The History of Christmas Tree Ornaments
By AJ Keith, Communications intern
Sisters around the Motherhouse celebrate the birth of Christ through their Christmas tree ornaments.
With the holiday season upon us, Christmas trees across the United States have sprouted up and been decorated to celebrate the birth of Christ. A tradition since the 16th century, Christmas ornaments have evolved from the use of candles into the wood, acrylic and porcelain figures that dance along the tree’s stems today.
Because of the lively tradition, each person has their favorite Christmas ornament to hang on their tree. With either the intention to dazzle or commemorate, each ornament has a history behind it. Such is the case with an ornament mentioned by a Motherhouse employees. “My grandmother gave my mother an ornament,” he says, “It was a blue glass one. It must have been at least 100 years old.” The transparent glass of these ornaments allow the decorator to reflect on memories of Christmas past. Some people even use their tree as a travel log by featuring ornaments made in the different places they visit. “There’s something in the history of every ornament,” one Sister says.
The tradition of decorating Christmas trees originates in the Protestant faith, as Martin Luther used candles as ornaments to amuse children. To further the appeal, children used snacks like crackers, cookies, fruits and other candies to make their Christmas trees colorful and jubilant.
While the use of fruits and candies to decorate Christmas trees does seem like a dated practice, many people still use personalized gingerbread cookies to furnish their trees. Parents that are employed at the Motherhouse have stated that many of their favorite ornaments were originally school projects from their children that use these gingerbread cookies. As their place on the tree began to fill every branch, so, too, did the radiant glass ornaments that became increasingly popular.
Germany, the place where the tradition began, started to produce glass ornaments for the holidays. A famous tradition that developed was the pickle ornament which would guarantee the lucky child who found it an extra present from St. Nicholas. The use of glass ornaments spread throughout Europe, even finding a place on the Christmas tree of Queen Victoria and German Prince Albert in 1840. This is a tradition commonly recognized today, but the use of ornaments extends beyond the use of beauty and games.
One use of ornaments can be to preserve the gifts of deceased loved ones. These gifts hold intrinsic value that always take their place on their tree. An example of this is a crocheted ball of materials made by one Sister of Charity’s sibling that reads, “To my dearest sister.” These memories are preserved in the ornaments of a Christmas tree, but they hold more value than their superficial appearance.
The Christmas tree ornament craze made its way to America and began with F.W. Woolworth, who sold the imported decorations in his store. Some of the newer decorations that were featured on his shelves with them were cotton wools, tinsel and cut-out pictures of magazines. Importing glass ornaments reached a hiatus with the outbreak of World War I. To save money and boost morale during the holidays, businesses began to mold plastic instead of glass. In 1973, Hallmark released an advertising campaign for these cheaper ornaments which encouraged the use of different materials and designs. The campaign was a massive success and the United States has followed the trend ever since.
Though ornaments can often encapsulate memories of the past, they can also serve as a steady reminder of the future. One employee in Mother Margaret Hall recalls that her best friend of 40 years owns half of an ornament that is incomplete without the half that she possesses. Each year since it was bought, they have exchanged these ornaments to remind them of their everlasting friendship.
The holiday season allows us to reflect on the times that we had with our families and experience the joy of our families in the present. But Christmas, just like the ornaments that we place on our trees, is important because of the meaning that we give it, not because of the things that we can see. As we celebrate the birth of Christ, let us remember the true meaning of Christmas.