CHARLOTTE, NC: This is no “which came first, the chicken or the egg” dilemma. Christmas trees were first, then there were ornaments. There’s 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 adorned with cookies, candy, and fruit. One year following a particularly severe summer where the weather was not conducive for a strong crop of apples, it was decided that apples would no longer adorn the holiday trees.
Fortunately, the decision was made soon enough for a glass worker in Italy to design round red glass balls to replace the apples and would also be much lighter when hung from the boughs of the tree.
Legend has it the idea caught on and a new tradition was born.
However, it now appears the myth is closer to being just a nice story more than fact. If that is so, then where did the idea of Christmas ornaments really originate?
As with a few other yuletide beginnings, we return to the 8th century when a German monk named Saint Boniface was the first person to set up a fir tree outdoors for the people to decorate. For seven centuries the tradition was extremely simple consisting of little more than placing white candles on the branches of the tree.
All of that changed in the 15th century when other ornaments began to adorn the trees, gradually becoming increasingly elaborate with each passing Christmas.
In Latvia in 1510, there was a breakthrough event when roses were added to the decorations to honor the Virgin Mary. The inspiration was so significant, it is often hailed as the pioneer of modern Christmas decorations.
Strasbourg, France, a city on the Rhine River which is still recognized as having one of the best and most traditional Christmas markets in Europe, brought Christmas trees indoors in 1605 and introduced paper roses, lighted candles, wafers, nuts and sweets to the decorations.
As a result, an early 17th-century idea established the trend we still celebrate today, putting up the Christmas tree inside the house.
Within five years, Christmas tree decorations hit its high point with the introduction of tinsel in 1610. Believe it or not, tinsel was originally made with pure silver.
By the 19th century in the early 1800s, the Christmas tree tradition reached the United States, however American decorations were more like the early European-style ornaments using things that typically grew on trees to symbolize the regeneration of life in the spring;
It wasn’t long, however, before paper streamers and thin strips of shiny metal foil began to adorn American Christmas trees.
With the tradition of Christmas tree decorations now firmly established throughout the world, each country began adding its own cultural identity to the process giving us things like strands of cranberries or popcorn in the US, small newspaper scraps in Great Britain, tiny handcrafted baskets or small gifts, gingerbread and a wide range of other festive innovative ways to acknowledge Christmas joy.
Germany began introducing gingerbread and hard cookies that were baked in various seasonal shapes such as, bells, hearts, and angels.
At that time decorations were primarily whatever a family tradition happened to be and the only place where hand-blown glass ornaments could be found was at the Christmas markets in Germany.
Before long 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 the 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 as Japan entered the marketplace in 1925 with newer and more colorful designs. Not long after, the Czech Republic followed suit with even fancier decorations.
World War I produced a backlash for German glass makers which, though temporary, had a major impact on the business.
During that time, Max Eckhardt, an American businessman with the knowledge that the Corning Company possessed a machine that could manufacture 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.
By 1940 the idea was a resounding success with Corning able to create ornaments on a vastly larger scale than the manually made 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-establishing as small private glass-blowing enterprises. Today there are only about 20 glass businesses in Lauscha.
Which means 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.”
About the Author:
Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor is an award-winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is the founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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