Like most items still in use today, Christmas tree ornaments have evolved over the decades. From the original ones made from things found in nature to ornate hand blown, leaded glass, the tradition remains a strong one throughout the Christian world.
For simplicity’s sake, these decorations are divided into four categories: organic items such as dried fruits; spun cotton; die cut paper; and blown glass.
But before jumping into descriptions about the different ornaments, a brief history lesson is needed. According to German lore, Saint Boniface, the patron saint of Germans, appeared in the seventh or eighth century to spread the Gospel. During the Yuletide season, Boniface would gather his flock around an evergreen tree to celebrate the birth of Christ, creating the tradition of gathering around an evergreen tree.
The use of evergreens predates even Boniface, however. Pagan societies hung boughs of evergreens and holly sprigs around doors and windows to ward off evil spirits during the darkest and coldest months of the year. To better blend pagan traditions with the new Christian ones, many Christian missionaries like Boniface combined elements of both religions, including the use of the evergreen tree. This is thought to have made the conversion to the Christian faith easier by making it seem more familiar to the potential converts.
It is believed that sometime in the 16th century, the first religious leader to actually decorate a tree was Martin Luther, known more for leading the protestant reformation. But it was Queen Victoria and her beloved Prince Albert who brought the tree-trimming custom to the forefront of Christian society. Albert, a German native, no doubt brought many of his country’s customs with him upon his marriage to Victoria.
As early as 1848, an edition of the London News showed Queen Victoria with her family standing around a decorated tree. Some historians believe the Christmas tree tradition was in the United States as early as the 1700s, brought here by German Hessians, mercenary soldiers hired by the British to quash the upstart American revolutionaries. If they did trim Christmas trees in the 1700s, early American puritan roots would have prohibited frivolity on one of the holiest days of the year, forcing the Hessians to celebrate in private. It would take Queen Victoria to make the decorated tree acceptable and stylish.
The German version started with a small, table-top size tree, measuring anywhere from 18 to 30 inches tall. And because most of Germany’s forests were owned by the aristocracy, the “common” man was left to fashion his version of a tree by using twigs and feathers, creating what we now know as the feather tree.
Feather trees have a center trunk with sticks and wire wrapped around it projecting outward, mimicking branches. In lieu of pine needles, feathers dyed green were glued to the sticks and separated as thinly as possible. Holly berries were glued to the end of each branch to cover the wiring. For stability, the trunk was then mounted into a decorative wooden base.
Earlier trees were decorated with items directly from nature, such as dried apple slices, berries, nuts and even vegetables. Tiny baskets holding small gifts of candy also adorned the tree, laying the groundwork for the later tradition of leaving gifts beneath the tree for children to find.
Godey’s Lady’s Book, published in December 1860, first referenced a floor to ceiling evergreen in an American home by publishing another illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their children sitting around a lavishly decorated tree. The author of the Godey’s article described the tree as being held upright in a “large stone jar and decorated with bright red holly berries, threaded like beads upon fine cord.”
By the mid-1860s, tree trimming celebrations were common in public squares, a ritual still practiced in small towns across America. Lavish “tree trimming” parties in private homes allowed for additional, new traditions to be born. As the trees became larger, so did the decorations, to the point where it was common to have the outside of the tree completely covered in ornaments.
With most new ideas, there were a few kinks to be worked out. No one had figured out how to keep the larger trees upright. Many homes caught fire, not just because of the burning candle ornaments hanging on the tree, but because the tree literally fell over. It wasn’t until the 1870s that a Christmas tree stand was invented and sold in the United States.
With the rise of the middle class during the Industrial Revolution, people could afford to create and purchase more lavish ornaments versus the free ones found in nature. Using a mixture of sugar or starch, spun cotton ornaments were fashioned into fruit shapes to replace their edible models. These cotton decorations still mimicked items found in nature. Easy to shape, once the starched cotton dried and stiffened, the ornament was painted. Spun cotton fruit ornaments usually had silk leaves added to enhance their appearance. Tinsel and hair were often glued to bird and animal ornaments to make them more lifelike. Even the family pet was sometimes represented on the tree in the form of an ornament.
Handmade ornaments made from lace, paper, beads, tinsel and common household items became popular. Paper ornaments were not only economical but easy to create. Many magazines published designs that could be cut out, known as die-cuts. These die-cuts were then pasted onto heavy cardboard and hung from the tree. Popular motifs included angels, children and the immortal Saint Nicholas.
Unknowingly, Prince Albert’s influence created the ornament-making cottage industry, believed to have started in a little German village named Lauscha. Already known for glass making, the entrepreneurs of Lauscha jumped on the Christmas tree ornament opportunity and soon monopolized the market. For those who could afford them, blown glass ornaments became extremely popular and in high demand. As disposable income rose with the Victorian middle class, edible, paper and cotton ornaments were replaced by the more decorative and elaborate glass ones.
The ornament industry became a family affair, with the skills and tools passed down from generation to generation. Men blew the glass into ornament molds, women silvered them to better reflect the candlelight and children painted or applied mica for extra sparkle.
The first glass ornaments replicated their earlier counterparts, shaped like fruit and other edibles. As the craft of glass blowing advanced, the molds became more intricate, creating items such as grape clusters and butterflies. Spun glass accented by elaborate threads of silver showcased the craftsman’s skill. Ornaments shaped like birds were a favorite theme, with feathers glued on as wings, glass beads added for eyes and wire tinsel for legs. Because each ornament was handmade, they were all considered one-of-a-kind.
F.W. Woolworth of the famous five-and-dime store chain, brought blown glass German ornaments to the American market in the 1880s. Not impressed at first, Woolworth thought the market for these high-priced gewgaws was miniscule. Urged by his employees, however, he eventually went to Germany to check it out for himself. Finally convinced of their marketability, Woolworth’s Five and Dime stores sold out their first order in just a few weeks. Within 10 years, Woolworth’s supposedly sold $25 million worth of German-made glass ornaments. With the average price between 5 and 10 cents, imagine the millions of ornaments Americans consumed for their Christmas trees.
The start of World War I brought the importation of all German goods to a halt, allowing competitors to fill the void. Japan and Czechoslovakia exported millions of ornaments to the United States, but the quality and attention to detail left something to be desired when compared to the German-made ones.
Early Christmas ornaments are highly sought after by collectors. As with all collectibles, condition and rarity factors are keys in determining value. The intricate spun glass type can easily sell for $200 to $300, but early cotton ornaments can still be found for as little as $25.
Decorating trees in a specific theme was popular from the late 1880s until the end of
World War I. Using only red, white and blue ornaments for example, for a patriotic-themed tree was common. Another theme might be monochromatic, using only glass ornaments of the same color. The possibilities were endless, limited only by the imagination and budget of the tree trimmer.
Besides common themes, ornaments symbolized ideas and beliefs. Fruit and vegetable-shaped ornaments, for example, symbolized the harvest and were frequently found in agrarian areas. Birds were considered messengers of God, carrying love and peace to the world. Birds also supposedly carried good luck and fortune. Fish shaped ornaments related to the early symbol for Christ and a star-shaped ornament signified the Star of Bethlehem, a custom still done today by placing a star on the highest bough. The star lit the way for the three wise men.
The ornament with the strongest tie to the Civil War era, however, is the pickle. The tradition of hiding a pickle-shaped ornament in the Christmas tree was started in Lauscha, Germany. The child who found the pickle received an extra present from Saint Nicholas.
This tradition came over to the United States with the influx of German immigrants. It is believed a soldier from Bavaria named John Lower, possibly spelled as Hans Lauer, was captured by Confederate troops and held prisoner at the infamous Andersonville prison. Sick and starving, Lower convinced one of the guards to bring him a pickle.
Lower later claimed the pickle boosted his morale and provided him with the sustenance to survive Andersonville’s filthy and diseased conditions. When he returned home, he continued the pickle tradition with his children, swearing to his dying day that the recipient of the pickle would have a year’s worth of good fortune.
Victorian Christmas ornaments are still readily found at antique shows and flea markets. Many types of reproductions are available via the Internet by artisans who pride themselves on making beautiful, one-of-a-kind decorations based on the old Victorian designs. Start a new family tradition and begin a collection of these beautiful objects from our past.