In ancient times, it was thought that the decoration of bushes during Wintertime would make them attractive to the spirits which, so it was believed, had fled for shelter from the harsh weather. Of course, it is impossible to know what items were used for such adornment...perhaps colored cloth or stones. The people of Mesopotamia put great store on fringes. Fringed garments were a status symbol and the fringe would be removed to decorate new clothing when the old was discarded. Maybe these people used fringes to embellish their bushes.
With the passage of time, people began to carry branches into their homes in order to provide warmth and sanctuary to the spirits of nature. They would release them in early Spring, when the first buds began to emerge on the trees. From this tradition come two modern customs: The bringing of evergreens into the home at Christmastime; and the superstition that all decorations must be taken down by the end of Christmas or bad luck will surely ensue.
Originally, decorations were displayed for much longer than they are today since the Christmas season did not end until Candlemas (February 2nd), which was more in keeping with the earliest indications that Spring has returned. During the Middle Ages, people continued to believe that that tree spirits dwelt within the evergreens and that these little inhabitants would create havoc within the home if they were not released. Even with the advent of Christianity, these ancient traditions refused to die. Many beliefs sustained for centuries, encouraged by a largely illiterate people in a time before books and learning were available to everyone.
In the Sixth Century, missionaries were despatched to Britain from Rome. One such missionary was Saint Gregory, a wise man possessed with an understanding beyond his time. He realised it would be foolish to expect the populace to convert and overnight change the traditions that had been held sacred for hundreds of years. So, he instructed his missionaries to make allowances, stating: "If the people decorate their temples to Saturn, let them in future still decorate them...but for the festival of Christ's Birth."
So it was that Saint Augustine, who founded the first great church in Britain, followed this rule set by Saint Gregory. Thus, it is said, did he gently convert some 10,000 people to the new teachings of Christianty during one Christmastime. Although people continued do display decorations, it was more to honor the birthday of Jesus Christ and if some superstitions were retained from their earlier beliefs, such practices were overlooked...so long as they understood about the teachings of the Lord.
For many centuries, natural evergreen boughs were the solitary decorations people had available for Christmas. Branches of Holly or "Holm," as it was then called, was a popular plant because of its bright, red berries. Mistletoe was also a favorite, since it too sported berries which contrasted with the greenery.
By the 1950s, most people in both America and Great Britain were using artificial decorations. New machinery and modern techniques made such items cheap and easy to mass produce. Homemakers generally preferred artificial trees to real evergreens, which marked walls and trampled needles into carpets. Pretty paper and foil honeycomb garlands were seen in the very best homes and the humble dwelling alike. This form of decoration persisted until a new revival for a more natural theme and the look of a Victorian-type Christmas surfaced...in the late 1970s in America and late 1980s in Britain. Modern Christmas designs tend to come into fashion every so often and persist for a few years before swinging back once more to the nostalgia of the old traditional decorations.
Fruit has always been associated with Christmas. In Europe, fruits, nuts and
gingerbreads were popular gifts. Small, locally-grown apples and hard pears were
often used to decorate European Christmas trees, along with nuts. The fruits used,
however, had to be grown in the area and plentiful in supply. They were later eaten
from the branches of Christmas tree as part of the feasting.
Christmas Tree decoration truly began with the European Christmas Markets which
originated in Nuremburg, Germany during the Sixteenth Century. At that time, these
markets were practical affairs which sold everything a housewife could possibly need
in order to prepare for Christmas.
The makers of Gingerbread used honey in their baking which, at that time, came raw in
honeycombs direct from beehives. Consequently, the bakers were left with large
quantities of wax, which they would clean and then press into the carved wooden moulds
used for making Gingerbread. During the 1500s and 1600s, these moulds were often in the
shapes of scrolls or cherubs or plaques, used in the making of plaster cornices for
architectural work. Later, they featured Nativity scenes, men on horseback, animals
or a variety of other designs.
Adorned with a ribbon before the wax set, these models were painted or gilded and sold
as "Fairings," souvenirs of the Christmas Fair. People would take them home to display
on their trees. The most popular designs were angels and cherubs. It was not unusual
for a tree to be decorated with numerous angels, collected from the Fairs of many years.
In the Eighteenth Century, a special type of Angel was made in Nuremburg. Called a
"Rauschgoldengel" (which means "gilded tin angel"), it had a waxen face and hands
but a gown and crown created from tiered, gilded tin.
The manufacture of glass ornaments did not begin until the middle of the Nineteenth
Century. The art of glass-making was practiced in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia)
and along the border areas with Germany at a location in Thuringia called Lauscha.
During the 1600s, glass beads were made for chandeliers and for the decoration of
dresses. Some of the early strings of chandelier beads were also used to decorate
Christmas trees and a form of wooden chandelier which displayed figures from the
Nativity scene carved along its arms. This wooden chandelier was called a "Spinne,"
because candlelight which reflected on the strings of tiny beads resembled a spider's
web glistening with frost.
Glass-blowing was thirsty work and during the course of their labors, the blowers
would drink a lot of ale. Mild as the beverage might be, by the end of the day many of
the workers would be a little merry and held glass-blowing games to see who could blow
the largest ball before the glass burst. The balls which remained intact would be
gathered by the workers'wives and then "silvered" by the swirling of a nitrate solution
around the interior. These silvered balls would them be taken to the Christmas Markets
at Coburg and other areas, where they would be sold as Christmas balls, purported to
avert evil from the home over Christmas, if suspended or placed onto sticks which would
be displayed in the hallway of the house. This custom was a later version of the
Holy Bough ceremony...a distant and somewhat vague memory of keeping bad things from
the home during the Holy Season.
Unfortunately, many people believed these decorations to be witches balls, the
consequence of which is that the balls, often found in the windows of little antique
shops (particularly in England) cannot be bought...the storekeepers believing that to
sell them would be to sell their luck.
In 1863, gas was introduced into Lauscha, which made glass-blowing a much easier task.
The glass could be blown exceedingly thinner without bursting and it was possible to use
wooden moulds to create shapes and "figurals." These creations soon gained popularity
and by the 1870s, Lauscha was exporting glass balls to Britain and America. It became
something of a status symbol to display as many glass ornaments on the Christmas Tree
as could be afforded...which at first, was usually not many, except for the wealthy.
By the 1890s, however, almost everyone in Britain had trees laden with glass ornaments
in many shapes and designs.
In other parts of Europe, the tendency toward more traditional decorations lingered
for quite some time. Glass ornaments alternated with fruits in Germany and with paper
scissorcuts in Poland, while straw decorations remained popular in many alpine regions
of Switzerland and Austria. In Italy, a "Ceppo" was used instead of a tree. It was a
pyramid-shaped structure, complete with shelving which featured a Nativity tableau on
one shelf and fruits and floral decoration on the others. Scandinavian countries used
grain garlands, straw goats and tiny wooden gnomes called "Tomte," "Nisse" or "Gubbe."
The color scheme favored by Scandinavians was primarily red and white and incorporated
the use of many candles.
Some areas of pioneer America continued to use homemade decorations such as tinsel and
shapes fashioned from cotton batting, along with pierced tin stars, lanterns and
handsewn or wood decorations of all types. But the fashionable East Coast Society
filled their trees with glittering glass.
Tinsel was invented in Germany around 1610. At that time, real silver was used and
machines were invented which stretched the silver into the wafer-thin strips for tinsel.
Silver was durable but tarnished quickly, especially with candlelight. Thus, attempts
were made to use a mixture of lead and tin, but this was heavy and had a tendency to
break under its own weight. Therefore, it was considered to be an impractical combination
and manufacturers reverted to the use of real silver until the middle of the Twentieth
Century. Almost all tinsel manufactured today is made of plastic.
The Legend of Tinsel originated in Germany. Long ago, families would allow their animals
to enter the house and view the Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. Because the Christ
Child had been born in a stable, they believed that animals should take part in the
Christmas celebration...with one exception. Spiders were not allowed since housewives
did not want cobwebs all over everything. Quite naturally, the spiders were unhappy
about this. So, one year, they complained to the Christ Child. Feeling sorry for them,
he decided that late at night, he would let them in to see the trees. The excited spiders
loved the Christmas trees and all night long, they crawled about in the branches,
leaving the boughs covered with webs. On Christmas morning, the housewives saw what the
spiders had done but instead of being angry, they were delighted...for during the
night, the Christ Child had turned all of the cobwebs into sparkling tinsel.
Christmas Crackers were developed by Thomas Smith, an English manufacturer of
confectionary and stationary goods. While holidaying in France around 1847, Smith and
his family discovered the French Bon-Bon...an ordinary sugared almond, but wrapped in a
twist of waxed paper. Bonbonniers were all the rage in Paris and made enormous profits
with the sale of prettily-boxed and wrapped sweets. At a time when English sweets were
sold loose from the trays in which they were made, the notion of a wrapped confection was
quite a novelty (to say nothing of being more hygenic). Taken with the concept,
Smith brought the idea back to England and marketed the bon-bons in time for Christmas.
They were an instant success.
By the following Christmas, Smith felt something new was needed in order to stay ahead
of the competition, who were already beginning to market their own brand of wrapped
bon-bons. Someone told Smith about Chinese New Year Crackers which contained a fortune
prediction. After much deliberation, Smith came up with the idea of double-wrapping his
sweets...first a single roll of waxed paper and then a motto. Smith decided on a love
motto, since his confection was finding great favor with the ladies and they seemed to
enjoy such things. Finally, there would be a plain-colored outer wrapper.
Again, Smith's product met with instant success, but his competitors were close on his
heels and in those times, neither patent nor copyright were enforceable.
Pressured to improve his bon-bon even further, Smith next introduced a small charm or
trinket, placing the wrapped sweet in a small tube along with its motto and wrapping the
whole in the outer wrapper. Once again presented in time for the holidays, and marketed
as "Christmas Bonbonnes...complete with a surprise," sales rose even higher than before.
In the Christmases which followed, Smith varied the designs and colors of the outer
wrapper but felt that there had to be a greater novelty attainable.
It is said that Smith mooned around the house for weeks pondering the dilemmma and
irritating his wife. Then, fretting over the problem, he idly kicked at a piece of
smouldering wood that had fallen from the fireplace. The ember sparked and sputtered
into life. This was the inspiration for which Smith had been searching. Instead of
wrapping his bon-bons, he would create them so that they could be pulled and, as they
ripped apart, would "go off" with a bang.
It took two years for Smith to perfect a safe but effective means of producing the
"bang" which was needed. It was eventually achieved in 1860 after much experimentation
and a few burned fingers. A small strip of saltpetre (still commonly found in the
Christmas Crackers of today) was pasted to two strips of thin card. As each side was
pulled, the friction created a crack and a spark. In the early days, these crackers
were small...approximately six inches long and relatively plain. They were called
"Cosaques" because the noise they made was reminiscent of the cracking of the
Cossack's whips as they rode through Paris during the Franco-Prussian wars. The name
lingered for about a decade or so.
In his catalogs during the 1880s, Smith listed approximately 90 specially-designed sets
of a dozen Christmas Crackers with matching boxes...plus another 80 or so sets of more
simple styles, such as plain white or one plain color containing only the sweet and the
motto, similar to the earlier cracker bonbon. Elegant, fringed crackers were also
available with fine Chromolithographed picture scraps of Father Christmas, whose
contents contained well-made paper costumes. Each of these twelve crackers were of a
different-colored glazed paper and fitted together like dresser, the drawers sliding
open by means of a slim brass drop. The lid of each represented the exterior of a
window during the Christmas season. Upon drawing out the tray, the blind (by mechanical
device) rolled up to reveal a festive scene inside the window.
In the early Victorian Era, the merriest parties were held after Christmas...on Twelfth
Night, the last day of the holiday season. Parties given on Twelfth Night were usually
Masques, when people dressed up in fancy costumes. Crackers were a part of this gaiety
and the hats within were used as part of the fancy dress. Small crackers designed as
decorations were made in Europe and held pride of place on the branches of the Christmas
Tree year-after-year. Made from satins and silks, these crackers were rarely pulled
apart and contained such items as bottles of perfume, jewelry and lace handkerchiefs.
By the Twentieth Century, the Smith factory was producing some 13,000,000 crackers
every year. Some of these were exported to India and other parts of the British Empire.
Nearly everything continued to be made by hand, although machines manufactured the boxes
and assembled the papers for the crackers. The hand-made trinkets inside the crackers
included glass pendants and brooches, bracelets and other jewelry from Bohemia, delicate
paper fans from the Orient, ivory elephants and jade Buddhas from India, wooden toys
from Norway, musical toys from France and Germany, and novelties from such other
countries as America, Turkey and Africa. Some of the baubles from British suppliers
included electro-plated and solid silver charms, beautifully-embroidered aprons,
handkerchiefs and dolls' clothes.
The post-war mass market saw a decline in the quality of trinkets found inside the
crackers and the designs were not as elaborate as what had gone before. "Cheap and
cheerful" seemed to be the order of the day. Paper was scarce and, comparatively,
these plain crackers cost more than their fine pre-war counterparts. In the late 1980s,
there was a turning trend back toward the better crackers of old. The gifts inside
became more sophisticated and the sets more fancy. Some began to adopt specific themes
(such as Russell Grant's Astrological Crackers). By the 1990s, there were Christmas
Crackers available to suit almost any taste...from gardening and wildlife to the
Nativity and cartoon characters. By the end of the decade, crackers were at last
beginning to make headway in such countries as America and Japan, where there had been
a former importation problem due to the "explosive" nature of the item.
In the late 1800s, a candy-maker in Indiana wanted to make a candy that would be a
witness of his faith. Thus, did the Christmas Candy Cane come into existence.
He incorporated several symbols of the birth, ministry and death of Jesus Christ.
He began with a stick of plain peppermint candy...white to symbolize the Virgin Birth
and sinless nature of Jesus Christ and hard to symbolize the Solid Rock, which was the
foundation of the Church and the firmness of the promises of God.
The candy-maker bent the candy in the form of a "J" to represent the precious name of
Jesus who came to earth as the Savior of all mankind. Inverted, it could also represent
the staff of the Good Shepherd with which he reaches down into the ditches of the world
to lift out the fallen lambs who, like all sheep have gone astray. Thinking the candy
to be somewhat plain, the candy-maker stained it with three small red stripes which
smbolized the stripes Jesus received when he was beaten prior to the crucifixion and
was representative of the Holy Trinity. Then, he added a large, bold, red stripe to
symbolize the blood shed by Christ on the cross so that mankind might have the promise
of eternal life. As time passed, the candy became known simply as a "candy cane."
It is now a standard decoration seen at Christmas time, but has somehow lost the meaning
that the Indiana candy-maker intended for it to carry.
Until the late Nineteenth Century, candles were the sole means to light a Christmas
tree. Many experiments were conducted to create safe holders...from Eighteenth Century
hoops to counter-balanced metal holders and decorated clips made in the late 1890s.
By the Twentieth Century, experiments with gas lights (many of which exploded) and
early electric lights were performed. The first tree to be lighted by means of
electricity was displayed in America during the 1880s by Thomas Edison.
Germany created many attractive figural lights using the same technique as had been
employed for making glass ornaments. After World War I, milk-glass lights (so called
because the glass was a milky opaque white) were being manufactured in Japan and in the
United States. Nevertheless, many people still preferred traditional candles and it was
not until after World War II that Britain, for example, converted generally to
electrically-lit trees. Considered to be some of the most attractive lights made in
America were manufactured during the 1940s. Those made in the late 1930s and 1940s by
the General Electric Company were licensed from Disney and featured "Silly Symphonies,"
"Snow White," and "Cinderella," to name but a few of the designs.
Around the same period, there were also bubble lights...small colored glass tubes that
contained an oil which bubbled as the light began to heat. These were only on the market
for approximately ten years and so, are rare today...although modern bubble lights have
recently become available again in the United States.