Preserving Holiday Ornaments

If your family is anything like mine, a good portion of your storage space is filled with holiday decorations.  In our case, the culprit holiday is Christmas.  No matter what holiday is threatening to overwhelm your storage space, most likely you have been lucky enough to acquire a few valued treasures that are quite fragile and require special care.  Thankfully, with a bit of common sense, a little ingenuity and some perseverance in tracking down supplies, you can fairly easily provide these precious heirlooms with a safe home and, hopefully, a long life.

One simple, and almost obvious, thing that will help to preserve fragile holiday ornaments is to keep them clean.  Any dust or dirt particles that may have found a nice home on the ornament should be removed.  A soft artist’s brush or a clean unused make-up brush usually does the trick.  If the surface of the ornament includes dust-trapping nooks and crannies, a gentle spurt from a can of compressed air generally works pretty well.  Compressed air can be purchased at most discount stores or computer stores.  Sometimes the surface of the ornament is too fragile to handle even this gentle treatment.  It is then often best to leave that annoying bit of dust in place and consider it a part of the ornament’s unique history.  Resist any urge you might have to immerse a dirty ornament in water, no matter how briefly.  The coating on many ornaments, especially glass ones, is often water-based.  Use of water, glass cleaners, detergents or other chemical solutions could easily smear the finish.

If the ornament does not have a good home, you will need to create one.  Polyethylene foam and sturdy, preferably archival, storage boxes are an excellent, though potentially expensive, option.  Cut sections of the foam to fit the chosen container and then cut openings in the foam to fit each ornament.  Depending on the thickness of the foam and the size of the container, you can create several layers of ornaments that each fit snugly in their own cavity.

A less expensive option is to carefully wrap each ornament in acid-free tissue and then pack them in small containers that are placed inside a larger container.  Double boxing provides an extra layer of protection and does not take up much more space.  To keep costs down if you are packing a lot of ornaments, wrap each ornament in a single layer of tissue and then in cotton batting or clean cotton sheets.  The tissue will keep the batting and/or sheets from catching on the surface of the ornament while the batting and/or sheets will serve as a protective buffer between the multiple ornaments.

Plastic tubs are one readily available relatively inexpensive container option.  Avoid using cardboard or paperboard boxes as these are usually made from wood pulp.  The chemicals in wood pulp can eventually destroy the ornament’s decorative surface.  If this is your only option, line the inside of the box with aluminum foil.  The foil will serve as a barrier between the box and what is stored inside.

If you can’t resist displaying even your most fragile ornaments, try to make sure they are safe from potential hazards.  When displaying precious ornaments on a Christmas tree, for example, choose a location that is high enough up on the tree to make them less likely to be bumped or broken.  Thin floral wire, which is strong and flexible, is a good option for securing the ornament.  Floral wire can be found at most craft stores and floral shops.  If you choose to use ornament hooks, be sure that both ends are completely closed.  As the biggest hazard is often improper handling, make sure to take your time and use common sense.  There is nothing worse then carefully cleaning and storing a valued treasure only to end up destroying it yourself.

Finally, ornaments should be stored in an environment that is protected from light, particularly sunlight, and that does not experience extreme changes in temperature and humidity.  While this often rules out garages, attics and basements, there are always exceptions.  The ornaments at my house are actually kept in an unfinished basement storage room that has been adapted to get enough heat in the winter and cool air in the summer to prevent extreme fluctuations.  The addition of an energy-efficient cool temperature dehumidifier has done wonders in keeping the room’s humidity level stable and well within an accepted range.

Holiday ornaments are often the most fragile and precious things you own.  Spending a little time and effort on maintaining their appearance and creating a stable storage environment will allow you to continue enjoying them year after year and will increase their chances of being cherished by future generations. By providing your heirlooms with a good environment, you will enhance their longevity and preserve a part of your family history for the future.

By Ann Marie Johnson
Copyright 2007, Morrison County Historical Society

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