One of the things I enjoy about Christmas is the decorations. I love Christmas trees, and enjoy putting up and decorating mine every year. So, I’ve put together a few interesting facts about popular Christmas decorations, and where they started.
In northern and eastern Europe, in the deep winter, evergreen branches were brought into the home to remind the people that winter would end and life would return to the world. It was a way to cheer themselves when they were often stuck indoors and outside was cold and snowing. The belief is that this is the starting point of two traditions – the Christmas tree, and the Christmas wreath. In time they would twist boughs into wreaths, symbolizing nature during the darkest and coldest part of the year. Wreaths worn on the head were also common in ancient Greece and Rome, symbolizing victory in games and war, religious rites and weddings, and even parties and feasts. During the Roman midwinter festival, Saturnalia, they decorated with holly wreaths. Very small wreaths were initially just another decoration on the Christmas tree. The circle represented divine perfection to the people of that time, an emblem of eternity. The earliest type of wreaths to be used in a Christian way at Christmas was the Advent wreath, a horizontal wreath of evergreen holly and red berries. Candles would be lit each week of Advent to symbolize hope, love, joy and peace. Many Christians still use Advent wreaths. But the most commonly seen version of the Christmas wreath today is the one that people put on their door at Christmas. For a Christian, this may be seen as inviting Christ into the home. For the more secular, it is merely decorative, or perhaps a way of inviting the generally peaceful spirit of Christmas inside.
This originates in the same way the wreath did, in the practice of bringing greenery into the home in the winter, to remember that winter would end and spring would come again. This has changed over time into artificial garlands and tinsel to drape around windows and, of course, over the Christmas tree. (Short environmental comment – remember tinsel is made of plastic, so if you want to be kind to the planet maybe look at more earth-friendly options. Paper garlands can be good.) In Germany, the origin of many Christmas decorations, tinsel was made originally out of silver, would you believe, which was hammered thin and cut into strips. That was another one for the wealthy.
It’s commonly known that the Christmas tree originated in Germany, and this is where Christmas baubles also come from. Natural decorations, such as nuts and fruit, would be placed on trees to show that spring would come again. As trees were brought into people’s homes at Christmas, decorations soon followed. As far back as the 1840s in Germany, glass beads began to be manufactured to decorate trees. The idea expanded, and designers created glass fruit and nuts, which were then decorated with paint and silver, to be hung on trees. The origin of the word is from the fourteenth century word ‘baubel’, which meant a trinket or a toy. As they were originally handcrafted from glass they were quite expensive, and only appeared in rich houses. But eventually cheaper options were mass-produced from plastic.
In pagan times noise-makers of various sorts might be used in winter celebrations, as a way of scaring off evil spirits. In Christian times, this evolved into the ringing of Church bells, which were used for arrivals, celebrations, special events of all kinds. So at Christmas, the church bells would ring to celebrate the birth of Christ. In the Victorian era, carol-singers who went door to door would often accompany their singing with hand bells, as these were easy to carry. Consequently bells have become one of the iconic symbols of Christmas. Today bell ornaments are a common fixture on many Christmas trees. (I have a cloisonne bell for my own tree – one of my favourite ornaments.)
holly and berries
This one is older than Christian tradition. Celtic people admired the resilience of holly, and this plant and its berries represented eternal life. With Christianity, the holly came to represent the thorny crown of Christ while the berries represented his blood. Winter-themed decorationsThe origins of these are obvious – as decorations for trees and homes became more of a tradition at Christmas, the Northern hemisphere-based traditions included winter type items, such as snowflakes, icicles, snowmen, and so on. I do like snowflakes, though I live in the southern hemisphere and it’s not exactly seasonal here.
Christmas is the festival of Christ’s birth, and so Bible-based ornaments are traditional. Angels, nativities, doves, crosses, stars, and so on, have their origins in the Christmas story. Stars, for example, often sit on the top of the tree, though some traditions opt for an angel at the top instead. (I was raised with the star on the top of the tree, and have kept to that as an adult.) Other similar ornaments can include words associated with the Christmas story, such as love, joy, peace and hope.
father christmas ornaments
We all know about Father Christmas. He is an amalgamation of several traditions, including St Nicholas, as well as more nature or earth-based spirits of pagan religions. (The ghost of Christmas present in ‘A Christmas Carol’ has a very Santa Claus-like vibe as well as that of a fertility spirit.) Consequently, Father Christmas ornaments are very popular (I have a number of Hallmark Keepsake ornaments of Father Christmas, in various appearances.) On a similar vein, there are reindeer ornaments, elf ornaments (Santa’s helpers, don’t you know) and so on.
ornaments that are less common
I recently came across a reference to Christmas mushroom ornaments. This was news to me, so I went looking for some information. It’s another European tradition, apparently, to give mushroom ornaments or depict mushrooms on Christmas cards. The red and white Amanita mushroom is the most common depiction, and apparently these grow at the roots of trees that are most commonly used as Christmas trees. Another reason given for the tradition has to do with Father Christmas again. Apparently, reindeer eat mushrooms. The Christmas pickle, is a glass ornament, and the idea is that you only buy one. It is hung on the tree without the others in the house seeing it the night before Christmas, and the first child who finds it gets an extra present. No one seems to know of any actual historical origin for this – it may have been someone’s idea of a marketing tool to sell more decorations. Then there is the Christmas spider, originating in a Ukrainian legend where a poor widow and her children were starving in their hovel. A small pine cone took root in their hovel, and the children tended to it, watching it grow. But they had nothing with which to decorate it, and went to bed on Christmas eve feeling very sad. In the morning they woke to find the tree covered with cobwebs. When they opened the window to let in some light, it was to discover the cobwebs were all silver and gold. Naturally they then had enough money and never went hungry again. Consequently a spider ornament is put on the tree in honour of the Christmas spider who saved the starving children.
So here are a few facts about the decorations we use at Christmas time, and where they originated. Everything I knew or could find is Eurocentric, so if anyone knows of any ornament that comes from elsewhere in the world, I’d be very interested to hear about it.