Vintage collection evokes holiday memories

There’s a saying. What’s old is new. In the case of Robin Young, it might be more accurate to say what’s old is as good as new. The Claremont resident has one of the most carefully preserved collections of vintage ornaments and holiday decorations around.

She’s got a number of items that pre-date World War I. These include a celluloid Santa Claus from the early 1900s, with his sleigh—in those pre-“Rudolph” days—drawn by a single reindeer. It was given to Ms. Young’s father, Ted Pattberg, when he was a boy.

 She also has a clutch of glass Christmas ornaments from the 1920s to 1930s that her paternal grandmother, Louise Pattberg, brought from Austria. They are fashioned in cunning shapes like an owl, a Santa, bouquet of flowers and a bunch of grapes.

The majority of Ms. Young’s holiday goods, however, hail from the ‘50s and ‘60s, including an aluminum Sputnik topper guaranteed to bring a touch of space-age charm to any tree.

Christmas-ware from that era offered charm aplenty, as seen in the treasure trove of cheer-inducing décor like Shiny-Brite ornaments and Holt Howard ceramics purchased by Ms. Young’s mother Alvena.

A winking Santa pitcher waits to pour eggnog into Santa-shaped tumblers whose respective handles spell out the word “Noel.” A pair of ceramic candleholders, each featuring a mouse slumbering in a tiny bed, stands ready to be filled with flickering candles. And a white ceramic poinsettia with gold trim offers the perfect repository for peppermints or ribbon candy.

A couple of Ms. Young’s Christmas heirlooms she values more for their kitsch appeal than for their grace.

For instance, she is the proud owner of a snow-suited figure made of chenille pipe stems, which she swears is the spitting image of “the thing on the wing” set on dismantling William Shatner’s plane in The Twilight Zone.

Much of her motivation for making the most of Christmas past is aesthetic. Ms. Young, whose Claremont apartment is decorated with mid-century modern pieces, loves the look and feel of furnishings and housewares from late 1940s to the 1960s.

“The pottery and ceramics that were mass-produced after the war had staying power,” she explained. “They were better-crafted and manufactured than most things are today. Everyone could have something of some style, even if it was a candy dish.”

Ms. Young, manager of donor relations for the Planetary Society, also keeps her collection in tact, and brings it out once the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone, out of nostalgia. This was the yuletide decor of her grandparents and of her mom and dad, all of whom are now gone.

This past year, Ms. Young settled into some new digs and, as it happens, the back of her unit faces the back of the unit where her mother lived for the last years of her life. A crepe myrtle currently cloaked in fall foliage, which she planted in her mom’s patio, has grown tall in the intervening years.

Things that bring back memories of her family, from tree to tree trimmings, are bittersweet.

“It would feel worse to throw all of these items away and all of this tradition and start over,” Ms. Young said. “That doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Ms. Young takes a curatorial approach toward the items with which she decks her halls. The ornaments, she notes, are “very carefully wrapped in tissues and go into compartmentalized ornament boxes.”

When the COURIER stopped by her house last weekend, she retrieved a white ceramic Christmas tree dusted with mica snow, its plastic colored lights illuminated by electricity. She unearthed the knickknack, unscathed by time, from its original box and unwound it from its original batting. “That tree’s probably my favorite thing out of all the Christmas crap,” she says.

California dreaming

Many of Ms. Young’s Christmas decorations stem from a time when her parents, East Coast transplants, were forging a new life. In 1946, Ted and Alvena, who lived in Queens in Long Island, visited southern California with both sets of parents. The sunny climate made a positive impression on the sextet.

“It was March,” Ms. Young said. “They were playing pinochle and there was a blizzard outside. They said, ‘Why don’t we go back and stay?’”

They did just that. Ted and Alvena purchased a home in Claremont in 1962 and adopted the then six-month-old Robin. The Pattbergs had been married for 20 years by the time they welcomed their daughter.

“I benefited from that,” Ms. Young said. “They had traveled and done everything they wanted to do. They were adults.”   

Her holiday collection takes Ms. Young back to her childhood when, typically a week before Christmas, her parents would throw a cocktail party.

The house would be replete with holiday décor, including an artificial tree; Ms. Young’s mother shuddered at the thought of cleaning up pine needles. There were appetizers, like Swedish meatballs steaming in a chafing dish and trays of rumaki, a mock-Polynesian delicacy Alvena made that consisted of water chestnuts topped with chicken livers, wrapped in bacon and broiled.

A batch of eggnog, spiked with rum or brandy, was whipped up for ceremonial purposes but a libation like an Old-Fashioned or Screwdriver was more guests’ speed. Also available for visitors’ pleasure was a table lighter and matching ashtray as well as a lacquered box of cigarettes.

“Everyone was smoking. Even my 65-year-old grandmother was smoking,” she recalled.

As a tow-headed tot in holiday finery, Robin was always a big hit at the shindig.

“My mother would dress me up like a friggin’ lampshade and trot me out,” she said. “I remember serving drinks.”

In many cases, Christmas isn’t about tradition anymore, Ms. Young said.  “There are people who get an entirely new fake tree, ornaments and blow-up thing for the yard every year,” she noted. 

On the contrary, she, as always, will be bringing out the things that are old, cherished and memory-drenched.

“These are talismans of my growing up years,” she said.

—Sarah Torribo


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