History of Tree Decorations

Enjoy a concise history of the origins of Christmas tree decorations on this page, or browse our more than 1700 exclusive Christmas ornaments.

From Present Day Christmas Tree Decorations to the Past: The origins and history of Christmas Decorations

Remember near the end of the movie "It's a Wonderful Life" when we hear the jingling of a small silver bell? Jimmy Stewart's small daughter says "Look, Daddy, teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings."

The bell she's pointing to is hanging amongst a host of other ornaments on a Christmas tree. Then she asks, "Why there? Why a Christmas tree and what's that stuff hanging on its branches?"  Where exactly do our Christmas traditions like Christmas tree decorations come from?

Christmas tree traditions--Yule tree or Tannenbaum (German: fir tree)--is one of the most popular decorations associated with the celebration of Christmas. It is normally an evergreen coniferous tree that is brought into a home or used in the open, and is decorated with Christmas lights and colorful ornaments during the days around Christmas. An angel or star is often placed at the top of the tree, representing the host of angels or the Star of Bethlehem from the Nativity story.

Some say that the tree represents the one whose wood was made into a cross and used to crucify Jesus of Nazareth. Others say that its origin goes back to the original Tree of Knowledge and that is why so many early decorations were apples. Those who point to the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia as a source for our contemporary trees note the evergreens were used as decoration during that long ago holiday that ended on December 25. The evergreen continues to weave its way through the history of Christmas trees. It is a symbol of the promise of life to come after months of cold winter.

The modern custom of using a Christmas tree can be traced to 16th century Germany, though neither an inventor nor a single town can be identified as the sole origin for the tradition, which was a popular merging of older traditions mentioned above. In the Cathedral of Strasbourg in 1539, the church record mentions the up rise of a Christmas tree. In that period, the guilds started setting up Christmas trees in front of their guildhalls: A German professor of European ethnology found a chronicle of 1570 which reports how a small fir was decorated with apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers, and erected in the guild-house, for the benefit of the guild members children, who collected these decorations on Christmas day. During the 17th century, the custom entered family homes.

By the early 18th century, the custom had become common in towns of the upper Rhineland, but it had not yet spread to rural areas. Wax candles are attested from the late 18th century. The Christmas tree remained confined to the upper Rhineland for a relatively long time. It was regarded as a Protestant custom by the Catholic majority along the lower Rhine and was spread there only by Prussian officials who moved there in 1815.

In the early 19th century, the custom became popular among the elite and spread to royal courts as far as Russia. A princess introduced the Christmas tree to Austria in 1816. In France, the first Christmas tree was introduced in 1840 by a Duchesse.

Candle lights were added to Christmas trees as an attempt to further explain the history of Christmas Ornaments. Again, however, legend plays an important part in determining how generations of people either did, or didn't, light their trees. Martin Luther is said to have been the first to add lights to his tree in order to give his children a better understanding of the stars in the Heaven from which Jesus came. Whether true or not, it might help explain why, for decades, lighted Christmas trees were thought to be a part of the Protestant celebration of Christmas and thus were considerably less popular in Catholic homes and churches.

Around the midpoint of the Nineteenth Century, in addition to candle lights - or not - decorations hanging from Christmas trees included miniature replicas of fruit, animals, toys, musical instruments and angels made primarily out of materials available in homes.

By this time the idea of the Christmas tree had already made its way to Britain and in the United States immigrants from Germany had also introduced the idea of the Christmas tree as an integral part of their holiday festivities. Adoption in this country was extensive, aided perhaps by the publication of Kris Kringle's Christmas Tree in 1845.

The first Christmas tree to appear in the White House was erected in 1856 by President Franklin Pierce. The first truly national Christmas tree was inaugurated by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913, but it was not until President Calvin Coolidge moved the tree to its present location near the White House - and ceremoniously switched on the newly installed electric lights - that the idea of an "official" tree took hold.

Christmas trees were not limited to a place of honor in the home. Community trees not only became symbols of holiday spirit, but also served as the only source of a tree for the estimated eighty percent of Americans at the turn of the Twentieth Century who did not, or could not, have a tree in their homes.

Today's Christmas ornaments take many different forms, from a simple round ball to highly artistic designs. Baubles are another extremely common decoration, and usually consist of a fairly small hollow glass or plastic sphere coated with a thin metallic layer to make them reflective.

Glass baubles were first made in Germany by Hans Greiner who according to legend, began hand blowing glass into Christmas decorations because he was unable to afford usual ornaments such as nuts, apples and candy. Greiner originally started by blowing glass into the shape of fruit and nuts. The inside of his decorations were made to look silvery, at first with mercury or lead, then later using a special compound of silver nitrate and sugar water.

Themed collections of Christmas decorations often contain a combination of commercially produced ornaments and decorations created by family members. Such collections are often passed on and augmented from generation to generation. Today, besides mass-produced personalized Christmas ornaments there is a thriving market in handcrafted Christmas ornaments of every sort. These are typically sold at craft fairs, in craft shops and on the Internet.

Individuals' decorations vary widely, typically being a collection of family traditions and personal tastes and preferences; even a small unattractive ornament, if passed down from a parent or grandparent, may come to carry considerable emotional value and be given pride of place on the tree.

Each year, 33 to 36 million Christmas trees are produced in America, and 50 to 60 million are produced in Europe. In 1998, there were about 15,000 growers in America (a third of them "choose and cut" farms). In that same year, it was estimated that Americans spent $1.5 billion on Christmas trees.

Today, more than 85 percent of Americans have at least one Christmas tree in their homes each year, about half of them real and the other half replicas of trees.  But one thing stays the same--Christmas gifts adorn the base of every tree in the Nation. 

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