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…
One of the other Christmas decorating traditions she had was her “Christmas 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!)
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
(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?
(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.
And finally, here are some additional photos (close up) of the Altar lit up in the dark…
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!