starts at $ 120. He jokes that if people want something in the $ 40-50 price range, "they should check the Cracker Barrel" (I did - they cost $ 49.99 and have sold out for weeks).
Nicole Slaughter Graham, who lives in St. Petersburg, Florida, found hers at Home Goods and said she "immediately started tearing up and buying it". It's a pearly white color and looks like her grandmother's.
"This is my first Christmas that I don't see my extended family of 18 because of the pandemic, and that has been really difficult for me," she said. “My grandparents were a big part of raising me and decorating their house for Christmas was always one of my favorite things to do during the holiday season. Last year my grandmother sold her house so it was the first year we didn't have a Christmas to her House."
She continued, "I always thought while she was still alive I could at least see her for Christmas, but the pandemic took that away from me so buying the tree wasn't even a choice. It was just something I had to do to feel a semblance of normalcy. "
Slaughter Graham encounters some of the unique charms these decorations have for consumers this year. For individuals spending Christmas alone, the ceramic trees are a way to honor the holiday without indulging in or making space for a traditional tree and ornaments, especially since they are fully decorated.
Such was the case for Birmingham-based writer and editor Sarra Sedghi, who found her $ 50 ceramic tree on the Facebook Marketplace.
"I didn't put up a Christmas tree this year, so the ceramic tree is beautiful as I don't have many decorations of my own," she said.
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There is a certain nostalgia factor in the game as they are reminiscent of simpler holidays. This is the element of attraction of the ceramic tree that Bulleit perhaps most appeals to. He has dozens of stories about people - grizzled motorcycle club members, college kids, newlyweds - who come to him for a little vacation magic.
"This year it really reminds you of a time when Christmas didn't have to be avoided," said Bulleit.

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