Before that, decorations on Christmas trees — themselves a holiday addition only well after the turn of the first millennium — were largely edible.
For some, Christmas trees can be traced back to St. Boniface, the Apostle of the Germans, martyred in 755. Boniface chopped down an oak tree sacred to druids and an evergreen grew in its place. Boniface used it as a symbol of prayer.
However, the most direct ancestors to our decorated Christmas trees are the Paradise trees of medieval religious theater used on the feast of Adam and Eve on Dec. 24. The trees, often evergreens, were decorated with apples. A matching Tree of Life held sweets.
When these trees moved from public theater to private homes, they continued to be adorned with edibles — ranging from fruit and nuts to pretzels and cookies. Strings of popcorn and berries were an American addition, but Christmas trees did not appear here until the 1800s with the arrival of German immigrants.
In Europe, glassblowers in Lauscha, Germany, began making ornaments in the mid-1800s. This soon became a cottage industry. And, since Lauscha was located in the region of Germany — Saxony-Coberg — that was home to Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria, glass ornaments found their way to the royal tree in the 1870s. That, paired with F.W. Woolworth bringing the ornaments to his U.S. department stores in the 1880s, sealed the place of glass ornaments on Christmas trees.
German dominance in the ornament field ended with World War II, when the Nazi state took over manufacturing plants for armaments and the silver and other materials needed for ornament making became scarce. This continued throughout the existence of Communist-run East Germany.
However, glass ornaments did not disappear largely because Max Eckhardt had convinced The Corning Company in the United States to mass produce glass ornaments using a light-bulb machine they had perfected. These were marketed as the “Shiny Brite” brand in the 1940s and 1950s. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the industry of handmade glass-blown ornaments returned to Germany.
While the variety of Christmas ornaments today seems endless, some styles have definite Christian symbolism.
The star or angel atop a tree is the most obvious, and has perhaps the longest history (after apples, of course).
Lights became popular with the introduction of candles on trees in Victorian England. However, lights on trees is often credited to Martin Luther a few centuries earlier. It is said that, somewhere around 1500, Luther was struck by snow and moonlight twinkling on evergreen trees and decided to recreate the effect with candles and a small fir tree indoors.
As Pope Benedict said last year, upon receiving the Vatican Square Christmas tree, “its towering shape, its green color and the lights decorating its branches are symbols of life. In addition, it refers us to the mystery of the Holy Night.”
Some ornaments remind us of Old Testament stories:
Lions remind us of the Lion of Judah, fish of Jonah, crowns of the kings of Israel like David and Solomon, and lambs of Abraham and Isaac, who were shepherds.
Other ornaments speak of the New Testament:
Gingerbread recalls the spices brought with the Magi with their gifts for the Christ child, and doves remind us of the Holy Spirit. And don’t forget angels.
Saints are also symbolized in Christmas ornaments:
Roses and lady bugs are for the Blessed Mother. (In German, lady bugs are called Marienkafer, meaning “Mary Beetle.” And acorns recall St. Boniface and his tree-chopping. Stockings come from the legend of St. Nicholas, who tossed bags of gold coins down chimneys so poor girls could have dowries. One bag, legend says, landed in a stocking hung up to dry.
And some ornaments had hidden meanings:
Partridges and pears belong to the “12 Days of Christmas” carol, created in England during the years when Catholicism was outlawed in the 16th to 18th centuries. Each verse refers to a teaching of church doctrine — with the partridge being Christ who died on a tree and the “True Love” being God the Father, who gave us all gifts.
Candy canes were also a product of that time in England. In the 17th century, an English candy maker devised the treat shaped like a shepherd’s crook — and the “J” of Jesus name. He ran three thin, red stripes around the candy to symbolize the Trinity and one bigger red stripe for the blood of Christ poured out for us.
So the Christmas tree is more than a holiday staple; it’s a symbol of faith passed down through generations. One could even call it a parable in glass, glitter and lights because, if decorated well, every ornament, light and needle can remind us of the stories of our faith.
As Pope Benedict said about Christmas in a 2007 address: “Christmas is a Christian feast and its symbols — especially the crib and the tree decorated with gifts — are important references to the great mystery of the Incarnation and the Birth of Jesus, which the liturgy of the Advent Season and of Christmas constantly recall.”
Sources: Christmas Ornament Legends – Merck Family’s Old World Christmas; www.vatican.va; www.christmas-decorations-gifts-store.com/; www.lauschaglass.com; www.hallmark.com; www.catholicculture.org; and Wikipedia