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December 2011

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Christopher Radko Interview: The Glass Menagerie of Christmas and the Artist Behind the Tree

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Christopher Radko

Christopher Radko is an iconic name in American home décor. He began designing and producing keepsake ornaments, gifts and home décor items in 1986. The entrepreneur sold his Christmas Company several years ago, but the legacy lives on in his beautiful creations.

Radko’s articles can be seen in USA Today and The Huffington Post as he writes about finding spirit, cultural relevance and heart in all holidays. He is the author of Christopher Radko: Memories of Yesteryear, Christopher Radko’s Ornaments, Christopher Radko’s Heart of Christmas, and other books.

“It just makes me feel good that the ornaments are in literally millions of homes across the world. As a result, there’s a part of my heart in homes everywhere. But, I don’t have to go there in person. I can stay home and enjoy my life in the Hudson River Valley.”

Dubbed the “Czar of Christmas Present” by The New York Times, Radko has been featured in that newspaper as well as in The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times, and The Chicago Tribune. He has also appeared on numerous national television programs including the Oprah Winfrey Show, HGTV and The Today Show.

Radko makes his home in Westchester County, New York.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Christopher, do you have a regular column in The Huffington Post?

Christopher Radko: I do stories on different holidays for them, so it’s an irregular regular column. I can write as much as I want or as little. It’s fun.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You sold your Christmas Company (the Christopher Radko Company) a few years ago.

Christopher Radko: That’s right. It was about five years ago.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Does that mean you no longer design holiday ornaments?

Christopher Radko: That’s true. But, after doing it more than 20 years, the legacy that I created continues forward. They have many of the same artists whom I trained over the years, and they work with many of the same glass blowers and painters, so they’re still able to do many wonderful things using the designs I created years ago or even creating new ones in the same style as my past creations.

Christopher Radko

Christopher Radko (Courtesy of Christopher Radko)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your name is still on the ornaments sold at Macy’s and other stores, correct?

Christopher Radko: That’s right. My name, as an ornament brand, is available at this time of year at better stores near you (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are you doing now?

Christopher Radko: I took some time off after working really hard essentially all of my life. I thought, “Well, now it’s time to maybe take some time off to take it easy and relax a little bit, to recalibrate and see how I’d like to write the next chapter in my life.”

I am in the process of starting a new company where I’ll be producing and selling organic spa lavender products. I grow lavender and have 25 acres of it. I’ll be making soaps, candles, room diffusers, massage oil, and body gel all from this organic lavender and will be launching the company next spring. That’s something I’m very excited about.

I write a bit for The Huffington Post, my book agent wants me to start writing children’s books, and I do some classes for the Learning Annex. I taped one for them a couple of weeks ago about how to make every day like Christmas. That was fun and something they actually have on their computers because they offer online classes as well.

This lavender company is something I’ve wanted to do in a boutique size. I have no interest in having hundreds of employees … been there, done that (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I see where you also travel.

Christopher Radko: I love traveling. This past summer I was in Scotland for a month. I have some friends there and love the countryside. I have family in France, so I spent some time in Provence down south visiting the lavender farms there, but also up north in Alsace where my family is located. Lots of good food and lots of good wine.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I was reading some of your journal entries on the website. In “Looking for Christmas,” you were talking about your childhood. Did your parents divorce?

Christopher Radko: Oh yes. They divorced when I was a teenager. It was just not meant to be. Sometimes it’s best when parents do split up because it’s less wear and tear on the kids if you know what I mean. But, they sadly didn’t see eye-to-eye on things and quarreled and fought a lot. Although at Christmastime, there did seem to be more of a sparkle in the home. It was more of a peaceful time.

For me, home base was always under the Christmas tree. I loved the magic fantasy of it, the blinking lights and the shiny ornaments. It was just something that really inspired me. It seeded in me this love for color and décor and put me in good stead when our 12-foot family tree finally did fall over.

I set about looking for glass blowers to replace our ornaments and ended up having to design them myself. Back in the 1980s, everything was plastic and Styrofoam. Nobody was making glass ornaments. My love for Christmas from my earlier years helped inspire me, as I brought back some finely painted ornaments that I recalled growing up.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you have the desire to become an artist or designer when you were young?

Christopher Radko: I wanted to be in show business and to become an actor. But, in New York you quickly find out that most actors are out of work (laughs). Everyone wants to be an actor here. There isn’t that much work. My parents wanted me to be a doctor, and so I ended up being a pre med student at Columbia University in New York. But, my heart wasn’t in that, so I ended up being an English major and then applying to law school. I did get admitted to law school, but I found that I really didn’t want to do that either.

I went to Europe for a year and worked in France as a model. I also worked as a booker in a modeling agency and modeled clothes, jewelry and sunglasses. When I came back to New York in my very early 20s, I got a job at a talent agency working in the mailroom, and it was more or less at that time that our family tree fell over.

I said goodbye to the business side of show business and began being an entrepreneur, which was a very exciting thing to be back in the 1980s. Of course, I was half my age now and it was the “go go” 80s and 90s at the time of Dallas and Dynasty. The sky was the limit. There was no crisis like there is today, so I hit it at a good time. It really appealed to many people who had warm memories of their own childhood Christmases and couldn’t find the decorations, so I was able to fill that need while at the same time assuaging the guilt I felt when my grandmother told me I ruined Christmas forever because I caused the tree to fall.

Christopher Radko

A Christmas tree chock full of Christopher Radko's collectable ornaments (Courtesy of Christopher Radko)

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I think you took care of that, so the guilt should be gone (laughs).

Christopher Radko: I sure did. No more! That is repaid (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were called the “Czar of Christmas Present” by The New York Times. How did you feel when you saw that in print?

Christopher Radko: I was tickled when I saw it. The “Czar” is really a Russian title not an American title. Since Christmas is old fashioned, and many of our Christmas traditions come from Europe, maybe that’s what they had in mind. Many of my designs are Victorian in style from the 1800s.

Back in the 1990s, I did a lot of work in Washington. I decorated the White House, the Vice President’s house, and the Kennedy Center. I even wrapped the entire Kennedy Center in a quarter mile of 8-foot wide red ribbon and turned it into a big Christmas gift. It was fun, and I had a great time there. The Times bureau person who was covering the White House during the holidays wanted to interview me. In this full-page article, they called me the “Czar of Christmas Present.” I guess that got copied to some extent because I think The Los Angeles Times called me the “King of Christmas.” The Chicago Tribune printed something very similar.

All of these newspapers were looking for a new moniker, you know? I was too young to be Santa Claus, but it was all in good fun. I think people enjoyed those stories and that someone who loved Christmas as much as I did was able to turn a holiday accident into something that could benefit people all across the world.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It must be a special feeling to have your work featured at the White House.

Christopher Radko: It sure is. But, I think of that as the nation’s house, so it’s really great. I’ve had celebrity collectors for many years even before that. Barbara Streisand was one of my collectors. She got me started doing Hanukkah ornaments. Gregory Peck and Katherine Hepburn had my ornaments in the early years. Al Pacino was one of the earliest collectors. I did some AIDS ornaments for Liz Taylor’s organization and for Elton John.

I remember back in the 80s, Bruce Springsteen bought an entire Christmas tree for his girlfriend at the time with my ornaments on it. I guess everyone everywhere loves Christmas. I was very honored, of course, to be a part of the White House celebrations. It just makes me feel good that the ornaments are in literally millions of homes across the world. As a result, there’s a part of my heart in homes everywhere. But, I don’t have to go there in person. I can stay home and enjoy my life in the Hudson River Valley.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a personal favorite ornament of all the ones you’ve designed?

Christopher Radko: Oh gosh, I’ve designed over 15,000!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That would be hard to narrow down a favorite.

Christopher Radko: It sure is. Many of them were for charity causes like breast cancer, children’s diabetes, St. Jude’s, Alzheimer’s, pet charities and AIDS research. We have probably raised over $2 million dollars over the years. Honestly, I love any ornament that brings a smile to someone’s face. That’s a favorite ornament.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I looked in the catalog and love “Furry Friends” and “Bama Bound.” Those two definitely made me smile!

Christopher Radko: Well, there you go!

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any idea which ornament has sold for the most money?

Christipher Radko: Yeah, the “Partridge in a Pear Tree” ornament was part of the 12 Days of Christmas series, and I think on auction it has probably gone for over $2,000. But, that’s not uncommon. Many of my ornaments on auction go for well over $500 apiece. It just depends on how rare the ornament is.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you retire some of the ornaments so that they could become collectibles?

Christopher Radko: Yes. I’ve done that since the beginning, and that was primarily because I created new designs each year, so I needed to put some to bed to make room for new ones. It’s kind of like introducing a new collection of clothes each year. For some portion of my life, I actually worked at Macy’s in the buyer training program, and I learned very early on that in fashion and design, you need to offer a new collection each year. You can’t show the same clothes, shoes, ties, and dresses every year because people go, “Ho hum, I saw that last year.” So, I started creating new designs each year.

Designing was always a passion of mine. For me, the greatest joy of the business was in creativity, so I’d retire the previous ornaments and make room for new ones. As a result, 15,000 designs later, there is an ornament for everyone out there.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Your recent Facebook post concerned the Salvation Army.

Christopher Radko: Oh yes.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You stated that the Salvation Army refuses services to people who are gay.

Christopher Radko: That has been the experience of some people in some parts of the country with the Salvation Army. The Salvation Army is a religious organization. Its purpose is not just to charitably help others who are down and out. Their purpose is to spread their religious perspective on how a person should live. So, they give with the left hand and they take away with the right hand. If they’re giving you a cup of soup, they say, “Well, but you need to repent. You need to reform.” If you’re gay, you’re not supposed to have sex with anyone. Period. You’re supposed to be celibate. I don’t think that’s appropriate.

I think if you’re trying to help someone, then help them, and don’t solicit or preach or try to convince them of your perspective, which is only your perspective. Certainly, there are people who will say, “Well, in the Bible it says you’re not supposed to be gay.” Well, the Bible also says that you will be punished if you have sex with a woman while she’s on her period.

The Bible says you’re not allowed to eat shellfish. Well, does that mean every single person that has gone to a seafood restaurant is wrong? Come on. That’s silly. So, if you’re going to be consistent and follow every single thing that’s in the Bible, there are many people who are doing things that wouldn’t be doing them anymore (laughs). Either be consistent in what you’re preaching, or stop preaching it.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you think it’s a good thing that charitable organizations and restaurants make public their personal views on politics, religion, and social issues?

Christopher Radko: I think everyone is entitled to his opinion. But, I think for one person to say that they are absolutely certain about what’s right and wrong, that’s just a gray area in my book. While I think everyone is entitled to his opinion, if you’re donating money, I think it’s just good to have a really clear understanding of what’s going to happen to your money. If you just want people to be fed, but not to be indoctrinated into any political or religious perspective, then it’s good to be forewarned. That’s why I posted that about the Salvation Army.

Everyone thinks that they are kind of middle of the road and have a wonderful more than a century tradition of helping people. Well, it’s not quite that black and white. They’re not just interested in helping people. They’re interested in their idea of saving people … their idea.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you a religious person?

Christopher Radko: I’m a spiritual person.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were you raised Catholic?

Christopher Radko: I was raised Catholic indeed. I know myself as a spiritual person. I know who I am. I know where I’m from. I think that ultimately on this planet we’re all connected. We’re all brothers and sisters, and I think many religions have aspects that are very inclusive and really embrace every human being on earth. There are other religions that are hateful. I’m not just talking about Christianity either. There are many other religions on this planet that have aspects, portions, or sects that would rather separate people than connect.

I’m really for connecting people. When I designed ornaments, I was very conscious of creating ornaments that had meaning to people of different faiths as well. So, I created ornaments for other holidays and other spiritual traditions. There are, for instance, many mixed marriages. Maybe the husband is Jewish and the wife is Christian, or maybe the wife is Muslim and the husband is Christian, but they love each other and want to raise a family. They want to have a celebration in their home and decorate for the holidays, so on a Christmas tree (which is really a blank palette), you can decorate with symbols and decorations that have meaning to you in your own lineage or traditions.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How will you be spending Christmas this year, Christopher?

Christopher Radko: With my best friend from college and my godchildren. They’re coming to town and the house is all decked. I’m just putting the finishing touches on the holiday menu.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What constitutes your ideal Christmas meal?

Christopher Radko: With many eastern European traditions in my family, the Christmas season has always been fish related, so there are courses of fish and seafood. Don’t read the Bible on that one because you’re not supposed to have seafood (laughs). But, in Poland or Italy, which are about as Catholic as you can get, it’s okay to have shellfish. So, go figure. I guess they don’t read the Bible in those countries (laughs). But, seriously, Christmas Eve is meat free, so you have all sorts of fish prepared different ways in different sauces. That’s really great.

For Christmas Day, it’s just really what everyone is in the mood for. I love crown roast of lamb, roast goose or duck. Some people like baked ham. The sky’s the limit! For me, Christmas is more about the sweets and desserts than the meat. It’s the gingerbread, the panettone Italian cake, and eggnog with a little bit of secret recipe. The sweets are kind of an indulgence that I give myself during the holidays. Maybe I won’t have quite as many calories in the summer months (laughs).

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I know what you mean (laughs). What’s on your Christmas wish list?

Christopher Radko: I don’t have any material wishes, although, I actually do collect my own ornaments.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Really?

Christopher Radko: Yeah, over the years I would design and create, but I didn’t always save things. Sometimes the very last box would be shipped out to a store because they had ordered it. So, now I actually go on eBay and shop like everyone else and look for some of my favorite ornaments.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That sounds crazy, Christopher (laughs).

Christopher Radko: I know. That’s totally crazy! That’s how I know how much they go for, although I don’t pay those crazy prices. I kind of smile to myself and think, “Who would’ve ever thought this person would have paid this much?” But, God bless them. I’m glad they do.

Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): So, you actually go to eBay to find your ornaments.

Christopher Radko: I sure do. I look mostly for the retired ornaments of the 1990s. I miss them. They’re a part of my family. So, that’s something that I do. But, honestly, I have a grownup Christmas wish and that is for the whole world to forget about all the wars and the race for oil at the cost of so many of our soldiers’ lives, and just find peace. Just find more peace on this earth so that our children and grandchildren can inherit a more peaceful world. I like the perspective of expanding our sense of family to include all human beings on earth and that means being compassionate to people of different countries.

We’re just a small planet in a humongous galaxy. I’m sure that beings from other planets are saying, “What is it with Earth? Don’t they get it? That’s just one group, the human race, so why can’t they all get along?” So, my wish is for everyone to get along and to treat people as you want to be treated, with respect and compassion. Try to understand about where they’re coming from, and try to leave the planet a little bit better than when you got here.

© 2011 Smashing Interviews Magazine. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the express written consent of the publisher.

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