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Ceramic Christmas tree samples line the shelves of the Aherns' studio space in Moncton, N.B., on Dec. 7.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

On an unusually warm night not long before Christmas, people stood outside an antique store in downtown Dartmouth, N.S., with their noses pressed against the window. They pointed with glee, like children at toy stores of yesteryear.

It was Vintage Ceramic Tree Day Eve, and the shop windows of ReFound were aglow with a forest of porcelain trees sprouting candy-coloured lights. The next morning, people of all ages lined up for hours to buy a handcrafted ceramic tree made in the 1960s, seventies or eighties.

“It’s almost like cilantro: People either love them or hate them,” said Erin Ferguson, the store manager of ReFound. “The people who love them are the ones with this strong connection to them, who had an aunt or a mother who pulled one out of the box every year.”

And yes, to some they may be the garden gnomes of holiday décor, but they spark wonderful memories: smelling butter and sugar baking in grandma’s kitchen, raiding candy bowls while visiting relatives, and twiddling the trees’ bright lights.

Vintage handmade ones sell for as much as $300, while big-box stores such as Urban Outfitters, Best Buy, Costco and Bed Bath & Beyond are selling mass-produced versions that range in price from $44 to $120. Online resellers such as Etsy and Facebook Marketplace are crammed with ads for ceramic trees for anyone not lucky enough to inherit one.

“It’s just that feeling of being at your grandma’s house,” said Heather Welton, 42, of Sussex, N.B., who owns two vintage ceramic trees, passed down to her from her mother and grandmother, and three newer handmade ones. “They give you that cozy feeling.”

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Inside their Moncton workshop, Carol and Martin Ahern create the trees by hand, scrambling like Santa’s elves to get all their orders filled before Christmas. (They’re only taking orders for next year now.) They started making them in 2018 and were floored to see their retirement project turn into a year-round business. They rise at 5 a.m. and craft, wrap and pack trees for 16 hours in the studio attached to their two-storey home. Their three kilns are firing around the clock. The dining room table is a makeshift glazing area. Ceramic trees in cardboard boxes are stacked high by the door, ready to ship across the country.

Mr. Ahern prepares a finished ceramic Christmas tree for shipping.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

“We’ll stop for Christmas dinner, eh Mart?” Mrs. Ahern says to her husband on the sofa next to two sleeping poodles. “Hopefully that dining room will be all cleaned up.”

The operation is like going back in time for the couple, who once owned a ceramics studio in the village of Rexton, N.B., in the 1980s. Mrs. Ahern used to teach people how to pour and fire their own ceramic creations, many of which were Christmas trees. After the two retired – Mr. Ahern from a plastics factory in Burlington, Ont., and Mrs. Ahern from the Halton District School Board – they tracked down vintage plaster moulding blocks for a specific tree design from 1958 and the 1980s. They bought a few kilns and off they went.

The Aherns say they hear over and over how much the ceramic trees inspire nostalgia. “It triggers a memory of their mother or their grandmother, and their Christmas when they were growing up,” said Mr. Ahern. “All they want to do is recreate that atmosphere.”

The demand for their handcrafted trees has revealed interesting demographic trends, says Mrs. Ahern. Newfoundlanders love the Atlantic tree, made from the 1958 mould, with no snow. British Columbians love Fraser firs. Forty-somethings are the biggest customers, though people of all ages are placing orders, such as Doug and Lori Russell of Oakville, Ont.

Growing up in Winnipeg, Mr. Russell, 71, remembers feeling a sense of wonder at how the coloured bulbs lit up on his mother’s ceramic Christmas tree.

Mrs. Ahern puts the finishing touches on a ceramic Christmas tree in her studio space.Chris Donovan/The Globe and Mail

“I just thought it was cool,” he said, chuckling. “It was a mystery.”

On the buffet in the dining room of their two-storey home, the Russells have two vintage trees they found at a local flea market. In the middle is a newly acquired Fraser fir handmade by the Aherns, with red lights and sparkly snow painted on the branches. “It looks spectacular,” Mr. Russell said. “My wife thinks it’s wonderful.”

It’s that same connection to family and the past that Graham MacEachern wanted to create for his younger sister, whose name he drew in the family’s annual gift exchange.

Growing up in Dartmouth, his family of five always had a little green ceramic Christmas tree on the hall table or piano during the holidays. So did everyone on the street. And so did all their relatives in Cape Breton. Mr. MacEachern, a 32-year-old respiratory therapist, knew a ceramic tree would make the perfect gift for his sister. He soon found the Aherns.

One night in the middle of December, he pulled the Atlantic tree he bought out of the box for the first time. He felt giddy, like a kid on Christmas morning, as he slipped it out of the bubble wrap.

“Oh wow,” he said, eyeing the tree’s swirly green-glazed branches. “It’s perfect. It’s just perfect. I’m getting nostalgic right now just holding it.”

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