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HOLIDAY DECORATING : European Ornaments Make It a Small World After All


The magical world of Christmas ornament designer Christopher Radko is full of tales of Christmases past and present. It is a world where glass Santa Clauses are painted the traditional way, but also done up in tuxedos for a night on the town with Mrs. Claus. It's a whimsical world powered by Radko's imagination and creativity.

"My family always had a large Christmas tree with ornaments from throughout Europe. It was really a United Nations of trees with around 2,000 glass ornaments on it. Unfortunately, it fell down one year and most of the old ornaments were broken. When I tried to replace them, I discovered that they were no longer made," Radko said before his ornament-signing appearance at Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach.

"From that I decided to design my own ornaments in the old ways using trained craftsmen. Today I still feel strongly now about my ornaments being made in the European countries that have had the arts and crafts traditions for over 100 years," he said.

Radko's ornaments are made in Poland, France, Czechoslovakia and Germany.

"Germany has a wealth of old ornament molds going back to the 1890s. These were really works of art that stopped being created in the 1930s. I've found these old molds and work with the descendants of these original artists to create traditional shapes for Christmas," he said.

The original molds could only make about 12 ornaments. After that they were put into the walls of the house like bricks, since the artisans were poor and recycled everything. It's lucky for Radko they did, because now the molds are being pulled out of the walls and being put back to work.

From these molds Radko has also created free-standing Santas dressed in fur, carrying traditional goose-feather Christmas trees and decorated with tiny glass snow sprinkles. The Santas come in various shapes and colorful outfits, from the forest Santa in brown to the sparkling gold Santa.

"Polish ornaments are more free-form or round. From there I get traditional ball ornaments that I paint with hearts and flowers, an old Polish quilt design. In Poland I'm also able to create new molds since the craftsmen can take my drawings and turn them first into a plaster carving and then a metal mold," he said.

The Polish ornaments are some of Radko's most creative: Aladdin, beautiful Madonnas, Michael Jackson, baby slippers, a smiling sun, a clown on a ball, Frosty the Snowman.

"The ornaments made in Italy won't be available until next year," Radko explained. "Artisans blow the arms and legs separately and then anneal them to the main bodies. Next year I'll have a Peter Pan and dancing mice using this technique," he said.

This Christmas design business that Radko started himself eight years ago and oversees has grown larger and larger. Soon he will have designed more than 2,000 different ornaments. "If all I did were create ornaments, I would be happy. Unfortunately, I'm also very involved in the business side of things."

His ornaments, which are quickly becoming collectors' items, sell from $14 to $40, depending on the size and the intricacy; treetop ornaments go for around $75.

"Each ornament takes a week to make and is completely hand-painted," he said. "If you look closely you can see the rosy cheeks, small eyelashes, tiny tongues on bunnies, highlights on creases. These are very painstaking to paint," he said.

Radko leaves explicit instructions with the artisans about the colors and shapes he wants and then they execute them. "I don't feel bound to any one traditional view of Christmas. I've done Grecian urns, American Indian and African ornaments. I like to pull from many cultures since that what Christmas is all about," he said.

For 1992, Radko designed 240 new ornaments, with many going on the White House Christmas tree. "The White House started buying my ornaments before the fall of communism as a way to help Poland. One of the traditional ornaments I designed this year is the Russian Santa, since now the Russian people can celebrate Christmas without fear," he said.

The original Christmas trees probably began in the 1600s and were decorated with items found in the Bible: apples, angels and religious wafers, according to Radko. Later on toys and blown eggs were added.

"Glassmaking goes all the way back to ancient Egyptian times, and then it was spread by the Romans to Bohemia in Europe. The Bohemians had a great tradition as glassblowers and artisans, and it is in that area that the Christmas traditions were strong," he said.

The heyday of glass ornaments was from the 1870s to the 1930s when designers came out with new collections each year, much as fashion designers do today.

"Today I design for the 'sentimental' Christmas tree; the one that has different ornaments from different years going back to childhood. I want people to pull out my ornaments and fondly remember the year they received them. I don't know too many people who have a new designer tree every year," he said.

When Radko talks about each ornament, lovingly holding the glass art work in his hand, it's obvious that a part of him goes into each object. "See the spider web ornament. That's based on the legend that a family was too poor to afford ornaments and only had a small Christmas tree. A spider living in the little girl's room heard that and during the night spun a wonderful web all over the tree and decorated it beautifully."

His snake ornament also has a story. "The Victorians always had a snake on their trees to remind them of the Garden of Eden, but the snakes had clown faces so as not to scare the children." Each of Radko's ornaments has a special tale or a legend, each one having to do with the magic of Christmas.

Christopher Radko's ornaments decorating two large trees and his Santa figures can be seen at Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach throughout the holiday season.

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