Gifts of Christmas Past

Odd Collections, People, Seasonal, Traditions
on December 15, 2002

A box of ornaments that Bob Brenner bought more than 30 years ago sparked in him a deep curiosity about Christmas and its decorating customs, the results of which are now his gift to others.

Brenner, 57, bought the ornaments at an auction in 1968, his first year of teaching high school English in Princeton, Wis. (pop. 1,504).

“The auctioneer could not get $1 for an entire box of ornaments,” recalls Brenner, now a leading authority on Christmas customs and decorations. “Suddenly I raised my hand, because I knew I was going to decorate my first tree away from home and the price was right.”

When the box was passed back, Brenner found a treasure trove of childhood memories: a red-coated Santa Claus, a working bugle and horn, miniature German houses, and songbirds with spun-glass tails. A tiny cottage ornament, like one he remembered from his grandmother’s tree, especially sparked his interest.

Wanting to know the origins of the ornaments and how they were made, Brenner started research in the mid-1970s that led to his first book, Christmas Past (1985). After trips to Europe to uncover facts about German, Italian, and Polish-made ornaments and decorations, Brenner started lecturing on the subject in 1986. More books followed, including Christmas: 1949-1959, published last spring, and his newest offering, Christmas: 1960-Present.

Over the years, Brenner has amassed thousands of Christmas collectibles from the last century. Even his wife, Sharon—a high school business teacher in nearby Montello—has gotten involved. She collects holiday items such as bubble lights, milk glass figural lights, and snow babies, which she remembers from her childhood.

Now each December, the Brenners play Mr. and Mrs. Claus for two days, inviting visitors to view the more than 30 theme-decorated Christmas trees inside their holiday bedecked home, giving all donations from the event back to the community. This year’s open house is scheduled Dec. 27 and 28.

The Brenners start decorating their home the day after Thanksgiving, sandwiching the enormous task between teaching responsibilities. Through the years they’ve been assisted by Eric Stensrud, 24, a friend who has helped decorate since he was 12.

“People always wanted to give us money, and we just didn’t want it,” says Brenner, “but one year someone suggested giving it to the church and the idea was born. At first, donations were completely voluntary, then $1, $2, $3 and now $5.”

Since 1983, the Brenners have collected nearly $40,000 for St. John the Baptist Catholic School Trust Fund. Part of the money goes into a permanent investment fund for the school; the rest is used to purchase books and learning materials for students.

Marilyn Giebel takes two days off from her nursing position to work at her brother’s Christmas Open House. “I volunteered one year when Bob needed help, and I’ve been hooked since,” she says. “Being a guide has become a tradition for me.”

Students from St. Johns Catholic School and Princeton High School also help. Eighth-grader Jason Horzewski, who has attended St. John’s since first grade, sold tickets for two years, served as a tour guide in 2001, and plans to do so again this year.

“I learned what I needed to know about the ornaments and decorations from Mr. Brenner,” Horzewski says.

Giebel concludes: “Bob has a tender heart, and Christmas brings out the child within him, which we all need … to enrich our souls.”