- Written by Doris Montag Doris Montag
Decorations like wreaths, candles, and evergreens are mentioned in descriptions of the Roman feast of Saturnalia, which originated in the fifth century BC and was held in mid-December to honor Saturn, the god of agriculture.
Later, these evergreen adornments were associated with pagan rituals and were scorned by Christians until sixth-century Pope Gregory the Great brought green boughs into the church’s celebrations. Locally available holly, ivy, and mistletoe were adorned with candles and often homemade food and sweets.
The modern tree tradition was a Christian ritual from 16th-century Germany. Small evergreen trees were used as “paradise trees” in church plays. They were decorated with candles, apples, nuts, and berries. Over time, decorated trees were brought into homes during the holiday season.
In the mid-1800s, Queen Victoria was depicted with her German-born husband, Prince Albert, around a large, decorated evergreen tree. This created a fashionable trend across Europe.
In early America, circa 1800s, the Puritans and Calvinists had dropped Christmas as a holy season. Christmas observances were seen as inconsistent with gospel worship.
Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and other Protestants regarded Dec. 25 as a day without religious significance, a day for normal business. This is associated with the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized work, work, and work; thus, employers gladly discontinued traditional holidays.
German immigrants brought their tree traditions to America in the 1800s. Early ornaments were made of whatever items families had available: fruit held over from fall, nuts, strings of popcorn and cranberries, paper streamers, candles, and metal foil. The German traditions were rejected by Puritanical religious groups for their historically pagan connotations.
This began to change as a new understanding of family life and the needs of children appeared by mid-century. Childhood started to be seen as a time in which greater protection, sheltering, training, and education were needed. In this light, the season began to be tamed, turning toward shops, gifts, and home and holiday decorations.
Inventive entrepreneurs soon realized the ornament’s commercial potential. The Industrial Revolution produced affordable, mass-produced toys, gifts, and decorations, turning Christmas into the festival we know today.
Enter F.W. Woolworth, an American retail mogul who imported large quantities of glass baubles (balls) and stars produced by family workshops in Germany. Alongside these came paper garlands, decorative Christmas stockings, and painted tin toys.
Tinsel, also introduced in Germany, was originally fine, sparkling strips of silver to catch the light. Later, tinsel was mass produced from cheaper metals, and then plastic. Another decorating invention, “fairy” lights, arrived with electric lighting in the 1890s.
By the 1900s, Woolworth’s Department Store was selling $25 million a year in German-imported ornaments made of lead and hand-blown glass. Families created homemade ornaments, but the wealthy wanted extravagant sparkle for their festivities.
Unique Keepsake ornaments were introduced by Hallmark in 1973. The Keepsake designation created the sense that the decorations had “collectible value.” Under this successful marketing strategy, Hallmark has produced over 8,500 ornaments past and present. Some have been valued up to $300 online.
Dig out those boxes of happy treasures. It is that time again!
Doris Montag is a homespun historian and an exhibit curator who researches and displays historical collections of ordinary things, such as can openers, crochet, toy sewing machines, hand corn planters, powder compacts, egg cartons, and more. Contact or follow her on Facebook, HistoryofOrdinaryThings.