A Century of Christmas Plates

Royal Copenhagen Christmas Plate c.1917Royal Copenhagen Christmas Plate c.1911Bing and Grondahl Christmas Plate c.1976

My Danish ancestors observed a custom of taking a platter of delicacies to friends at the holidays. To honor the giver, recipients would hang the plate after the food was eaten.

"Jule Afren" was the time for such giving; and so inscripted was the first holiday plate designed by Denmark's famed Bing and Grondahl porcelain works in 1895. B&G had just perfected it's underglaze finishes, ranging from deep blue to bluish-white. A holiday plate proved an ideal way to impress tableware buyers with their new skill.

Over the ensuing decades, a bevy of noted ceramic artists created new designs annually. Religious, family and winter scenes prevailed, embossed in deep relief with the issue date prominent. By 1908, Danish rival Royal Copenhagen (for whom Grondahl had apprenticed) followed suit, their otherwise similar line distinguished by a star and pine bough rim.

Europeans began to seek the plates annually, but Americans were largely unaware of the tradition until W.W.II. In fact, the US introduction to annual holiday ceramic gifts came largely by accident, when Frankoma Pottery made its first "Christmas Cards" in 1944.

John and Grace Lee Frank were a devoutly religious couple who wanted to show their appreciation to close friends and business associates. They were also broke. Ware material restrictions had left them with few resources, so they remolded one of their miniature pitchers to say "Merry Christmas from the Franks-1944".

Never intended as a line, their card's popularity let Frankoma's associates to demand an annual series a few years later. 1950's "cards" consisted of painstaking miniaturization of Frankoma's pitchers, vases, ashtrays, and even 1958's cork bark [?? Somewhat illegible] planterů only later did they employ a uniform blank with annual design variations.

Buffalo China was the first to introduce an annual Christmas plate series in transferware. Animated designs from A Christmas Carol were executed in fab '50s pastels and primary colors within drawn black outlines, bearing Scrooge and friends on one side and 'Presented by Buffalo China' with the year on the other side.

Then, as now, most collectors bought the plates to commemorate such significant events as a year of marriage or a child's birth. But in 1961, a full-color cover article in Hobbies magazine (the prevalent collector publication of the day) elevated the Danish plates to the status of serious collectables.

The entire ceramics industry seemed to take notice. In America, Nicodemus pottery introduced annual ceramic tree ornaments; close friends and associates got versions with the artists' embossed or hand inked signatures, which have proven scarce. Frankoma issued its first full-sized Christmas plate in 1965, promising a series of annual plates bearing religious themes in Della Robbia white. Metlox developed an embossed annual holiday line in antique white, decorated in rust, olive and other '70s hues.

By 1970, major potters abroad followed suit. Wedgwood's stately Jasperware plates bore white slip applied English castles on light blue backgrounds. Goebel adopted its popular Hummel figurines to a line of three to a line of three-dimensional holiday plates. Several Scandinavian and German firms used inexpensive blue-and-white transferware techniques to emulate their Danish competitors.

The recession of the early '80s abruptly ended this proliferation. Only the venerable Danish lines have remained available, and even some of their 1980s issues have proven scarce. But for collectors, the wide variety of styles and themes from the mid 1900s have made this an opportune time to collect, as many pieces find their way to the secondary market for the first time.

Some collectors have themed holiday plate collections to match other favorite ceramics, such as Frankoma miniatures or Wedgwood Jasperware serving pieces. Others have started to seek scarce early editions; most pre-1966 B&G and Royal Copenhagen plates have commanded a premium for years, and 1965 Frankoma and 1971 Hummel plates have sold for hundreds.

Yet for most holiday plate collectors, its been the design, color and style that attracted interest. Many whimsical, beautiful or regal holiday plates have been seen on the market recently, at prices affordable enough to cover a wall- or to present to friends laden with holiday treats. -George A. Higby
Bing and Grondahl Christmas plate c.1980Bing and Grondahl Christmas Plate c.1964

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