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Snow-covered evergreens standing in the woods are merely trees. Once decorated, they become Christmas trees. Over the centuries people have adorned their Christmas trees with many different kinds of objects. The very earliest ornaments tended to recall the religious significance of the holiday. At one point people decorated their Christmas trees with good things to eat and gifts for one another. In more recent times Christmas ornaments have served primarily as pretty decorations for the tree.

Earliest Ornaments

The earliest known Christmas tree ornaments were apples. Medieval actors used them to decorate the paradise tree, the central prop of the paradise play, a medieval European mystery play often performed on December 24 (see also Nativity Play). The apples represented the temptation of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Later, unconsecrated communion wafers were added to the tree, representing the salvation offered to humankind by Jesus Christ. Cherries might also hang from the tree in honor of the Virgin Mary (see also Cherry Tree). Although these town-square dramas eventually fell out of favor with the populace, some writers suspect that people in parts of France and Germany kept the custom of celebrating Christmas with a decorated fir tree, which eventually became known as a Christmas tree.

The first detailed description of a decorated Christmas tree in someone's home dates back to 1605 and comes from Strasbourg, Germany. According to this account, early seventeenth-century Germans festooned their Christmas trees with roses made out of colored paper, apples, wafers, and decorations made of shiny bits of gold foil or sugar. Indeed, a wide variety of ornaments made from food dangled from early German Christmas trees. The Germans hung gilded nuts on their trees, and later, cookies. They shaped these cookies in the form of hearts, angels, bells, and stars (see also Star of Bethlehem). Fruits and vegetables molded out of marzipan and colored with vegetable dyes soon followed. Some people made ornaments out of eggshells, transforming them, for example, into tiny baskets which could be filled with candy. In fact, the traditional German Christmas tree was covered with so many good things to eat that it was nicknamed a "sugar tree." Children looked forward to dismantling the tree on January 6, Epiphany, because they were then allowed to gobble up all the treats that had tempted them throughout the Christmas season.

Early Nineteenth-Century Ornaments

German immigrants brought their tree-decorating ideas with them to the United States. Like their ancestors in the old country, the Pennsylvania Dutch covered their Christmas trees with apples, nuts, and cookies. Some of them had brought elaborately carved wooden cookie molds with them from Germany. Others devised new tin cookie cutters to transform their dough into birds, animals, flowers, and other fanciful shapes.

As other Americans adopted the Christmas tree in the nineteenth century, they continued the German tradition of decorating it with good things to eat (see also America, Christmas in NineteenthCentury). With a needle and thread they created long strings of cranberries and popcorn to drape over its branches, thereby adding two native American plant products to the decorated tree. They also created cornucopias, small cone- or horn-shaped containers filled with hard candies, and dangled them from the tree. Some stuffed lace bags with tiny treats and hung these as ornaments. Lucky children might also find sugarplums tucked among the branches of the tree. Candy canes, too, whose shape recalled shepherds' crooks, might swing from the branches of the nineteenth-century tree. Inventive women also fashioned ornaments out of strings of beads, ribbons, gilt paper, and lace.

In addition, many Americans adopted the German custom of hanging gifts for children on the branches of the Christmas tree. This worked because parents gave their children lightweight, unwrapped trinkets rather than heavy, boxed gifts throughout most of the nineteenth-century (see also Commercialism; Wrapping Paper). Some families, however, preferred to hang stockings by the fireplace as receptacles for gifts. As people began to give each other heavier gifts, they shifted them to the space beneath the Christmas tree.

Covered with cookies and candies, studded with nuts, gilded with glittering candles, and trimmed with trinkets of all sorts, the nineteenth-century Christmas tree dazzled children and adults alike. In his short story "A Christmas Tree" (1850), English author Charles Dickens (1812-1870) captured the allure of the bountifully decorated tree of his era in the following lines:

I have been looking, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men - and no wonder, for their head took off, and showed them to be full of sugarplums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peepshow-boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pin cushions in all devices; there were guns, swords and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, penwipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more."

Dickens's enticing description leaves little room to wonder why the decorated Christmas tree soon became the focus of family Christmas celebrations.

Commercial Ornaments

Sometime around 1870 a new fad in Christmas tree decorations began. Instead of decorating the tree with gifts and things to eat, people began to buy commercially made decorations designed solely for use as ornaments. Most of these early commercial ornaments came from Germany.

Early German designers fashioned novel ornaments out of tin and wax. In the city of Dresden, artisans specialized in making ornaments out of embossed and painted cardboard. Only some of their designs featured Christmas symbols. They also crafted numerous ornaments shaped like fish, birds, ordinary and exotic animals, or recent inventions, such as the steamship and the motor car. In 1878 artisans from Nuremberg devised thin strips of silver foil that could be strewn over the tree's branches like icicles. They called the thin strips engel-shaar, which means "angels' hair," but we know them today as "tinsel." German printers also adopted recently invented color-printing techniques to turn out thousands of color illustrations of Christmas themes. Popular designs included angels, St. Nicholas, and the Weihnachtsmann. People collected especially pretty images and began to use them to ornament their Christmas trees and, sometimes, even to decorate their Christmas cookies (see also Christmas Cake).

Glass Ornaments

The blown-glass ornaments that began to pour out of Lauscha, Germany, in the 1870s were the ones that really caught the public's fancy, however. Lauscha had been a center of German glassmaking for centuries. In the second half of the nineteenth century some of its artisans discovered that they could blow decorative shapes out of glass to adorn Christmas trees. Demand was so high that the entire town was quickly drawn into the ornament industry. Whole families worked side by side, with the adult men molding the glass, the adult women silvering and painting the ornaments, and children breaking the glass stems and attaching metal caps. Soon, buyers representing major American stores, such as F. W. Woolworth, were making trips to Lauscha to snap up these unique Christmas decorations.

These early buyers chose their stock from a profusion of glass apples, pears, pinecones, and icicles. As the market for their products expanded, the glassblowers began to diversify their output into a dizzying range of shapes. Soon buyers could choose between a myriad of vegetable shapes, including pickles, carrots and corn, angels, the Weihnachtsmann, St. Nicholas, cartoon characters, hot air balloons, zeppelins, fish, dogs, clowns, birds, trumpets, drums, violins, bells, hearts, houses, churches, and more. A great deal of handcrafting went into many of these early glass ornaments. Some artisans, for example, took the trouble to insert tiny whistles into the stems of their trumpet ornaments, so that they could sound a single note. Americans could not get enough of these German novelties.

Although World War I disrupted production in Germany and cut off America's supply, the ornament trade resumed in the post-war years. World War II, however, struck the German industry a blow from which it would never recover. Not only was Germany devastated by the war, but the town of Lauscha fell within the territory turned over to the Soviets afterwards, becoming part of East Germany. The Communist government frowned upon trade with the United States and the other Western nations. This policy severely limited the artisans' access to the once-worldwide market for Lauscha's goods. In addition, many children of glassblowers abandoned this sweaty, labor-intensive trade after the war.

During World War II the Corning Glass Company began to produce ornaments in the United States. Corning replaced the glassblowers with glass-blowing machines, however. Although the machines turned out uniform, round balls rather than the dazzling variety of shapes produced by the German artisans, a machine could produce in a minute the same number of ornaments it took a German glassblower all day to produce. Today, Corning still makes most of the ornaments produced in the United States.

Ethnic Ornaments

Just as Christmas symbols vary from country to country, so do typical Christmas ornaments. Some of these ornaments may strike Americans as quite unusual. For example, in the Ukraine, spiders and their webs dangle from the traditional tree. These symbols come from an old legend that tells of a poor woman who had no ornaments to hang on her tree on Christmas Eve. The next morning, however, the family awoke to see shining silver spider webs floating between the branches. A friendly spider had decorated the tree for the poor family. In the Scandinavian countries one might find straw goats hanging from the tree (see also Yule Goat). The Danes favor red and white hearts and strings of miniature red-and-white Danish flags (see also Denmark, Christmas in).

Lighting the Tree

The earliest description of an illuminated tree comes from southern Germany in the year 1660. The light was provided by candles. Since candles were relatively expensive in those days, humble folk often had to make do with devices such as miniature wicks floating in walnut shells filled with oil.

Most of our early accounts of illuminated trees date from the nineteenth century, when the Christmas tree was becoming popular in Britain and the United States. By the second half of the nineteenth century, candles had become an expected ornament on the American Christmas tree. People found the spell of the candle-covered tree nearly irresistible, in spite of the dangers it posed. The candles not only threatened to set the tree itself on fire, but also could consume flammable ornaments or ignite the clothing of anyone who brushed by them. Newspaper advice columns cautioned families to designate at least one person to keep a watchful eye on the lit tree at all times and to have a bucket or wet sponge handy to extinguish any accidental fire. Often the tree was lit for the first time on Christmas Eve. Excited children fidgeted outside the parlor doors while their parents painstakingly placed and lit the candles. Some were told that Santa Claus not only left the gifts but also decorated the tree. The magical sight of the glowing, gift-bestrewn tree enchanted children and adults alike. In spite of the yearly newspaper reports of Christmas tree fire tragedies, people continued to illuminate their trees with candles. So great was the desire for a safe, illuminated tree that in 1882, only three years after inventor Thomas Edison gave the world the first electric light, one of his associates figured out how to use the new invention to light up a Christmas tree. The new electric tree soon became a fashionable Christmas toy for the rich, who could afford to hire an electrician to come to their homes and wire the tree by hand. In 1895 electric lights appeared on the White House Christmas tree at the request of President Grover Cleveland.

In 1903 the Ever-Ready Company of New York brought electric Christmas tree lights nearer the reach of ordinary people by devising the first string of ready-made lights. Problems remained, however. Not only were these strings heavier than today's lights, but each light was connected to the next by "series" wiring. This meant that when one bulb burned out, the whole string refused to light. In addition, during the first decades of the twentieth century, many American homes still did not have electricity. Gradually, electricity spread throughout the country and the price of the strings of electric lights came down. Only after World War II did "parallel" wiring come into widespread use. In this wiring system the failure of one bulb did not affect the others. Tiny "midget" lights achieved widespread popularity in the 1970s.

Further Reading

Foley, Daniel J. The Christmas Tree. Philadelphia, Pa.: Chilton Company, 1960. Metcalfe, Edna. The Trees of Christmas. Nashville, Tenn.: Abingdon Press, 1969. Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book. New York: Viking Press, 1976. Sterbenz, Carol Endler, and Nancy Johnson. The Decorated Tree. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1982. Stevens, Patricia Bunning. Merry Christmas!: A History of the Holiday. New York: Macmillan, 1979. The Time-Life Book of Christmas. New York: Prentice Hall, 1987.
References in classic literature ?
The painter must introduce no ornament inconsistent with the climate or country of his landscape; he must not plant cypress trees upon Inch-Merrin, or Scottish firs among the ruins of Persepolis; and the author lies under a corresponding restraint.
On the platform proper squatted an enormous warrior heavily loaded with metal ornaments, gay-colored feathers and beautifully wrought leather trappings ingeniously set with precious stones.
When Akut was by, the small folk kept their distance, but with Korak they were less shy and when both the males were gone they would come close to Meriem, tugging at her ornaments or playing with Geeka, who was a never ending source of amusement to them.
But the lace must be kept for my gala dress, and it was hoped that it would bring at least its original cost when properly bestowed as an ornament on a fabric of my quality.
The landlord took up the ornaments and pushed out his lips in a meditative manner.
Richard had originally a cunning expedient, by which the chimneys were intended to be so low, and so situated, as to resemble ornaments on the balustrades; but comfort required that the chimneys should rise with the roof, in order that the smoke might bc carried off, and they thus became four extremely conspicuous objects in the view.
To her the cares were sometimes almost beyond the happiness; for young and inexperienced, with small means of choice and no confidence in her own taste, the "how she should be dressed" was a point of painful solicitude; and the almost solitary ornament in her possession, a very pretty amber cross which William had brought her from Sicily, was the greatest distress of all, for she had nothing but a bit of ribbon to fasten it to; and though she had worn it in that manner once, would it be allowable at such a time in the midst of all the rich ornaments which she supposed all the other young ladies would appear in?
Finally an old fellow with many ornaments of metal about his arms and legs, and a necklace of dried human hands depending upon his chest, entered the hut.
The "old blue" that we hang about our walls as ornaments were the common every-day household utensils of a few centuries ago; and the pink shepherds and the yellow shepherdesses that we hand round now for all our friends to gush over, and pretend they understand, were the unvalued mantel-ornaments that the mother of the eighteenth century would have given the baby to suck when he cried.
And," she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification, "necklaces are quite usual now; and Madame Poincon, who was stricter in some things even than you are, used to wear ornaments.
Likewise there were jewelers who made ornaments for the person, which pleased and beautified the people, and these ornaments also were free to those who asked for them.
Their arms and necks were encircled by many ornaments of metal--silver predominating--and on their tunics were sewn the heads of tiny reptiles in odd and rather artistic designs.