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“The New Year is a Soviet invention”: a collector of Soviet Christmas tree decorations shares stories about Christmas toy industry

New Year is a memorable holiday when you want miracles to happen and go back in time to your childhood. How would it feel to have a holiday all year round if you’re a collector of Christmas decorations? Alexey Kuznetsov is a big fan of Christmas tree decorations, with over 2,000 unique baubles in his collection.

How did you start collecting Christmas tree decorations?

It was in 2017, in December, when my employee came to work and said that he’d found a big box of old Christmas ornaments in the attic and wanted to throw them away. I asked him to bring them for my grandchildren to decorate our Christmas tree instead. I knew that would make them happy. And he did. There were 47 decorations dating from the 1950s and 60s, already used and imperfect. I put them on the Christmas tree, and my grandchildren would just stare at them, they weren’t interested in anything else. I realised there was a mystery, charm in those toys.

When I visited my cousin, he told me about his box full of old Christmas toys in his garage. He was going to throw them away but gave me 26 of them. Since then, it seemed to me like a sign. I started telling my friends about my new passion, and they just gave me their old Christmas decorations. My apartment was filled. Naturally, I began to be interested in the subject. Unfortunately, there was no relevant literature, although it is a big part of the everyday culture! I had to learn the history of my toys from different unexpected sources.

It was surprising to learn the New Year holiday is an invention of the USSR. It was 1937, and started with the “Pravda” newspaper article “Let’s make a holiday for children”. Most of the world doesn’t practically celebrate the New Year; it’s just an excuse to go to a fancy restaurant and have a drink with friends. Christmas, on the other hand, is a purely family tradition. Russian Christmas was forbidden in the 1920-30s; the government pursued it. The toys were destroyed, and the children were taught the Christmas tree is evil.

Why did people begin to decorate a fir tree in particular?

The history with fir trees began in the Middle Ages in Germany. Any nation has its own tree of power, where the spirit of the country lives. For German people, it’s a fir tree. It is always green, lives all year long, this is why it was so venerated. They had a tradition: before the winter solstice, they went to the forest and decorated it with all sorts of rags, ribbons, fruit and candy. They celebrated this pagan holiday on December 23. Christianity fought hard against it, and the church came up with the custom that a tree should be brought into the house, to be decorated and become a symbol of Christmas. And it became very popular. In the 16th and 17th Centuries, the first Christmas decorations appeared. For instance, when apple crops were poor, people would make them out of glass and put them on the tree. Apples were the first Christmas tree decorations..

Then the church established the rules on how the Christmas tree should be appropriately decorated. The top has to be covered with Christmas-themed toys, while the bottom was reserved for candy and other tasty treats. The Star of Bethlehem on the top of the tree pointed to the birth of Christ; flags were the symbol of struggle in the name of faith, the sheep stood for the congregation, candles symbolised the soul and a short human life.

This tradition was exclusive to Germany. But German communities spread these traditions worldwide. European kings often had German wives and Nicholas I was no exception. The wife persuaded him to put up a Christmas tree. It was so expensive at that time. Aristocrats followed the Emperor’s example. First of all, fir trees appeared in palaces, after 20-30 years this fashion spread to the wealthy nobility and merchants, but it was a purely an urban phenomenon. In Russia, the fir tree symbolises death, hence the rejection by the rural population, since they were more superstitious. The real spirit of Russia lived in the oak tree. But eventually, it got to the point that even university professors had to decorate a Christmas tree, invite all the children of their employees over and arrange a holiday for them because not everyone had such an opportunity..

This fascination with the Christmas tree angered the Orthodox Church, but Russia’s intellectual circles were determined to promote the holiday. The famous Russian fairy tale “Morozko” was written specifically to promote Christmas. In the end, the fir tree began to win hearts. Everyone was eager to decorate the tree, but there were no toys. This is why a special government decree required firms to make Christmas tree decorations, but it still didn’t satisfy the need. Therefore, there were many homemade toys.

However, two years later, over two thousand patterns were designed and meticulously approved by the Communist Party. Some were given the go-ahead, others were not, hence the rare toys. The post-war years saw a surge in Christmas tree decorations. In the early 1950s, the toys reached perfection. But in the 1990s, with the crisis, the culture of Christmas tree decoration in Russia died. 

christmas tree decor
Along came Chinese ornaments and European fashion to colour coordinate the toys with lights, bows and ribbons./Igor Rodrigues via Unsplash

What Christmas decorations are the most valuable?

The best Christmas decorations were in the 1950s. During this period, the toys reached perfection. By the way, the automation of manufacturing Christmas decorations only began in 1965 before they were made by hand.

How do you feel about modern Christmas decorations?

Very well. There are a lot of worthy designs, which will cost a lot in the future. For example, decorations designed by «Yolka», the oldest studio founded by Peter the Great. A considerable number of high-quality Christmas decorations emerge today.

Where do you find rare toys?

Most of the time, people give them to me, but sometimes I buy them in antique shops. But it’s necessary to keep contact with owners, who call me when people leave unique toys, especially during the crisis. The most beautiful toys were purchased like this because such shops do not specialise in Christmas decorations.

Are there fake toys?

Yes, a lot. Toys can be scanned to find the exact paint needed to create a high-quality fake, which opens up excellent opportunities for forgers. Only a chemical analysis of the paint can tell precisely when the toy was made. The market is now overflooded with fakes. I have the opportunity to go to experts, so I test all the toys I get.

What decorations do collectors value the most?

The decorations produced before the Russian Revolution are the most expensive and rare. Unfortunately, most of them have not been preserved. Besides, they are often forged. Some toys of the period have been preserved in Siberia. Toys of different periods can be rare and valuable. For example, the ones from the famous “Buratino” collection. Only 50 sets of toys from this collection were produced specially for the CPSU Central Committee’s plenum.

What is the most valuable toy in your collection?

Three balls. One of them depicts Pushkin’s fairy tale “The Fisherman and the Goldfish”. The composition of the images on the ball proves a great artist painted it. I was fortunate the previous owners brought these unique balls to a store and sold them for a penny. No one else in the world has such toys.

How many toys are there in your collection now?

More than 2000. That is why I decided to arrange an exhibition at the Museum of Moscow in 2018. It was free, organised just for the sake of creating the holiday atmosphere. People at the show had a chance to plunge into their childhood memories; some were even moved to tears. An older man looked at the 1950s Christmas tree for almost an hour - it turned out he found a toy there, that looked the same as the one he had bought in his childhood. Such stories are amazing! I would have given the toy to the old man, but at that moment, I was away from the museum. A Chinese exhibition “Design of the USSR” is being organised, and some of my toy collection will be exhibited there.

Do you decorate the Christmas tree with the toys from your collection?

Yes. For example, this year, I plan to decorate my Christmas tree in the style of the 1930s!

What is the most expensive toy in your collection?

I don’t even know, some of the toys cost 50, some 200,000 or more. There is a box of toys that could go for a million.

Do you give these toys as gifts?

Yes. For example, I gave my friend a whole box of toys from the 1960s for this New Year.

You have the New Year almost all year round. Don't you worry that the New Year's day might become too ordinary for you? 

By no means, this is a magical holiday! I always wait for it and get my portion of magic on the New Year. The main thing is to believe in the magic - and the holiday will never become ordinary.