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Christmas Ornaments: History & Meanings

Instructor: Anne Butler

Anne has a bachelor's in K-12 art education and a master's in visual art and design. She currently works at a living history museum in Colorado.

Every December, the world turns festive and bright. People put up Christmas trees and decorate them with ornaments that have special meaning. In this lesson, we'll take a look at the meanings and history of Christmas ornaments.

Germanic Beginnings

Although today's Christmas ornaments seem somewhat commercial, the tradition of decorating a Christmas tree is said to go back to 16th century Germany. Germans decorated evergreen trees with apples, which were referred to as paradise trees. Paradise trees represented the tree of forbidden fruit in the Bible. Later trees were decorated with wafers, candles, and pastries in the shapes of angels, flowers, hearts, and stars. These traditions spread throughout Europe and Germany. It's been said that Martin Luther, a 16th century German religious reformer, was the first person to put candles on a Christmas tree. He was inspired to do it after seeing stars twinkling through evergreen trees. Later decorations included paper streamers and berries.

A Modern Apple Ornament
apple

Manufactured Ornaments

Later, people began to put glass ornaments on their trees. There are two legends when it comes to the creation of glass ornaments. Some say the first glass ornaments were created by a glassblower named Hans Greiner in the 16th century. He couldn't afford apples to decorate his tree, so he decided to make his own. Other people liked what they saw and began to order their own glass fruit. The other legend says Hans Greiner made his glass apples in 1847, not the 16th century.

Glass was included in other decorations as well, like beads. People also started using paper, painted nutshells, and tinsel. Early tinsel was created using real silver, and first appeared in the 1600s.

Ornaments Cross The Pond

Christmas ornaments stayed in Europe until the 1770s, until they came over to America with Hessian soldiers during the American Revolutionary War. Americans thought the tradition was a bit odd, however. Christmas was a sacred holiday, and Christmas trees were thought of as a pagan symbol and rather frivolous. This mindset continued until about the 19th century.

Royal Influence

The 1800s finally saw an acceptance of Christmas ornaments in America due to German and English immigration. These immigrants brought their traditions with them, and people decided that maybe decorating a Christmas tree wasn't such a bad idea after all.

The popularity of Christmas trees and ornaments skyrocketed during the reign of Queen Victoria. Despite the English distrust of Germany, Victoria celebrating her German husband's (and hers as well, as her mother was German) traditions helped increase the popularity of the festivities. Decorated Christmas trees became quite a fashionable thing to have in England and America.

An Illustration of Queen Victoria with her husband and children and their Christmas Tree
victoria tree

Store-Bought Splendor

Store owners also began to see the business potential in Christmas ornaments. F.W. Woolworth, who started Woolworth's stores, visited Germany in the 1880s and decided to import glass ornaments to sell in his stores. Selling them was a good decision, as he did quite well.

Woolworth
woolworth

Most of these glass ornaments were made in Germany until after World War II. Other ornaments were made of fiber board (a thick type of cardboard) and depicted angels and other scenes. Hallmark Keepsake ornaments began in 1973, marking a yearly tradition for many families.

German Glass Ornaments
glass

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