The History of Holiday Ornaments

By: Peyton Lawson

In Latvia circa 1510, a fir tree was decorated with roses which were associated with the Virgin Mary. This event is often hailed as the pioneer of modern Christmas decorations.

By 1605, a tree in Strasbourg– a city on the Rhine in eastern France near the German border– was brought indoors and adorned with paper roses, lighted candles, wafers, nuts, and sweets.

The decorative ornaments grew more diverse and each family used their own creativity to beautify the Christmas trees. Later decorations included painted eggshells, cookies, and candies. The high point came with the introduction of tinsel—originally made with pure silver— in 1610, an item that has been a favorite decorative item since.

As time passed, the Christmas tree traditions gradually found their way into English homes where the decorations were glass beads and hand-sewn snowflakes being used to adorn the trees. By the 1800’s, the Christmas tree tradition eventually began to enter the American homes.

In America, people would string long strands of cranberries or popcorn to encircle their trees. In the UK, imaginative ornaments of lace, paper or other items showed the ingenuity and skill of their makers. Newspaper scraps or magazine illustrations also were used in the family Christmas tree decorations. Mini gifts were other items that began to be hung on the trees, often contained in little handcrafted baskets, nestled in the crook of a branch, or just suspended by a small piece of thread. In fact, so many decorative items began to be used during this period, that with each passing year, it became increasingly difficult to actually see the tree beneath the ornaments.

Until the 1880s, Christmas tree decorations had mainly been the creative domain of family and friends, and the only ornaments available in the market were German hand-cast lead and hand-blown glass decorations. But the 1880s saw many German entrepreneurs seriously thinking of manufacturing ornaments on a mass scale and selling them strictly as Christmas ornaments.

Lauscha, the hub of the glass ornament trade in Germany–which had until then been engaged in making glass articles such as bottles and marbles–soon began to create little glass toys like molds of children, saints, famous people, and animals, to be released on the market. This new type of Christmas ornament was an instant success and was met with a huge demand. American mass merchandisers began importing German glass ornaments into the country in the 1880s. By 1890, Germany was reportedly selling $25 million worth of them.

Non-glass ornaments started being manufactured in Dresden, a city near to Lauscha. The artisans in Dresden constructed brightly colored ornaments resembling fish, birds, and other animals out of pressed and embossed paper, fitting nicely with the Christmas ornament traditions.

In the twentieth century, Christmas began to grow more and more popular among most Europeans and Americans and was celebrated with gusto. It was during this period that the German monopoly over the Christmas ornament market was broken. Since 1925, Japan challenged Germany’s dominance over the world market by producing ornaments on a huge scale. They brought in newer, more colorful designs and began to bite off the German market. Later, the Czech Republic also entered the competition with an impressive amount of fancy Christmas ornaments. By 1935, more than 250 million Christmas tree ornaments were being imported to America. Christmas ball and bauble ornaments have been quite popular since then.

The popular pickle ornament of the Germans carries a wonderful tale. Pickle ornaments are glass ornaments formed in the shape of a pickle. German parents used it to judge the most intelligent child in the family: the first one to find the pickle got an additional gift from St. Nicholas.

In 1973 the American Hallmark Company first launched the Keepsake Christmas ornaments that revolutionized the history of Christmas tree ornaments. Once a collection of decorated glass balls and yarn figures, keepsake ornaments are now found in a wide variety of wood, acrylic, bone china, porcelain and hand-made forms.

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