CHRISTMAS DECORATIONS A Potted History of Decorating

Around December every year it happens – out come the boxes of tinsel, the tree baubles and the Creche. Off children go with dad, if they are lucky enough to live in the country – to find the best berried holly, and other evergreens to decorate their homes in festive style. But why do we do it? Even the grumpies, who moan and groan about the fuss and the bother will decorate a tree, grumbling all the while.


The reason is that it is inherent in man to do so. Many millennia ago, ancient man believed that by decorating the bushes in the winter time, they could make them attractive for the spirits, which they believed had fled for shelter from the harsh weather.

We do not know of course what they decorated with, maybe bits of coloured cloth, stones etc. The people of old Mesopotamia (Babylonia in the middle East, Modern Irac) put great store on fringes. Fringed garments were a status symbol, and the fringe would be taken off and put onto a new garment when the old one was discarded. Maybe they occasionally used fringes to decorate their bushes.

Later, people began to take branches into their homes to give warmth and shelter to the spirits of nature, releasing them in the early spring when the first buds began to appear on the trees. From this we get two customs.

  1. The bringing of evergreens into the home at Christmastime
  2. The superstition that all decorations must be taken down by the end of Christmas, or we shall have bad luck.

Originally, people kept up their decorations for much longer than we do now, the Christmas season ending on Candlemas, the 2nd February, which was more in keeping with the earliest signs of Spring. So we can see how the ancient pre-Christian custom of bringing in branches for the spirits and putting them out again in Spring, fits into the later medieval pattern. In the middle ages, people still believed that there were indeed tree spirits which inhabited the evergreens, and that these little spirits would cause havoc in the home if not released!

From this you can see that ancient custom did not die out with the coming of Christianity. Many beliefs continued for hundreds of years, encouraged by a largely illiterate people in a time before books and learning were available to everyone.

So how did it become christianised? In the 6th century, missionaries were sent to Britain from Rome. St Gregory was a wise man with understanding beyond his time. He realised that it was not possible to expect people to convert and change the ways of centuries of tradition overnight. So he told his missionaries to make allowances. ‘If the people decorate their temples to Saturn, let them in future still decorate them – but for the festival of Christ’s Birth’ was the message.

So St Augustine, who founded the first great church in Britain, followed this rule, and gently converted, it is said, some 10,000 people one Christmas, to the new teachings of Christianity.

People did decorate still, but as a celebration to honour the Birthday of the Son of God, and if they retained some superstitions from their earlier beliefs, it did not matter so much as long as they understood about the teachings of Christ.

For many centuries the natural evergreen boughs were the only decorations people had for Christmas. Branches of holly or ‘Holm’ as it was usually called, were popular because of their red berries. Mistletoe also was used because it too had berries which provided contrast to the greenery.


Many people assume that Mistletoe is used because of its Druidical associations. And because people kiss under the mistletoe, it is assumed it is because it was a fertility plant.

In fact neither of these reasons is directly related to the use of Mistletoe as a Christmas decoration.

In the middle ages, people used to make a double hoop of evergreens twined around a pliable wood such as willow. This made a spherical object with four side of evergreens – anything which was green would do, such as holly, bay, rosemary, box, yew. In the middle they would put a symbol of the Holy Family, or maybe a Baby Jesus set on a mossy bed. The bough later became decorated with ribbons, gilded nuts, fruits etc., and mistletoe was used again for its decorative quality.

This bough, called properly, a Holy Bough, was set up hanging from a beam just inside the house entrance. The local priest would bless the boughs in his parish at a special ceremony. Rather like the Kiss of Peace in many churches today, the idea was to embrace under this bough, any visitor who came to the house over the Christmas Season, as a sign that all bad feeling and enmity was forgotten. The custom went to Britain from Germany, where a small Fir tree top was hung upside-down in the same way.

When the Parliamentarians and Puritans under Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas and all its associations, these Holy Boughs were banned too. But people who lived well away from the prying eyes of the soldiers, in the very rural areas of Britain, still hung up a rough bunch of evergreens to remind them of the custom. Of course there was no baby Jesus, and no ribbons and gilded nuts, just a bunch tied to a hook, usually in the kitchen, where they could say that they were drying herbs, or hanging greens to dry repel flies in the summer. Secretly they still exchanged a symbolic embrace under the boughs, and some of them were still blessed by recusant priests, who under pain of death would travel around the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic houses tending the spiritual needs of their people.

Although this ban lasted a few short decades, many customs did not re-establish as they were before, but remained country customs in their new form. By the 18th century the Holy Bough had become known as the ‘Holly Bough’ or ‘Holly Bunch’. The quick kiss under it largely done as a tradition rather than as a symbol of peace. It was also known as the ‘Mistletoe Bough’ and the ‘Kissing’ Bunch’. The name change marking the change in the custom from Holy Bough to Kissing Bunch!

When Queen Victoria ascended the British throne, she, in her later years disapproved of some of the ‘vulgar’ customs associated with Christmas. So there began a new custom, each time a kiss was stolen under the mistletoe , a berry was plucked off, and when there were no more berries, there were to be no more kisses!

This custom remained a British custom for a long time, and only in the mid-20th century did it begin to spread to other countries. At the same time, natural evergreens began to be superseded by artificial decorations. Crepe paper twists and glued paper chains were popular in both America and Britain in the late 19th century, but usually still sharing a place with Holly stuck behind mirrors and pictures, which had enjoyed undisturbed popularity for centuries.


In America, decorations differed in different areas. Thus areas which had Germanic settlers predominating tended to have wreaths and candle decoration, while in areas such as Williamsburg, where the gentry supported the Anglican church, Holly stuck into the windowframes was well established in the mid-18th century.

The modern idea popular both sides of the Atlantic, of having fruit decorations in an attempt to reproduce the natural decorations of our forefathers, is, sadly misplaced! In both countries, fruit was far too expensive a commodity in the middle of winter to waste on door decorations, and only the richest and most wasteful of households would ever do such a thing.

Because of its size and wide variety of climate, parts of America did have fruit a plenty in wintertime, and while we have scant evidence to support the theory that fruit was used for Christmas decorations in those areas, it is conceivable that they might. Also, later immigrants from Mediterranean countries such as Italy, will have taken memories of fruited garlands to America with them. Which, as fruit became a common commodity in more modern times, could have been used. But for most of America, and all of Britain, who have got this new decorating tradition from American fashion, it must be accepted that this is just a pretty idea with little substance!


Fruit has of course always been associated with Christmas. In Europe fruits and nuts and gingerbreads were popular gifts, and small locally grown apples and hard pears and nuts were often placed on Christmas trees throughout Europe and Britain. But ONLY locally grown and plentiful fruits, which were later eaten from the branches as part of the Christmas feasting.


The Christmas Tree decoration began really with the European Christmas Markets. These began in Nuremburg, Germany in the 16th century. At that time they were practical markets with everything a housewife needed to prepare for Christmas – from the knife-grinder to the toy-maker.

The Gingerbread makers used honey in their baking, and in those days the honey came raw in honeycombs straight from the beehives. They were left with large quantities of wax, which they began to clean, and press into the carved wooden moulds used for making the gingerbread. In the 16th-17th century these moulds were often scrolls, cherubs and plaque shapes, which were used in the making of plaster cornices for architectural work. Later, they were scenes from the Nativity story, men on horseback, animals and many other designs.

These wax models were fixed with a ribbon before the wax set, and painted or gilded and sold as ‘Fairings’, souvenirs of the Christmas Fair. People would take them home an place them on their trees. The most popular were angels and cherubs, and it was not uncommon to have a tree with many angels on it, collected from many years fairs.

In the 18th century, a special kind of Angel was made in Nuremburg, called a ‘Rauschgoldengel’, which means gilded tin angel, it had a wax face and hands, and a gown and crown made from tiered gilded tin.

The glass ornament industry did not begin until the mid 19th century, so wax ornaments were very popular.


Glass making was done in Bohemia (modern Czechoslovakia) and along the border areas with Germany at a place in Thuringia called Lauscha. In the 17th century, glass beads were made for chandeliers and for decorating dresses. Some of the early strings of chandelier beads also were used for decorating Christmas Trees, an d a type of wooden chandelier with Nativity figures carved along its arms, called a Spinne, because the candlelight reflecting on the strings of tiny beads resembled a spiders web glistening in the frost.

Early Glass balls were made at Lauscha as end of day games. Glass blowing was thirsty work, and the blowers would drink a lot of ale. Mild though it was, by the end of the day, many were a little merry, and would have these glass blowing games to see who could blow the largest ball before the glass burst! These balls were gathered up by the wives, who would silver them, by swirling a silver nitrate solution around the insides, and take them to the Christmas markets at Coburg etc. There they were sold as Christmas balls to avert evil from the home over Christmas, hung or stuck onto sticks in the hallway of the house. This custom was a later version of the Holy Bough customs, a vague memory of keeping bad things from the house at the Holy Season.

Unfortunately, many people believed them to be witches balls, and the consequence of that is that these balls are found to day hanging in the windows of little antique shops – particularly in England, and the shop assistants will not sell them for they believe they will be selling their luck if they do!

In 1863, Lauscha got Gas, and this made glass blowing much easier. The glass could be blown much thinner without bursting, and it was possible to use wooden moulds to blow the glass into to create shapes and ‘figurals’. This idea took off, and by the 1870’s, Lauscha was exporting glass balls to Britain and America. It became a status symbol to have as many glass ornaments on the Christmas Tree as one could afford. Which at first, was not very many, except for the very rich. But by the 1890’s just about everybody in Britain had trees laden with glass shapes. Many areas of pioneer America still used home made decorations such as tinsel and cotton batting shapes, pierced tin stars and lanterns and handsewn or wood decorations of all kinds. But the fashionable East Coast Society filled their trees with glittering glass.

Europe tended to be more traditional for longer, alternating glass with traditional fruits (Germany), paper scissorcuts (Poland), and straw (many alpine areas in Switzerland, Austria etc.) The Italians had a Ceppo instead of a tree, which was a pyramid shaped shelves with a Nativity on one shelf and fruits and floral decoration on the others. Scandinavian countries had very different ideas, and used grain garlands, straw goats, little wooden gnomes called Tomte, Nisse or Gubbe. Red and white themes and many candles.


It is said that Martin Luther began the custom of putting candle lights onto trees (see the legend, Martin Luther and the Christmas Tree Lights). Until the late 19th century candles were the only was to light a Christmas Tree. There were many experiments to create safe holders, from hoops in the 18th century to counter balanced metal holders and prettily decorated clips in the late 19th century. At the end of the century experiments with gas lights (many of which blew up!) and early electric lights were done. The first electrically lighted tree was done by Edison in America, in the 1880’s.

Germany created many attractive figural lights using the same technique as for making glass tree ornaments, but after W.W.I, Milk glass lights, so called because the glass was a milky opaque white, were being made in Japan and in America.

Many people still liked to use traditional candles, and it was not until after W.W.II that Britain converted to electrically lit trees generally. Some of the nicest lights made in America were made in the 1940’s. Those made in the late 30’s & 40’s by the General Electric Co. were licensed from Disney, and showed Silly Symphonies, Snow White , and later Cinderella etc. There were also Bubble Lights which were little coloured glass tubes with an oil inside, which began to bubble as the light heated up. These were only sold for about ten years, and so are very rare today – but recently another American company has begun to market bubble lights again.


By the 1950’s most people in America and many people in Britain were using artificial decorations. New machinery, modern methods made such things cheap and easy to mass produce. The housewife generally preferred them to real evergreens, which marked the walls and trampled into carpets. Pretty paper and foil honeycomb garlands were seen in the very best homes and the humble dwelling alike, and this lasted until the new revival for natural decorations and a swing back to the Victorian Christmas look in the late 1970’s America, and late 1980’s Britain. Modern Christmas ‘looks’ tend to come into fashion every so often, and last a few short years before swinging back to the nostalgia of the traditional decorations of old.

From the Christmas archives:




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