The history of Christmas tree ornaments is as varied as the decorations themselves. They come in many shapes and sizes. Some are handmade by elementary schoolchildren and others are carved and painted by skilled artisans. The tradition of decorating evergreen trees as a symbol of Christmas originated in Germany. It is in the German Christmas Museum, or the Deutsches Weihnachtsmuseum, in the town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, where Christmas tree ornaments over the centuries are on display as part of a permanent exhibition.
Christmas trees have been decorated since the early 15th century. The earliest written record of this was in 1419 in the German city of Freiburg im Breisgau, on the western edge of the Black Forest. The bakery servants’ guild hung apples, nuts, gingerbread and wafers on a tree for the children to take. Decorative paper designs were added later, along with cheese, sausage and sugar canes.
Glass making companies in Bavaria began creating mouth-blown glass ornaments, called kugels, in the 1800s. As the German traditions spread across Europe, the popularity of these kugels grew. Kugel is German for sphere or ball, however, this was not the only shape available. Kugels also resembled grapes, eggs, drops, bells, pears and turnips. When these were first manufactured, the melted glass was colored in advance. Later on, the individual shapes were hand-painted. The Illustrated London News published an engraving of the Royal Family of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert decorating their Christmas tree in 1848 with ornaments from Germany.
The town of Lauscha, in Thuringia, Germany, has been well-known for its glassblowing for centuries. Not only were kugels made in glass factories but also in private homes. Techniques changed and improved so that glassblowers could create thinner glass and more delicate designs in a wider variety of shapes and sizes.
The German Christmas Museum has other tree ornaments in the exhibition besides those made of glass. According to documentation from 1604, paper was shaped into roses and hung on the trees. The manufacturing of paper ornaments was a thriving business by the 19th century and included detailed, hand-painted scenes associated with holiday such as angels, St. Nicholas, and winter scenes. Paper ornaments ranged from simple homemade designs to the embossed cardboard figures made in Dresden after 1875 that were either painted or laminated with gold or silver foil.
Cotton ornaments were crafted in homes in the Thuringia and Saxonia regions beginning in the later 19th century. The cotton wool was either painted or decorated with glitter, tinsel, paper stars, and anything else that was available. Designs were mostly of people dressed for winter such as children riding in a sleigh, skiers, ice skaters, and snowmen, but also included fruit and animal designs. With the exception of some of the figurines having heads made out of porcelain, these cotton ornaments were unbreakable and popular.
Woodcarvers in the villages and towns near the Black Forest made cuckoo clocks, nutcrackers and wooden ornaments. The designs often depicted villagers in traditional costumes. They were hand-painted and carved with a lot of detail.
Ornaments made out of pewter resulted from the industrial expansion taking place during the second half of the 19th century. Most pewter ornaments were made in pewter foundries around Nuremberg. In order for them to shine and reflect the candlelight, they were painted only with a glaze instead of color paint. They were also decorated with glass gems to increase their sparkle and reflection of candlelight.
When many German immigrants came to the United States during the 19th century, they brought their traditions with them. That included decorating Christmas trees. Wealthy Americans could afford the glass ornaments and pioneer families would make festive objects out of straw, fruit, paper or cloth. A family’s social status and occupation was often reflected in the chosen Christmas ornaments.
The variety of ornaments today represents both modern and old-fashioned, one-of-a kind and mass-produced, homemade and factory-made, simple designs and intricate, artistic details. The ornaments provide decoration and are part of a family story. The German Christmas Museum in Rothenburg tells the story of Christmas tree ornaments through the centuries in a permanent exhibition open to the public all year long.
By Cynthia Collins
Top photo credit: LenDog64, Creativecommons Flickr license
Photo credit of ornament: jpc.raleigh, Creativecommons Flickr license
German Christmas Museum – Schedule
German Christmas Museum – Ornament Exhibition