Col­lect­ing the Past

‘If I had a big­ger house, there would be more Christ­mas’

Grand Magazine - - FEATURE - BY JA­NINE TOMS

Tom Reitz be­lieves ev­ery­one is a col­lec­tor at heart. “I don’t care who you are, you’re col­lect­ing some­thing,” says Reitz, for­mer cu­ra­tor of Doon Her­itage Vil­lage. “I be­lieve there’s some­thing in peo­ple’s psy­che, a need to col­lect.”

For Reitz, that “need” re­volves around Christ­mas or­na­ments.

Even in child­hood, he was fas­ci­nated with the dec­o­ra­tions on his fam­ily’s Christ­mas tree, es­pe­cially those passed down from his grand­par­ents.

“They were so del­i­cate and spe­cial. To me, it was a grand oc­ca­sion each year when they came out of stor­age.”

An­other layer of beau­ti­ful im­agery was added while he was at­tend­ing grad­u­ate school at East­ern Illinois Univer­sity. Reitz and his class­mates were in­vited to a pro­fes­sor’s home at Christ­mas where the tree was cov­ered with an­tique or­na­ments.

“It was just stun­ningly beau­ti­ful, with all these tiny blue lights,” he re­calls. “I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I had never seen any­thing like it.”

Reitz earned a mas­ter’s de­gree in his­tor­i­cal ad­min­is­tra­tion and be­came cu­ra­tor of Doon Her­itage Cross­roads, now known as Doon Her­itage Vil­lage and part of the Water­loo Re­gion Mu­se­ums. He was at the helm 31 years, re­tir­ing in 2016.

A large part of the mu­seum’s pro­gram­ming has al­ways been based around Christ­mas, and Reitz’s per­sonal in­ter­est was also grow­ing.

In his early days on the job, Reitz be­came ac­quainted with Bob and Edith Lenz, the own­ers of a hol­i­day-in­spired store­front at Sawmill An­tiques in Ro­seville, Ont.

“Ev­ery­where was Christ­mas, things that I will never see again, beau­ti­ful things,” says Reitz, 59.

As a fledg­ling col­lec­tor, he cred­its the Len­zes with teach­ing him what to look for. “Both Bob and Edith were very gen­er­ous with their knowl­edge.”

The Len­zes were also mem­bers of the Golden Glow of Christ­mas Past, an Amer­i­can-based col­lec­tors’ or­ga­ni­za­tion. Now 1,600-mem­bers strong, with more than 10,000 fol­low­ers on Face­book, the group meets each year for a four-day con­ven­tion that in­cludes key­note speak­ers and ex­hibits of the mem­bers’ finest col­lec­tions.

Reitz joined in 2012, when he felt his col­lec­tion was siz­able enough – and he knew that he needed to learn more. He soon be­friended like-minded en­thu­si­asts from around the world.

Mem­bers sup­port one an­other in their search for spe­cific items, share his­tor­i­cal in­for­ma­tion, as well as give ad­vice on how to tell re­pro­duc­tions from orig­i­nals, and how to care for and store col­lec­tions.

“These col­lec­tors come from all types of back­grounds and what ties them to­gether is their love of Christ­mas,” Reitz says.

Reitz’s fo­cus is on glass or­na­ments from the 1930s to the 1960s, and last year he had them smartly dis­played on 10 “trees” made from dyed goose feath­ers twisted on wire. They re­flect ar­ti­fi­cial trees that would have been avail­able from the 1880s to the early 1900s, and they make a great back­drop for his fan­tas­tic col­lec­tion.

“I as­sure you, if I had a big­ger house, there would be more Christ­mas,” Reitz notes as he showed a vis­i­tor around his Cam­bridge home.

The trees vary in heights; one is even a nov­elty half-tree that hangs flush against the wall. Each tree is a dif­fer­ent colour, in shades of green, red, pur­ple, white and blue.

Each tree is themed. One ta­ble-top va­ri­ety is laden with glass candy canes made in the 1940s in New York. “I just like them. I thought they were so neat so I went a lit­tle nuts and started buy­ing them when­ever I saw them.”

The world of glass Christ­mas dec­o­ra­tions started in Ger­many in the late 1800s, Reitz says. Dur­ing the Sec­ond World War, or­na­ment pro­duc­tion shifted to the U.S.,

be­fore later spread­ing around the world.

Reitz has an en­tire tree dec­o­rated with or­na­ments from the 1940s when metal caps and hooks were re­placed with pa­per, and or­na­ments’ in­te­ri­ors went un­sil­vered be­cause the metal and sil­ver­ing com­pounds were needed for the Al­lied war ef­fort.

But many of Reitz’s prized or­na­ments are from Ger­many. Even the tin­sel adorn­ing his trees is shipped from Europe. Its thicker, heav­ier form is the same lead-foil va­ri­ety com­monly used in North Amer­ica from the 1920s through the 1960s.

With each tree draped in sil­ver or gold tin­sel, at least five are packed with glass Christ­mas bells. Each bell has its own tiny clap­per, giv­ing them a chance to ring out. A few of these smaller trees can be found in the liv­ing room and din­ing room of the 1,000-square-foot bun­ga­low.

Not ev­ery or­na­ment is an­tique or vin­tage. “Some of this is just for fun,” he says. One ex­am­ple is a minty green feather tree in the front room of the house, its mod­ern green glass dec­o­ra­tions a far cry from his vin­tage or­na­ments.

The largest tree in his col­lec­tion stands promi­nently in the liv­ing room at about 2½ me­tres tall. It is laden with an­tique or­na­ments, and small wax can­dles are at­tached to the tree in dec­o­ra­tive metal clips.

“I can’t imag­ine light­ing the can­dles but 100 years ago peo­ple did,” Reitz says. “No doubt with a bucket of wa­ter nearby.”

Each tree fea­tures a dif­fer­ent, brightly painted glass tree top­per with a pointed tip. It’s the quin­tes­sen­tial fin­ish­ing touch.

Reitz pur­chased his home 27 years ago from the fam­ily of the orig­i­nal own­ers. The hand­some house, a 1923 crafts­man-style Amer­i­can bun­ga­low, has re­mained largely true to its orig­i­nal vin­tage.

It boasts dark rich wood base­boards, trim, doors and oak floor­ing, but the rarest fea­ture of all is the or­nate 1930s hand­painted bor­ders in the liv­ing and din­ing rooms. The de­sign dis­plays urns of flow­ers and song­birds with gar­lands of roses and rib­bon, painted by the grand­fa­ther of the pre­vi­ous home­own­ers.

“The house was so well pre­served and so well cared for by the peo­ple that came be­fore me,” Reitz says. The homestead has been fea­tured in the an­nual Her­itage Cam­bridge His­toric House Tour.

Reitz has com­ple­mented the painted

bor­ders in the din­ing room with wall­pa­per with an ap­pro­pri­ate pe­riod de­sign by Wil­liam Mor­ris. The pa­per, en­ti­tled “Straw­berry Thief,” brims with vines, birds and berries.

On the din­ing room ta­ble and side­board sits a siz­able col­lec­tion of an­tique glass candy jars from the late 1800s, one of which is half-full of brightly coloured gum drops. Reitz was en­chanted by these jars as a child and has sought them out ever since. An­other Christ­mas gar­land hangs just above the en­trance to the room. Perched upon it are a num­ber of an­tique and re­pro­duc­tion glass bird Christ­mas or­na­ments, each with a white spun-glass tail.

It’s the at­ten­tion to de­tail that gives the house a look and feel of times gone by. Light­ing through­out has been retrofitted with pe­riod-ap­pro­pri­ate fix­tures. And fur­nish­ings are an­tique or well-made re­pro­duc­tions of quar­ter sawn oak, re­flect­ing the Arts and Crafts pe­riod. On the walls hang count­less orig­i­nal paint­ings of fa­mil­iar lo­cal land­scapes.

As a child, Reitz was in­flu­enced by his par­ents’ art col­lec­tion, but his house wasn’t al­ways as well out­fit­ted as it is to­day. When he moved in, Reitz ad­mits, the din­ing room fur­ni­ture con­sisted of two Ikea chairs and a ratty old ta­ble.

Liv­ing in a house filled with beau­ti­ful things, it can be hard to know whether to make use of these items or merely ad­mire them. Reitz’s ap­proach is to en­joy them.

“You’ve got to live with your an­tiques, it’s not a mu­seum. I can’t live in a place where I can’t kick up my heels and re­lax.”

Adding to his col­lec­tion on an on­go­ing ba­sis, Reitz buys from a num­ber of places in­clud­ing es­tate sales, thrift stores, auc­tions and on­line. While the ul­ti­mate goal is to own orig­i­nals, he has no qualms about buy­ing re­pro­duc­tions. He cau­tions, how­ever, that you need to know what you’re buy­ing.

“If you aren’t pay­ing at­ten­tion, you can get taken, and end up pay­ing the price of an

Tom Reitz’s col­lec­tion of or­na­ments is pre­dom­i­nantly made up of bells of all shapes and sizes.

ABOVE: Tom Reitz poses with one of his dec­o­rated Christ­mas trees in his home in Cam­bridge. RIGHT: Among Tom Reitz’s Christ­mas or­na­ments is this glass dec­o­ra­tion, part of a col­lec­tion from the early to mid-20th cen­tury.

A small tree, dec­o­rated with a se­lec­tion of bells, co­zies into a set­ting of clear glass con­tain­ers – an­other of Reitz’s col­lect­ing hob­bies.

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