10 Tips for Collecting Vintage Christmas Decorations

It's Time to Bring Back the Holiday Magic

Vintage mid-1950's Santa and reindeer in the original packaging
"Santa and Reindeer c. 1950's" by Jim, the Photographer / CC BY 2.0 / Flickr

Do today's Christmas aisles make your heart as heart happy as the holiday decorations from your past? If not, it may be time to start a vintage Christmas collection. If you're ready to bring back the magic, here are 10 tips for collecting vintage Christmas decorations:

1. Join Vintage Christmas Collectors' Groups

When you're just starting out, collectors' groups are invaluable resources. You'll learn a lot just by reading the posts from members -- and their photos will make you long for vintage Christmas decorations you've never even thought of collecting.

They'll also have wonderful tips about where best to find the exact objects you're looking for.

The experienced members are usually helpful on a personal level as well. If you're out shopping and spot something you're not sure about, post a photo and they'll help you identify the item, authenticate it, or even tell you if the asking price is reasonable. And, as a bonus, they're thrilled to gloat with you when you snag a fabulous find — even if it's the middle of July. 

To connect with those who share your year-round holiday passion, look for vintage Christmas collectors' groups on Facebook and other social media sites. You can also join more formal collectors' groups with paid memberships, such as The Golden Glow of Christmas Past.

2. Search for Vintage Christmas Collectibles All Year

Serious vintage Christmas enthusiasts make treasure hunting a year-round event for several reasons:

  • You have to snag the stuff when it's available.
  • There's more competition for the good pieces when people start putting up holiday decorations.
  • Vintage Christmas decorations cost more during the Christmas season.

Though some thrift stores, flea market dealers, and antique mall booths save the Christmas stuff for the holiday season, others keep it out all year.

Keep your eyes open. 

Yard sales and estate sales happen when they happen, so you'll have to shop all year to snag the vintage Christmas stuff.. Estate sales are particularly choice sources of vintage Christmas because they sell the deceased owner's cherished objects, not just the castoffs. To increase your chances at yard sales, plan your route around the sales in the oldest parts of town. 

You'll find vintage Christmas ornaments and other decorations for sale on eBay and other online auction sites all year — and you'll be competing with fewer bidders if you buy during the off season. Dedicated Facebook yard sale groups just for Christmas collectibles also let members buy and sell all year.

3. Put the Word Out

When you decide to start collecting vintage Christmas, tell your family and friends. You might also mention it to friendly colleagues and people who belong to shared organizations, such as fellow church or book club members. You never know who'd be happy to unload some of that old stuff in the attic.

Once you put the word out, you'll be surprised by how many people offer something (to sell or as a gift) you might want. 

4. Look in Unconventional Places

Don't rely just on the conventional secondhand sources for your vintage Christmas collection.

Get creative and think of other places where you might find them. 

If you loved the light pole decorations in the small town where your grew up, for example, find out what happened to them if they're no longer in use. The city might be willing to sell you a few if they're just sitting around in storage. The same goes for commercial decorations you remember from local stores and restaurants.

You might also ask the director of a senior citizens center if you can put up a flyer or hand out some cards. If they use newer stuff now, some of the members might be thrilled to clear out some Christmas clutter and make some extra cash.

5. Run Wanted to Buy Ads in the Off Season

You don't have to wait for someone to offer vintage Christmas decorations for sale. Place your own"wanted to buy" or "in search of" ads (ISO for short online) on Craigslist and your local Facebook yard sale sites during the off season.

You can place them during the holiday season too, but the prices will go up.

Go ahead and place a paid ad in the classifieds of your local newspaper too. Some of the potential sellers old enough to have the oldest Christmas decorations may not use the online sites.

6. Don't Hold Out for Perfection

If you want to decorate your home with vintage holiday pieces, you have to give up the idea of perfection.

Don't buy something that's too damaged to use, but living with scratches and a bit of paint loss is just part of going vintage. You'll occasionally find perfect pieces new in the box, but not always. Just think of the imperfections as the scars of age and learn to love them.

7. Fill in the Gaps While You Build Your Collection

Unless you're willing to spend big bucks on eBay and Etsy, you probably won't find everything you want in your first season of collecting vintage Christmas — probably not even in your first year.

Until you do, don't fill in the gaps with reproductions. That's a waste of cash. If you already have newer decorations you can mix in, that's fine. Otherwise, look for some low-cost vintage items, such as plain glass ball ornaments. They're lovely, but less collectible because they're so easy to find.

You can often pick up boxes of old Pyramid and Coby glass balls for 50 cents to a dollar a box. Even Walmart's older Holiday Time glass ball ornaments suit the look. To make sure actually getting the old ones, look for "Made in USA" on the boxes, and sometimes on the ornament caps. Also, make sure the caps are a dull silver-toned metal instead of shiny gold.

8. Look for Original Packaging

More often than not, your favorite vintage Christmas finds will not come with the original packaging and that's fine, but it's great if you can find it. If you're considering two eBay auctions for identical objects, for example, bid on the one with the intact packaging, even if it's been previously opened. Here's why:

  • Original packaging adds value to your collection, even if you never plan to sell.
  • Original packaging helps protect the objects, because that's what it was designed to do.
  • Original packaging helps you identify the brand and authenticate the item.

9. Make Sure It's Really Old

As with any antique or vintage category that's become collectible, you will encounter reproductions — probably lots of them. They're all over the retail stores every single holiday season, and some of them will make their way to the yard sales, antique malls, and flea markets. 

You can look at the packaging to tell if something is really old, if you find an object that still has it. If the graphics look old enough to be vintage, look at the packaging to see if it has a bar code. Things from the seventies and earlier don't.

If you have the original box or bag, the brand name also helps you identify authentic vintage items. Some of the biggest names are Holt Howard, Lefton, Shiny Brite (except for Christopher Radko Shiny Brite), JewelBrite, and Gurley (candles).

Also, look at the country of origin on the packaging and on loose items. If it was made in Japan, Poland, or West Germany, it's vintage. Decorations made in the USA are usually vintage as well. If it's marked "Made in China," it's not. 

10. Buy What You Love

Presumably you're collecting vintage Christmas decorations because the associated nostalgia makes you happy. Unless you're buying to resell, buy what you love — even if it's not the hottest item of the moment.

If you love the look and fragrance of a real tree, for example, don't spend hundreds on an old aluminum Christmas tree just because everyone else in your collectors' group is hunting for one. Or, if you just don't like the kitschy stuff, leave the knee-hugger elves at the estate sale for another collector.