Evergreen trees - the one Family of trees that stay green throughout all seasons - are steeped with tradition in cultures thousands of years old. In short, the "ever" green symbolized eternal life, existence beyond and not influenced by the changes inherent to the natural world.
A couple of thousand years ago, we see the initial pairing of gift giving with evergreens. During the winter solstice in honor of Saturnus, the Romans decorated their houses with green branches and lights and exchanged gifts. Among the gifts were coins to wish each other prosperity and sweets to usher in happiness. For the Romans, the ever-greenness of the branches coupled with the lights symbolized a bright eternal future.
So, while the use of evergreens reaches as far back as recorded time - there are even references in Egyptian texts - it's commonly believed that the first use of an evergreen associated specifically with Christmas belongs to a 7th-century monk who left England to spread the gospel in Germany. According to legend, he used the triangular shape of the mature Fir Tree to describe the doctrine of the Christian Trinity. By 1100, records indicate fir trees were being hung inside homes at Christmastime as a symbol of Christianity. Around 1500, Martin Luther set up a small fir tree in his house, decorated it with candles, and then lit them in honor of Christ's birth.
By 1550, Christmas markets were thriving in German towns, providing everything from gifts, to food and more practical things, such as a knife grinders for carving the Christmas Goose. There are records of bakers attending these fairs making gingerroot flavored breads, as well as merchants who made wax souvenirs which people took home and hung on their Christmas tree.
The first Christmas trees on record in the United States date from the mid-1800s, when Queen Victoria and Prince Albert - terrifically popular monarchs of their day - were shown in an engraving, with their children, standing in front of a decorated evergreen for Christmas. The fashion-conscious and wealthy of the US Eastern seaboard immediately erected their own Christmas trees, in part not to be outdone by one another, but also to demonstrate their trans-continental sense of style.
During this time period, Christmas ornaments were entirely hand made. Knitted snowflakes and stars and tiny purses of silk were often found on these early American trees, frequently using imported fabrics to produce the most haute couture tree in town. Decorations also included small beads and drawn-out silver strings; delicate angel figurines were shown at the finest shops of the day.
Smallish glass beads hanging from ribbons quickly became glass balls, the most common form of Christmas ornament we see today. Woolworth's introduced imported German Christmas Ornaments for re-sale on a large scale basis around 1880. By 1890, at nickel and dime prices, Woolworth was selling $25 million per annum in ornaments. The first American patent for electric lights dates to 1882, and 10 years later we see metal hooks for more safely handing decorations on trees. By 1900, themed trees became a national rage. One could decorate according to a color scheme, or even to a culture. High-style reports of the time show Egyptian-themed trees and Oriental "Far East" trees.
Around the turn of the last century, the history of ornaments took a turn; what was available were primarily German hand-cast lead and hand-blown glass decorations, commonly lined with mercury to create extraordinary luminescence. Over the next 20 or so years, the ornaments became more elaborate and expensive. Silk, wool, chenille and metal threads embellished many of them. Hand-spun glass was used to produce angel wings. By the 30s, Czechoslovakia, Japan and the US were all competing in the ever-changing Christmas ornament industry. The design elements remained what we now refer to as traditional Christmas ornaments. By the 50s, non-traditional designs were introduced primarily as swirls and stripes on ball-shaped ornaments. It wasn't until the 90s that we see a proliferation of ornament designs that captured specific life events and were highly specialized, like baby's first Christmas ornaments and the terrifically popular Wedding Ornaments for a special bride and groom. Still later we see the emergence of anniversary ornaments and the somber and tender memorial ornaments in celebration of a departed's memory and life.
Backing up a little bit, it wasn't until the 1960s that personalized Christmas ornaments became widespread in terms of popularity. In these early days, personalized ornaments consisted chiefly of a red ball with an individual's name hand-painted across the undecorated surface which was produced by a local artisan. In the 70s and 80s, craft-oriented and industrious entrepreneurs gathered an assortment of standard Christmas ornaments and "found" a place or places to write names. By the late 80s, there were a few companies offering ornaments to personalize, and by the latter 90s the Christmas ornament industry saw the birth of companies dedicated to the production of ornaments specifically designed to be personalized. At www.russellrhode.com, we offer the top designs from the best companies in the ornament business, as well as several hundred of our own custom designs from $8 to $80.