The international flea market expert and host of the PBS show Market Warriors shares his personal story of remembering lost loved ones during the holidays.
Posted in , Dec 21, 2021
Vintage expert Bob Richter remembers the Christmas when his big brother Johnny came home from New York. He’d traveled for two hours to the family’s home in Allentown, Pennsylvania, arms full of presents and handmade Christmas stockings for each family member. Johnny created each stocking with festive fabrics, like plaid wool, buffalo check and one with a ruffle for his mom.
It turned out it would be the last Christmas with his brother. Johnny died the following October. As Christmas neared, Bob and his family didn’t think they would be able to do any kind of holiday celebration. But they remembered those stockings Johnny made.
“When we saw the stockings, I think it was just the trigger,” Bob said. “Putting them up would actually be honoring Johnny's memory and love of Christmas, and it would actually be wrong of us not to put them out.”
It was one of the first steps of healing for Bob, who at the time was fifteen, and his family. “Johnny was my biggest cheerleader,” Bob said. “He loved Christmas and he loved that I loved Christmas.” The family celebrated that first Chistmas in his honor and memory.
The vintage expert features those stockings (his mom gave them to him when he got his first home of his own) along his staircase and displays other Christmas vintage décor items on tables, shelves and walls throughout his home with his many other vintage objects, all connected to memories of the past.
“Christmas is such a magical time. Sometimes life's hardships like loss make me feel like joy is no longer a part of my life or that it's gone forever. Christmas is a perfect time to find what still is there,” he said. “The holidays are a great time to reconnect to that joy.”
Bob says some Christmas objects that evoke memories of loved ones might find a place in your home all year long. He remembers coming home, one December afternoon, to find a fully decorated Christmas tree in his bedroom. Johnny, who loved vintage objects and Christmas, had put it there. There’s a photo of Bob as a little boy in front of that tree smiling ear-to-ear. “When I look at that picture I see the love that went into decorating that tree. I still have the Santa Claus that was underneath the tree and use it as a nightlight. It’s the one Christmas item I keep up all year long.”
For Bob it’s a connection to his inner child, which is something so many try to channel during the holidays. “When I was in Vacation Bible School my favorite song was ‘I've Got the Joy, Joy, Joy/Down in My Heart’ and so I feel like that's part of my DNA—that joy. And ‘This Little Light of Mine.’ It's our choice if we want to shine it or not. We always have that opportunity and I think that Christmas is the time that many people struggle the most with loss. It's like I can't possibly celebrate. I can't possibly decorate because of this great loss. I think that it's actually an opportunity for healing.”
Bob, who shares his vintage décor on Instagram, said he’s heard from many folks who have difficulty using Christmas decorations that a loved one once cherished. “One woman I know can’t bring herself to decorate a tree with her mother’s ornaments so she keeps them in a bowl on a sideboard,” he said. “Just passing them in her vestibule makes her happy.”
Today, Bob ties up Johnny’s stockings to the balusters on the staircase display among the other vintage objects he loves, like an old RCA television set he got rigged up to play classic Christmas movies, his 20 Christmas trees donned with vintage ornaments (“each has its own story,” he says) and three little choirboy candles, the only decoration his grandmother could afford one year.
That’s another aspect of Christmas decorating Bob is passionate about: Giving away some of the things you love to friends and family now as his grandmother did when she was still alive. “She gave them to me saying, ‘These were so important to me. I'm sure you remember them from the sideboard. I'd like for you to have them,’” Bob said. “I use them every year and remember her in a joyful happy way. I think it's easier for me to do that because they weren't things I found in an attic or basement, but rather something that she gave me while she was still alive so she could see me find joy in them in my home.”
For Bob, Johnny’s stockings will always hold a special place in his heart because of their shared love of vintage items as well as Christmas.
“Sometimes people don't understand. They ask, ‘why do you want this old stuff?’ It's because this has magic in it. This has come through connection. It has continuity. And it brings comfort. It connects me to everyone I love whether or not they're still on this earth,” he said. “Every time my hand is on something vintage Johnny's hand is there too.”
Bob Richter is the author of A Very Vintage Christmas: Holiday Collecting, Decorating and Celebrating.