Like most people, our family’s Christmas tree is our most important Christmas decoration, the place where we gather on the holiday. Ours is adorned with frosted colored bulbs and ornaments that evoke family memories while we make new ones each Christmas. It sets the tone for the Christmas mood in the house. And I also love it because it involves decorating. Here are some fun facts about the history of the Christmas tree and its ornaments, which help to explain why we started doing this in the first place!
The tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it is thought to have begun in Germany in the 8th century. Legend has it the monk Saint Boniface presented a fir tree to decorate for the season because the tree’s triangular shape represented the Holy Trinity. Martin Luther has been credited with being the first to light his Christmas tree with candle light to further explain the story of Christmas to his children. The candles represented the Heavens and stars.
The first indoor, decorated tree is said to have been in Strasbourg, France in 1605. Early ornaments were paper roses, lighted candles, wafers, nuts, and sweets. As the tradition evolved, advanced homemade ornaments included painted egg shells, cookies, replicas of food made of paper, glass beads, and hand-sewn snowflakes. Tinsel was introduced in 1610 and was made of pure silver!
Queen Victoria had much to do with widespread popularity of celebrating the season and many of the traditions that we know and love. In 1860, an illustration of the queen and Prince Albert around the Christmas tree in their home was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book and inspired British as well as American Christmas trees in the home. Other Christmas traditions she spread were singing carols, charitable giving during the holiday season, and hearty family feasts of roast beef, goose or turkey and plum pudding for desert. Like Martha Stewart of the 19th Century, many of Queen Victoria’s ornaments were handcrafted, and instructions for creating them were included in popular magazines. One example was a hot air balloon made with an early light bulb and net.
Cookies were key players in early homemade ornaments, baked into the shapes of bells, stars, hearts and other symbols of the season. German manufacturers took this concept to the next level during the Industrial Age and began making ornaments out of glass molds. The shapes were infinite and included animals, saints, famous people, and children, and their popularity had a global impact.
The history of the ornament industry is rich and has influenced the way we value ornaments as collections. Every charm imaginable was created, from Santas, angels and other symbols of Christmas, to souvenirs of vacation spots, icons of popular culture and milestone markers. A tree rich in ornaments reflected the lives and interests of the owners and became monuments to families and time capsules to reopen each year and add even more meaning. By 1890 F.W. Woolworth reportedly had sold $25 million worth of German glass ornaments in the United States. During and after the World Wars, there was a backlash against items made in Germany. In the 1930s, German ornament manufacturer Max Eckhardt, sensing his business was going to go under, partnered with Woolworth and approached Corning Company to start manufacturing American-made glass ornaments. They repurposed a machine that made ribbon glass light bulbs to produce Christmas ornaments! Eckhardt later founded popular American silvered ornament company Shiny Brite. Ornament entrepreneur Christopher Radko now reproduces both the 19th and 20th Century German ornaments as well as Shiny Brite classics from the mid-20th Century.
One thing that’s remained consistent is that no matter the time in Christmas tree history, homemade ornaments have created one of a kind Christmas trees and added personal touches that in my opinion, glass ornaments just can’t reproduce. When home for Christmas at my parents’ house, 20-something year old sticky, glittery paper ornaments my brothers and I made at school resurface every year attached to memories, and the felt Santas and Snowmen my mom made when we were kids will find prominent spots on the tree no mattered how tattered they appear when their boxes are reopened this year. Among newer ornaments, these are still our favorites and make our tree uniquely ours. Click HERE for instructions on how to make Mr. and Mrs. Clause shown at the top of the blog post! And for more fun facts and a more thorough history of the Christmas tree and its ornaments, visit The Ornament Shop!