Hark! The herald Christmas angels

NEW YORK – “Fear not” are usually the first words of an angel, described as a messenger with direct access to God and Heaven. It’s one of the reasons why they are so omnipresent during the winter holidays like Christmas, Hanukkah and other religious observances.

Originally from the Late Greek ángelos, angels may even have an earlier possibly Persian reference that is documented before the Christian era. In most religions, an angel is interpreted in art as having a human-like form complete with wings of feathers and, sometimes, a halo. While they are described as being a guide or messenger from God, it’s also suggested that an angel is a metaphor for the struggle of morality and spirituality of the conscience.

Over time, the angel has played a direct role in a religious context, mostly to tell stories of the season, particularly Christmas. The Archangel Gabriel, for example, is the one who informs Mary that she is to become the mother of the Son of God and to name him Jesus, meaning Yahweh or salvation in the Annunciation, a full nine months before his birth. It was an angel that appeared in the dreams of Joseph to spirit the baby Jesus away from King Herod’s murderous search for him.

One of the early commercially available holiday angels beginning in the late 19th century was this lovely embossed, hand-gilded tree topper made in the German state of Thuringia from 1880 to 1914 and are the most coveted of early tree toppers and ornaments. This almost perfectly preserved Dresden angel sold for $650 + the buyer’s premium in 2014. Image courtesy Bertoia Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

As a Christmas Tree Topper

So it’s no surprise that an angel figures greatly during the Christmas season. Except for the figure of Santa Claus or St. Nicholas, an angel is the most collected of all Christmas ornaments.

Its popularity began in a castle. An indoor lighted and decorated Christmas tree was featured in the Illustrated London News in 1848 at the royal residence of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England. Both born of German heritage, it wasn’t unusual for them to feature an indoor evergreen during the Christmas season. It’s been done since at least the early 16th century.

What was particularly inspiring for the newspaper reader, though, was that the top of the tree featured an angel evoking the Archangel Gabriel and the Annunciation. Today an angel, along with the star of Bethlehem, continues to be the most popular Christmas tree toppers.

As a Christmas Tree Ornament

With an indoor evergreen tree more common by the late 19th century in America, early decoration consisted mainly of handmade colored paper, fruit and candles. More fanciful hand-blown glass ornaments from the German state of Thuringia were imported by the 1870s beginning the introduction of more commercial varieties that families added to each year.

From 1880 to about 1914, highly detailed fitted paper ornaments handmade in Dresden, Germany were being imported into Great Britain. Because these Dresdens, as they’re known by collectors, were not expected to survive from year to year, they are considered some of the most collectible ornaments today.

An unusual example of a wax covered angel that was popular in the late 19th century that features inset glass eyes, colorful fabric and doll’s hair. Containing a music box that plays two tunes, it sold for about $928 + the buyer’s premium in 2018. Image courtesy Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GBMH and LiveAuctioneers

Guarding the Christmas Creche

At the birth of Jesus, celebrated on Dec. 25, angels appeared to shepherds to announce that, “Today your Savior, Christ the Lord, was born in [Bethlehem where you] will find an infant wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger,” according to the Bible’s Book of Luke, chapter 2.

The stories of the season tell of the Roman need for a census of its citizens and so Joseph and Mary traveled back to Nazareth for the final count. However, because so many were traveling, space for the birth was found only in a sheep stable where a manger was the only bed available. Even in this humble place, angels appeared to herald the coming of Jesus and to direct others like the Three Kings with light and celebration.

To help tell the story, nativity scenes are set up in a prominent place in homes, complete with angels that guard the manger or creche (French for crib). Look for figures of Jesus, Mary, Joseph, animals and Three Wise Men to complete a set. Most were made from painted ceramic from Germany in the late 19th century, but chalkware from Fonanini in Italy and detailed papier-mache ones from the 1940s to 1950s are also collectible in very good condition, but usually available for under $100. Ceramic or crystal angels from Mikasa and Lenox continue to remain popular with collectors and usually available at auction for under $30.

Painted chalkware was most commonly used for the seasonal creche and usually included an angel that was sometimes identified as the Archangel Gabriel similar to this mid-20th century version recently auctioned for only $5 + the buyer’s premium. While popular, chalkware chipped easily and the colors often faded. An example in very good condition is difficult to find at auction.
Image courtesy Vidi Vici Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

And Throughout the Season

By the early 20th century, America was importing ceramic angel figurines by the Japanese company Yona. They became one of the most collectible of the 1940s and 1950s because of the detailed hand-painted facial expressions and that they were incorporated into candle holders, wall hangings and table decoration. Each angel easily matched the holiday spirit and are routinely available for under $30.

Other more realistic angels were made of spun glass, delicate fabrics, and even wax figures were also very popular, but difficult to find excellent condition. By the 1950s, though, the molded, plastic angel became the more commercially successful version.

Three German spun cotton Christmas ornaments including two angels, late 19th or early 20th century, all with some paper elements and printed applied face, about 4½in high. Sold for $425 + the buyer’s premium in December 2019. Image courtesy Locati LLC and LiveAuctioneers.

What Collectors Look For

According to goldenglow.org, an online Christmas-themed website, “… angels have been crafted using a variety of techniques including hand-carved from wood, poured wax … papier-mache, clay, pressed cardboard, paper, fabric, bisque, porcelain, glass … tin, lead and almost any other readily available material.

“Interestingly,” they continue,” angels made from celluloid are virtually unknown.” So the variety of angel collectibles is rather large and varied with most available only from the early 19th century.

Mynativity.com recommends Italian papier mache angels from Fontanini beginning in 1908 until production switched to plastic by the 1960s. Early ceramic Hummel figurines from the World War II era still command auction interest rather than the later more commercial production period. Just note that each Hummel figurine with a copyright date embossed at the bottom only suggests when it was introduced, not when it was manufactured.

These German-made glass angel ornaments are an example of the fine hand-painted detail collectors of early 20th century ornaments look for at auction. They sold for about $920 + the buyer’s premium in 2016. Image courtesy Ladenburger Spielzeugauktion GBMH and LiveAuctioneers

Any Victorian-era angel (1840s to the early 1900s) will always have an enormous collector interest from the because production was more limited. The brighter the colors and the more intact, the higher the auction value is overall.

Without exception, the colorfully embossed, hand-painted Dresden angels are the most sought after with auction values easily beginning at several hundred dollars for good to very good examples. Products of a cottage industry and made of cardboard, they weren’t especially intended to last generations, so they are also difficult to find in exceptional condition.

As a Guardian

The presence of an angel during the Christmas season does seem to trumpet joy and celebration. Still, whether angels were messengers or guides from God in human form or are only metaphorical manifestations of our collective conscience, perhaps in the end, angels are just ordinary people that are intended as guardian angels for each other, not just for a holiday season, but all year-round.