A Brief History of Christmas Ornaments

What would Christmas be without the Christmas tree? And what would the Christmas tree be without the Christmas tree ornaments? Arguably, that blessed tree decorating time is the best part of the Christmas celebration.

In the beginning … we all know the story, right? In the beginning, there was Adam and Eve. Well, this is also how the Christmas ornament’s story begins. In Western Germany, folks used to set up what they called “paradise trees” in their homes on December 24th, the feast day of Adam and Eve. Having no idea of the tradition they were building, they used to hang apples and wafers on their paradise trees. In later years, people hung shaped cookies instead of wafers. Many people added candles to their paradise trees.

These German folks also used to set up Christmas “pyramids” in their homes, triangular wooden shapes that displayed Christmas decorations. They decorated these with evergreens, candles, and you guessed it—a star on top. (It may have looked a bit like our Christmas tree grotto olive wood nativity set.)

Eventually, these two traditions merged into one—the Christmas tree. And those first Christmas trees were decorated with Christmas ornaments.

The Christmas tree tradition traveled to America via German immigrants in the 1700s. Yet people didn’t start buying Christmas ornaments in stores until the 1870s. So, for more than 150 years, Christmas ornaments were found or made at home.

So, what did these creative folks use for Christmas ornaments? A simpler question might be, what didn’t they use?

True to the earlier tradition, people continued to hang apples. Some people hung whole apples. Others strung together dried slices. Others hollowed out oranges and filled them with candy. Some hung peaches, cranberries, or crabapples. Some fashioned wire into the shape of a monkey and threaded raisins onto the wire. Those who could afford the more luxurious fruits hung cherries, plums, peaches, and strawberries.

Of course, there’s more to Christmas ornaments than fruit. Some people used potatoes. Others used dried red peppers. Many used nuts: peanuts, walnuts, chestnuts, or hickory nuts. Some artistic types painted gourds gold or wrapped them in foil. Some decorated egg shells. Some hung pretzels and doughnuts. Others painted oyster shells. (Speaking of which, have you seen our gorgeous mother of pearl jewelry?)

The Christmas tree made its debut at the White House in 1856. Popcorn came onto the scene in the 1860s. Some adventurous folks died their popcorn red and green.

Christmas ornaments first appeared on American store shelves in the 1870s. These were made of mica, cardboard, blown glass, molded wax, and stuffed satin.

The English trees across the pond were also becoming more popular at this time. These were decorated with toys, gifts, candles, candies, and cakes.

Missionaries brought the Christmas ornament tradition to China and Japan, where the trees were decorated with intricate paper designs.

Fake icicles followed in the 1880s. The early fake icicles were made via the same process that put glitter on military uniforms. By the 1890s, one could buy colored candy beads sold by the yard. Also by 1890, F.W. Woolworth was selling $25 million worth of Christmas ornaments per year. It was also around this time that strings of electric lights came on the scene.