Forget the ten lords a-leaping, the eight maids a-milking, and the partridge in a pear tree. In the East Hampton house of Charles Keller and Glenn Purcell, the verses of “The Twelve Days of Christmas” might sound more like ten Victorian cherubs, eight vintage pinecones, and a glass swan in an antique feather tree.
Mr. Keller and Mr. Purcell are collectors of ornaments that represent Christmases past, dating to the mid-19th century. A peek at their collection — which numbers 500 to 600 — is a trip back in time not just to the days of their youth, but to the days of their great-grandparents’ youth.
The sugared plums and sugar bowls and tea kettles shimmered in the light filtering through a side window in their house on Accabonac Road on a holiday visit. Wires still shine around glass baubles in the shape of hot-air balloons, which were crafted around the time air travel was becoming a cultural fixation. An entire tree is dedicated to ornaments in the shapes of fish or fowl. Representations of Halley’s Comet, which made an appearance in 1910, inspired ornaments featuring glimmering globes with tails of tinsel. Many of their delicate and rare paper ornaments are from Dresden, Germany, and survived only because they were brought to other countries before World War II.
“I’m not a Christmas ornament historian, but when you start examining the history, there are stories that some of these can tell, and you start to enjoy them,” Mr. Keller said.
But Mr. Keller and Mr. Purcell say the appeal of the collection isn’t merely the vintage aesthetic or the historical significance: It’s the excitement of the hunt, the thrill of finding them locally at antique shops and yard sales, which, as we know, are abundant here. This is the time of year when ornaments can be found at local antique shops; at other times in the year, yard sales are the place to go. The two collectors admit that they are frequent visitors to both. When we find them, it’s always a delight,” Mr. Keller said.
“The holidays are one of our favorite times out here. We love to collect, and this is the season for it. It’s a lot of fun. It’s something nostalgic,” Mr. Purcell said.
In particular, they like to pick up ornaments at Sage Street Antiques in Sag Harbor, for which Eliza Warner scours local yard sales. “We love her eye. She has great taste,” Mr. Purcell said.
With many ornaments received as gifts, they also treasure the process of taking each one out of its storage box and thinking of the person from whom those gifts came.
Mr. Purcell and Mr. Keller are known here as expert collectors of furniture and clocks from the renowned Dominy woodworkers and clock-makers. They also collect artwork by East End artists. Their appreciation for local history stems from their house itself, a traditional East Hampton house that dates to 1898.
“The furniture would have been what was in this house. There would have been these types of ornaments in the house as well,” Mr. Keller said.“We love to preserve local history,” he added. “Our passion has spilled into Christmas ornaments . . . I don’t think people would be surprised to find out we have a collection of this type.”
In fact, Mr. Purcell said, when they moved into their house in 1993, they found some odds and ends left by the previous owners in corners of the attic. Among then were postcards from 1911 and a few Christmas ornaments.
Their collection is a stark contrast to modern ornaments, which Mr. Keller says seem to focus on Santa Claus and his elves. It is perhaps a statement in itself on how Christmas is celebrated these days. In the old days, he said, “Families took an active part in decorating the tree. You don’t find that as much these days. Kids are more interested in what’s under the tree rather than what’s on it.”
The ornaments are displayed on trees that themselves are antiques. They are feather trees, which were in vogue during the 1930s, when many were produced in America and Germany. Feather trees are made from goose or turkey feathers which were split down the middle and wrapped or spiraled around wire branches.
“They have a certain nostalgia that people like,” Mr. Keller said. Taking them out and beginning to decorate right after Thanksgiving is “a way to celebrate the season at home,” he said.
“We do enjoy the season and the trees symbolize that for us. It’s actually fun for us to take the ornaments out every year, look at them, and enjoy them for their beauty and their history.”
PLACES FOR THE HUNT
Those wishing to find their own joy in collecting old Christmas ornaments may find them in several local shops in addition to yard sales. They include:
The Ladies Village Improvement Society Thrift Shop: 95 Main Street, East Hampton.
Barbara Trujillo Antiques: 2466 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton.
Sage Street Antiques: 114 Division Street, Sag Harbor.
Nellie’s of Amagansett: 230 Main Street, Amagansett.
Bonac Buy and Sell: 8 Washington Avenue, East Hampton.
St. Ann’s Thrift Shop: 2463 Main Street, Bridgehampton.
The Retreat Boutique: 2102 Montauk Highway, Bridgehampton.