The Christmas Altar

When I was a little boy my grandparents - Mémère & Pépère (well, actually I am pretty certain it was more Mémère) did some very specific holiday decorating.  One of the things she did each year that seemed so unique, was to decorate her windows.  Window decorating is not that uncommon, but the method Mémère used to decorate her windows was!  I don’t remember seeing anyone else doing it then, and I have not seen anyone do it since.  (Maybe advancements in window technology makes it no longer practical or even possible).

(BTW -  Mémère is pronounced "Mem-May” and Pépère is pronounced “Pep-Pay”)

My Mémère used to build mini Christmas villages between her sash windows and the storm windows.  She had miniature cardboard buildings, cotton “snow”, glitter, a Santa in his sleigh with reindeer, and even used lick-and-stick stars on the windows.  Basically, she created Dioramas of Christmas scenes between the windows. 

Quite interestingly, while researching this post, I was not able to locate any images that were similar to what Mémère used to do with her windows.  I am hoping maybe my mom has a few photos of Mémère’s windows… 

MOM?? 

One of the other Christmas decorating traditions she had was her “Christmas Altar”.

Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar

The Christmas Altar is a tiered ceramic “structure” with several holes in it.  The holes hold glass “candles”.  I call them “candles” because the interior of the altar contains a light source and the glass “candles” collect, defuse and project the light from inside.  The altar is topped with a Sacred Heart of Jesus statue, and two guardian angels (one on his left and one on his right).  Each guardian angel also holds one of the glass candles. 

In the center of the altar, is a hand painted relief of the Holy Eucharist over a chalice.  Below that is a hand painted relief of the Last Supper.  On either side of the Last Supper are several hand painted pillars and a relief of a torch with a glass candle where the flame would normally be located. 

Often, while staying at Mémère’s house before Christmas, she would pull out and together we would set up her Christmas Altar.  I have many fond memories of being together while helping her set up the Altar.  At one point somewhere in my youth, Mémère told me that she wanted the altar to be mine one day.

Pépère passed away in 1981, and Mémère joined him two years later in 1983.  After Mémère passed (when I was 14 years old) the altar came to our house.  Between 1983 and 2013, the altar was set up only a handful of times.  Most of those years, the altar was kept in the solitude of my parent’s crawl space

This year, while decorating for Christmas, my parents brought the altar out and decided it was time to “officially” deliver to me.  It arrived in (and will remain in) the original packing box.  The info located on the box helped me track down what little info I could about the “Christmas Altar”.  Since I found so little info, I decided to share the knowledge I have learned (and a few images) with the world.   

Below, are a series of photographs of the Christmas Altar.  Packaging, clean up (and a minor “improvement”), and some close up photographs to document as much as I can about the altar.   


Here is how the altar arrived.  The box is marked Fragile.
(The contents are certainly all that – and more!

Noma Industries, Inc.  S.H.Clausin & Co Minneapolis, MN Noma Industries, Inc to S. H. Clausin & Co. Jewlers Minneapolis, MN

Daytons Christmas BoxThe Altar is still packed in the original box that Mémère (and subsequently) my parents kept it packed in.  Inside the box is the altar and a very old “Dayton’s” box that Mémère kept the glass candles in.

According to the package, the Altar was manufactured by Noma Industries, Inc – then shipped to S.H. Clausin & Co. – both located in Minneapolis.

I have done a bit of internet research on both Noma and S.H. Clausin. 

Noma is no longer a “business” but is still considered a registered trademark for holiday lighting products.   The Jewlers Circular

S.H. Clausin & Co. appears to have been a jewelry (and gift?) shop.  I did not find a lot of info available on the shop, but I did locate a help wanted ad to fill an open “Material and Tool Man” position from the April 30th 1919 edition of “The Jewelers’ Circular”  






Since I was already researching Noma and S.H. Clausin – I turned my focus to the actual altar.  I started searching terms like Noma and Ceramic and Altar – and over time (and a number of search combinations) I was able to piece together some tidbits of additional info about the Altar.

In addition to Holiday lighting, Noma made several other items. 
Of interest – it seems that they had a large production of “Chalkware” items. 

According to Wikipedia - Chalkware is items either made of sculpted gypsum or cast from plaster moulds and painted with watercolors - most typically made in one of two periods: the first beginning in the late 18th century and ending by the beginning of the 20th century, the second being during the Great Depression.

If you do a few internet searches, you will find links and photos to several Noma chalkware figurines, music boxes, statutes, and the like – including a few (very few) of these religious “altars”!

What little info I did find was that it appears Noma made these altars between the 1920’s-1930’s through the 1950’s.  I wish I had a specific date on MY altar, but alas – I do not.

I have also found them referred to as a Noma Glolite Altar, Noma Glolite Chalkware, Glolite Altar, Glolite Last Supper Altar and similar combinations of those key words.  

Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar

 Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar

So far, I have seen a couple of different versions – some have the extended sides (and angel figurines) like mine does, but most other ones are a bit smaller.  These versions are missing the side extensions (where the torches and guardian angels are located).


Examples below were located on Ebay and Etsy.

il_570xN.413378371_sp6p  il_570xN.386991931_clh3 $(KGrHqV,!mEFJLwftozrBSWHrRPMO!~~60_57


I have yet to see a photograph of a Noma Chalkware Altar with the red tipped glass candles like mine has.  I do not know if that is original, or if the red tips are something Mémère did to modify (improve?) the original design of the altar.

Here you can see a close up of the solid glass “candles”.  The first set are shorter and thicker.  These are the candles that fill the holes in the bottom and second to bottom tiers.  Then, the four thinner and taller candles (with the cork spacers) fill the top tier.  Finally, the two longest and thinnest candles (these are about 6” in length) go through the guardian angel figurines and then down through the alter into the light chamber.  

20131211_142038 20131211_142057 20131211_142103


  

One of the things I also remember was Mémère never wanting it lit for extended periods.  If my memory serves me right (and that is often “questionable, at best”) she was worried about the altar overheating or being a fire hazard.

I looked very carefully at the altar and decided I was going to “upgrade” the traditional incandescent bulb (and all the heat it generates) with a newer (and slightly brighter) CFL (curly) light bulb.  CFL’s run much cooler.  While I had it apart, I took the time to give the alter a deep cleaning (with all the TLC I could give).    

20131211_141850 20131211_141818

(Above Left) – The base bolts are sunk right into the chalkware of the altar. 
(Above Right) – The number 334 was written inside of the altar.  Is that a model number?  A serial number?

20131211_141840 20131211_141921 

(Above Left) The old 25w incandescent bulb.  I did not get a photo, but this bulb was replaced by a CFL bulb.  CFL’s are know to run much cooler than their incandescent counterparts.
 
(Above Right) – Just a view looking up to the top of the altar from underneath (with the base removed) 


Here is the assembled Altar, both unlit in the daylight and with the new and improved lighting in the dark.

Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar  Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar


And finally, here are some additional photos (close up) of the Altar lit up in the dark…

Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar  Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper AltarNoma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar Noma Industries Chalkware lighted Last Supper Altar

While cleaning and setting up the “Christmas Altar”, I was able to feel Mémère’s presence with me.  It was so comforting.  Just handling the altar again, flooded me with many fond memories.

Mémère’s “Christmas Altar” has joined a very specific version of A Christmas Carol as being my most cherished Christmas treasures of all time – and as long as I am able to, I will set it up and and enjoy knowing that Mémère is watching over me and my family!

15 comments:

  1. How lovely to have a cherished family heirloom and tradition! Thank you for sharing something so special to you.

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    1. Your welcome Barbara! How about you guys?? Any special family heirloom or traditions from way back?

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  2. It's beautiful! And so special . . . nothing greater than receiving a family heirloom that holds such a special place in your heart. Here's to many years of you and your family enjoying the altar before you have the privilege of passing it along to your kiddos :-) Merry Christmas!

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    1. Thanks Jodie!! I'll ask you too! Any special family heirloom or traditions from way back?

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  3. I always wondered if at some point you would do a post on this...and I tell you what...this is one of your finest. I was also flooded with memories as I read this!!! I am so glad that you have it, and I hope that you have it out every year!!! I could also feel Memere and Pepere's presence as I read this!!! Thank you for using your amazing gift of writing to tell this story!!! Love you bro! Sis.

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  4. You know how artists number their paintings...do you think that 334 might mean that this was the 334th altar created??? Hmmm...I would contact a good antique dealer to find out more history on this! That would be really interesing. Sis

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  5. Oh David, you've done it again! What a wonderful story about something close and dear to you. I can relate with my natvity scene. I inherited my grandparents nativity scene when my grandma passed in 2007. My mom's side celebrated Christmas Eve and when we would arrive at my grandparents house, baby Jesus was missing from the nativity until after dinner when the youngest grandchild (me) would walk him down the hallway, while everyone sang Away in a Manger, and then I would place him in the nativity. I don't display it as Mallory would want to play with it so not unitl she's older, but every year I take it out of it's own original box and look at it. It smells just like Grandma and Grandpa. Memories galore with this one Dave. Thanks!

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  6. Thank you for posting your family story related to this piece. I have one of these that belonged to my great grandmother. I got it sometime in the 70's, but it has been packed away in a trunk most of that time. Mine does not have the angels on the sides. I was surprised that there is no visible manufacturing markings. I have not opened mine to see if there is a number inside as yours has. Does yours have a number stamped on the back of the Jesus figurine? Mine has an underlined 6 stamped on the back. Again thank you for sharing your family memories.

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  7. Hi there, my name is Maria and I am the editor of EverythingCroton; we feature--every day--a vintage post that almost always includes vintage Christmas in all its forms--and putz villages--some vintage, some being made today. In any case, thank you for this very thorough article on the Noma altar. If you want to know more about the history of Noma--and lights in general--you should check out a friend's archived site http://www.oldchristmastreelights.com/

    In the meantime, I'll be posting a link to this very good article in my next vintage update. Thank you again.

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  8. Terry Yarish10/4/15, 6:18 PM

    I just picked one of these up at an estate sale today. What a fun item! In the back this one has a Swiss made music box mounted on the inner rear of the altar. Does your have that feature or did I miss that? Also , my "candles" have no color on them at all. Is the red painted on? I was so glad to see this when I did quick Google search. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. Nice!

      No, mine does not have a music box on the back or on the inside. How is it attached to the chalware?? Screwed in?? Kind of a neat option!

      I do believe my grandmother used nail polish to paint the tips of the glass candles red. It does put off a very pretty glow at night!!

      I'd love to see a photo of yours! Send me a pic (use the "email me" link on the side of the blog!)

      Thanks Terry!

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  9. I gave our grandmothers to my brother in NC. As he was an altar boy as a young man n had made an altar at our old log cabin in the country back in the 50 's. Thanks for sharing info. Merry Christmas

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    1. What a great story Glo! Do you have any pictures of the Altar your brother built?!?!

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  10. I also have on of these altars. Mine is the plastic version probably from the early 1950s. It has been in my family, still in the original box, since I was born in 1955. It appears in several old family Christmas photos I have. Like yours, mine was brought out only at Christmas. Mine is in a blue box marked "1 Cat no 306" Fragile The Glolite Corp Chicago, ILL, USA. It may have had 2 winged angels at one time, I vaguely seem to remember, but they are long gone. Everything else is intact. The candles are also red tipped, though I think plastic rather than the earlier glass ones. Now over 60 years old it still comes out during the Holidays. Thanks for sharing.

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  11. I forgot to mention, mine does have the music box, attached inside on the right side as you look at it, the winding key on the outside right.

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