Christmas tree, an evergreen tree, often a pine or a fir, decorated with lights and ornaments as a part of Christmas festivities. Christmas trees can be fresh-cut, potted, or artificial and are used as both indoor and outdoor decorations. While the trees are traditionally associated with Christian symbolism, their modern use is largely secular. Many families place presents around an indoor Christmas tree to be opened on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day.
The use of evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life was a custom of the ancient Egyptians, Chinese, and Hebrews. Tree worship was common among the pagan Europeans and survived their conversion to Christianity in the Scandinavian customs of decorating the house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the Devil and of setting up a tree for the birds during Christmastime. It survived further in the custom, also observed in Germany, of placing a Yule tree at an entrance or inside the house during the midwinter holidays.
The modern Christmas tree, though, originated in western Germany. The main prop of a popular medieval play about Adam and Eve was a “paradise tree,” a fir tree hung with apples, that represented the Garden of Eden. The Germans set up a paradise tree in their homes on December 24, the religious feast day of Adam and Eve. They hung wafers on it (symbolizing the eucharistic host, the Christian sign of redemption); in a later tradition the wafers were replaced by cookies of various shapes. Candles, symbolic of Christ as the light of the world, were often added. In the same room was the “Christmas pyramid,” a triangular construction of wood that had shelves to hold Christmas figurines and was decorated with evergreens, candles, and a star. By the 16th century the Christmas pyramid and the paradise tree had merged, becoming the Christmas tree.
The custom was widespread among the German Lutherans by the 18th century, but it was not until the following century that the Christmas tree became a deep-rooted German tradition. Introduced into England in the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was popularized in the mid-19th century by German-born Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria. The Victorian tree was decorated with toys and small gifts, candles, candies, popcorn strings, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons and by paper chains. Taken to North America by German settlers as early as the 17th century, Christmas trees were the height of fashion by the 19th century. They were also popular in Austria, Switzerland, Poland, and the Netherlands. In China and Japan, Christmas trees, introduced by Western missionaries in the 19th and 20th centuries, were decorated with intricate paper designs.
Blown-glass ornaments were offered for sale in Britain and the United States as early as the 1870s, many produced in small workshops in Germany and Bohemia, which also created decorations made from tinsel, cast lead, beads, pressed paper, and cotton batting. In the United States, F.W. Woolworth was selling $25 million in ornaments annually by 1890, by which time strings of electric tree lights were also available. In the 1930s, artificial trees made of brush bristles were developed in the United States, and the 1950s and ’60s saw the mass production of aluminum and PVC plastic trees. Artificial trees gained significant popularity, particularly in countries where fresh trees were hard to procure.
The History of Christmas Tree Ornaments
The idea of decorating a tree for Christmas began in Germany, where they used to add fruits and nuts to trees once the leaves fell off to symbolize the promise of spring to come.
But in 1605, a fur tree was brought inside and adorned with paper roses, candles, nuts, and fruits, which was groundbreaking! The idea of decorating a tree indoors took off and spread across Germany.
In the 1800s, German immigrants brought the tradition to America, who made their own interpretations. Early Christmas ornaments were made out of whatever items that families had available to them – fruit (especially apples), nuts, strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper streamers, candles, and metal foil. They really came to show off American inventiveness!
Fun fact: Even before Christmas lights were invented, we loved the idea of lighting up a tree. Bits of foil were often added to reflect the light in the room and make the tree glisten!
Traditional Ball Ornaments
You know those sets of round plastic ornaments you decorate your tree with? Well, those originated in Germany, too!
Hans Greiner started making glass Christmas ball ornaments (called baubles) during the 1800s, which became the first manufactured Christmas ornaments. In the late 19th century, the enterprising F.W. Woolworth brought the idea to America, where he sold more than $25 million worth per year.
Eventually, manufacturers began using injection molding (injecting molten material into a mould) with plastic materials, which allowed for a variety of other shapes and sizes.
Fun fact: The round shape of the bauble originates from the shape of the original decorating material – fruits and nuts.
The Christmas Star
You may know that the Christmas star you see perched on top of trees and hung on branches has religious origins, but do you know why?
When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, there were three magi (or wise men) who saw an unusual star in the sky and knew that it would lead them to baby Jesus. They followed that star all the way to the stable where Jesus lay in a manger, and brought gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh. The star that we use to decorate our trees today is representative of the original Star of Bethlehem.
Fun fact: Though we sometimes refer to them as “the three kings”, the wise men were not actually kings. Instead, they were the equivalent of astrologers, who followed the patterns of the stars and were held in high esteem.
We use candy canes for everything from Christmas tree decorations to stocking stuffers! Another German Christmas tradition, the candy cane originated around 1670. Designed to help children sit still during Christmas services, the candy was shaped like a “J” to represent crooks of the shepherds that visited baby Jesus.
Around 1900, the red stripes and peppermint flavoring were added. Christians believe that the red stripes represent the blood that Jesus shed on the cross and the peppermint flavoring represents the hyssop plant that was used for Biblical purification.
Fun fact: The original candy canes had no flavoring or color and were essentially just “sugar sticks.”
Many people use beautiful, ornate angels to decorate the Christmas tree toppers or to hang intermixed with other ornament sets. These, too, have religious connotations.
They can represent the angel that appeared in Bethlehem to announce the birth of Jesus, the angel Gabriel who told Mary she would give birth to Jesus, or even the idea of angels watching over us and protecting us.
Fun Fact: Soon after Christmas trees became popular, parents would decorate trees with streamers, telling their children that the streamers were pieces of angel hair that had been caught in the branches.
The Christmas Pickle
The Christmas pickle is definitely one of the weirdest Christmas ornament traditions! It emerged in the late 19th century as a game that parents created for their children. They bought a glass pickle ornament, hid it inside the tree, where it blended in with the branches, and asked the children to hunt for it. Whoever found the pickle first got an extra gift!
Fun fact: While this was said to be a German tradition, Germany claimed they never heard of it! It’s thought to be the idea of an enterprising salesman who wanted to sell more unusual Christmas ornaments.
Contemporary Usage of Christmas Ornaments
Now, Christmas tree ornaments have come to really represent the interests of each individual family. For example, many families collect ornaments throughout their travels as visual representations of memories. Others purchase customized ornaments with the year of anniversaries, births, or other milestones engraved or stamped on them. Ornaments representing interests have become popular too, showcasing sports, movie characters, hobbies, musicians, favorite colors, and more.
Themed trees are a relatively new Christmas trend that’s quickly catching on! You’ll see everything from coastal trees (shells and sand dollars) to retro trees (mercury glass and pastels), movie-themed trees (movie characters and symbols) to rustic trees (pinecones and woodland animals). They’re really becoming representations of each individual family’s interests and preferences.
Fun fact: Hallmark Keepsake ornaments originated in 1973 with a small line of glass ball ornaments and yarn figures. Since then, over 8500 ornaments have been introduced, used to celebrate milestones by families all over the world.