Christmas bone china. Most of the year, it’s kept safely tucked away. And then the holiday season is upon us. Those fragile china cups and saucers blink their way into the spotlight, ready to be filled to the brim once again with tea, coffee, or Christmas cheer.

Bone china dates from the mid-1700s, and china decorated with holiday motifs has been a consumer favorite since the 1930s. Christmas china received a caffeine-like jolt with the 1982 publication of Tom Hegg’s “A Cup of Christmas Tea”. Easily readable in five minutes (tops), Hegg’s “Night Before Christmas”-like story in verse exerted a massive tug on America’s heartstrings. A harried modern visits his housebound great-aunt, and finds the true “spirit of the season” as the two share “a cup of Christmas tea”. Accompanying the story: Warren Hanson’s illustrations, including several of great-aunt’s holly-bedecked china tea set.

“Christmas Tea” sets soon filled store shelves, complete with mini-editions of the book that inspired them. The tea leaves had spoken. By the dawn of the twenty-first century, it “just wouldn’t be Christmas” without new or vintage holiday bone china.

Bone china was the 1748 brainchild of London porcelain-maker Thomas Frye. To create his “fine porcelain”, Frye added bone ash to a china clay formula. Animal bones were crushed, reduced to ash at high heat, and mixed into the clay. The result: finished china of superior translucency and whiteness. However, despite favorable comparisons with imports from the Continent, Frye’s bone china never really caught on. That had to wait for refinements incorporated by one of the best-known names in pottery, England’s Josiah Spode.

In the early 1790s, Spode developed what remains the standard for bone china: a combo comprised of roughly 25 percent kaolin (china clay), 25 percent china stone, and 50 percent bone ash. While objects with a lesser percentage of bone ash are sometimes marketed as “bone china”, true English bone china must include at least 50 percent bone ash.

The greater the percentage of bone ash, the greater bone china’s translucence. Hold a finely made bone china cup up the light, and the outline of your fingers will be clearly visible. The ivory sheerness of bone china’s coloration separates it from the blue-grayishness of untreated porcelain.

Early English bone china production was centered in Stoke-on-Trent, the locale of Spode. Major manufacturers over the years have included Royal Doulton, Wedgwood, Worcester, Royal Crown Derby, and, in the United States, Lenox.

Thanks to its status as a seasonal novelty, Christmas-themed bone china has plenty of visual leeway. There are sleighing scenes. . . arrays of flickering candles. . .rustic “Santas”. . . plus, of course, the big three: Christmas trees (forests of them). . .bough after bough of sprightly holly. . .and a greenhouse-full of poinsettias.

Holiday-themed bone china is generally produced on a limited basis. A complete seasonal set might include just a teapot, creamer, sugar, and cups-and-saucers for six or eight. Many collectors focus their sights on acquiring “singles”—a single cup-and-saucer in a particular holiday pattern, and as many different patterns and stylings as possible.

Prices for holiday bone china remain affordable: in the $25 range for a cup-and-saucer “single”, up to $50 when a tea or coffee pot is included. Even with sugar, creamer, and other accessories added, the total rarely tops $100.

Although bone china by major manufacturers is usually clearly marked, the markings may have worn off on older pieces and imports. In these cases, translucence is a good bone china indicator. Some collectors also swear that bone china has its own unique “ring” when a cup’s rim is (carefully) flicked. Does it work? Well, if it isn’t bone china, at least you’ve acquired something you’ll enjoy!

This Christmastime, why not set your table entirely with holiday china in different patterns? Then, give your own great-aunt a call, and invite her over for “a cup of Christmas tea”.

Happy Holidays!

China courtesy of Patty & Barney Deden. Photo Associate: Hank Kuhlmann

Donald-Brian Johnson is the co-author of numerous books on design and collectibles, including “Postwar Pop”, a collection of his columns. Please address inquiries (or Christmas greetings) to: donaldbrian@msn.com