The Origins of the Christmas Ornament

December 19, 2021

For many of us, our favourite Christmas custom is decorating the Christmas tree. It’s a special activity that we do often as an established tradition with our loved ones each Christmas season. It’s definitely one of my favourite traditions that I do with my own family when we come together to decorate our tree with ornaments that have been passed down from generation to generation. There are countless decorations available to us today to adorn the Christmas tree; however, we also have cherished ornaments that we always bring out of storage year after year and each one holds a special meaning or memory to us. Ornaments have a long history as part of Christmas celebrations and have evolved over time to what we know and enjoy today.

There are many theories about the origins of the Christmas tree and Christmas ornaments. One theory dates the tradition as far back as 7th/8th century when a monk, named Saint Boniface, came to Germany and brought a fir tree for the German people to decorate. It’s been said the monk claimed that the shape of the fir tree represented the Holy Trinity (i.e. God, his son Jesus, and the Holy Spirit).  This tradition was embraced by Germans and they began to decorate with white candles. By the 15th century, the tradition had changed and trees were then decorated with ornaments.

In the early 17th century, it’s been said that a tree in Strasbourg, France, was brought indoors and decorated with sweets, wafers, nuts, paper roses, and lighted candles, which gained popularity. Over time, these decorative ornaments evolved to include cookies, candies, and painted eggshells, followed by the introduction of tinsel in 1610, which is said to have been originally crafted with real silver.

During the next 200 years, the tradition of Christmas trees spread throughout Europe. In England, ornaments became more elaborate with the use of glass beads and hand-sewn snowflakes appearing on Christmas trees. It has been said that Christmas trees were later brought to the United States by Hessians – German mercenaries, who fought in the Revolutionary war; however, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated throughout the country until the 1800’s.

It is believed that the modern-day Christmas ornament emerged in the small German town called Lauscha, during the mid-to-late19th century, where the only ornaments available in the market were German hand-cast lead and hand-blown decorations. By the 1880’s, many German entrepreneurs were manufacturing ornaments on a large scale and selling them as such. These ornaments were exported to Britain and the United States, where they became a status symbol for homes to have as many glass ornaments on a tree as they could afford. By the 1890’s, almost everyone in Britain had Christmas trees adorned with glass ornaments.

Once Christmas trees became an entrenched tradition in the United States, F.W. Woolworth began importing and selling German glass ornaments in his five-and-dime stores. By 1890, he was reportedly selling $25 million worth of them.

During the early 20th century, ornaments became more elaborate and expanded beyond hand-blown glass. Materials such as silk and wool thread, chenille, and tinsel were used. By the mid-1920’s, Germany’s dominance of the ornament market was broken when Japan and the former Czechoslovakia entered the market with new, original designs. It has been said that by 1935, more than 250 million Christmas tree ornaments were being imported into the United States.

In 1939, and with the outbreak of World War II, the Corning Company of Corning, New York, became the first American company to begin manufacturing glass ornaments. The company, which had a machine to manufacture thousands of light bulbs, developed a new way to manufacture American glass ornaments and was eventually able to produce more than 2,000 ornament balls a minute.

Christmas ornaments are now a fundamental part of our Christmas traditions and come in all forms, sizes, shapes, and materials. They add to the enjoyment and spirit of the season for all of us. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas and will celebrate all of your favourite Christmas traditions, including the decorating of the Christmas tree, together with your loved ones this season!