CHARLOTTE, N.C., December 18, 2017: There is a wonderful legend about the origin of Christmas tree ornaments that centers around an Italian glassblower and an apple orchard. Historically, it was said that the first Christmas trees were decorated with cookies, candy and fruit. One year, however, following a particularly severe summer whose weather was not conducive to producing a strong crop of apples, it was decided that apples would no longer adorn local Christmas trees.
Fortunately, that decision came soon enough for an Italian glass worker to design round red glass balls to replace the apples. An added plus: these glass balls would also be much lighter when hung from the boughs of the tree. Legend has it the idea caught on quickly, and a new tradition was born.
But it now appears this story is more myth than fact. If that is so, then where did the idea of Christmas ornaments really originate?
As with other yuletide beginnings, we must return to the 8th century to find the real deal. It was around that time that a German monk named Boniface (now St. Boniface) was the first person to set up a fir tree outdoors for the people to decorate. For seven centuries the tradition Boniface started was extremely simple, consisting of little more than placing white candles on the branches of the tree.
But all that changed in the 15th century when many other kinds of ornaments were added to adorn the trees, gradually becoming increasingly elaborate with each passing Christmas.
A breakthrough event occurred in 1510 in Latvia when roses were added to the growing collection of Christmas ornaments and decorations, the better to honor the Virgin Mary. This inspiration was so significant that it is often hailed as the precursor to modern Christmas tree adornments.
Moving right along in history, in Strasbourg, France – a city on the Rhine River still recognized for having one of the best and most traditional Christmas markets in Europe – brought Christmas trees indoors in 1605. Residents of the city introduced paper roses, lighted candles, wafers, nuts and sweets to the pallette of Christmas decorations.
But the lasting result was that by the early 17th century, the indoor Christmas tree tradition we still celebrate today was firmly established, at least throughout much of Europe. Within a few years, the tradition of Christmas tree ornaments and decorations adorning indoor trees hit a high point with the introduction of tinsel to adorn Christmas trees in 1610. Believe it or not, tinsel was originally made with pure silver.
By the early 1800s, the Christmas tree tradition reached the United States. But early American decorations and ornaments were more like their earlier, earthier European-style precursors. The now former American colonials typically used things that typically grew on trees to create Christmas tree ornaments symbolizine the regeneration of life each spring. It wasn’t long, however, before paper streamers and thin strips of shiny metal foil substituted for natural decorations to adorn American Christmas trees in a more modern style.
With the tradition of Christmas tree ornaments now firmly established throughout the world, each country began adding it own cultural identity to the process. These variants included strands of cranberries or popcorn in America; small newspaper scraps in Great Britain; and German gingerbread and hard cookies that were baked in various seasonal shapes such as, bells, hearts and angels. Each country continually sought innovative ways to acknowledge and symbolize their Christmas joy.
Generally during those times, decorations were primarily whatever a family tradition happened to be. Despite their alleged Italian origins, however, the place where hand-blown glass ornaments could be found was at the Christmas markets of Germany.
In the region of Lauscha in Germany – not Italy as previously believed – crystal makers began creating miniature glass items like molds of children, saints, animals and celebrities. The idea was an instant success and soon these Christmas tree ornaments became more “store bought” than traditional or natural. The Germans became so successful with their new enterprise that they quickly became the world leader in glass Christmas ornaments.
However, German dominance was shortlived. Japan entered the marketplace in 1925 with newer and more colorful designs. Not long after, the Czech Republic followed suit with even fancier decorations.
More problematically, World War I produced a political backlash against German glass makers. Though temporary, this effective boycott had a major impact on the business.
During that time, Max Eckhardt, an American businessman with knowledge that the Corning Company possessed a machine capable of manufacturing thousands of small light bulbs from a single ribbon of glass, formed a partnership with F.W. Woolworth to have Corning mass produce glass ornaments in America. By 1940 the idea proved a resounding success, with Corning able to create ornaments on a vastly larger scale than the manually fashioned items from Germany. One such glass making machine is currently on display at The Henry Ford “America’s Greatest Attraction” museum in Dearborn, Michigan.
By the end of World War II, most of the larger firms in Germany were re-established as small private glass-blowing enterprises. Today there are still about 20 glass businesses in Lauscha.
Whatever the case today, if we want to return to the old traditions we can always “Deck the halls with boughs of holly. Tra-la-la-la-la La-la-la-la,” and recall the ancient origins of our modern Christmas tree ornaments and other holiday adornments
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
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