Evolution of the Christmas tree and its trimmings
Many of us won’t truly get into the festive spirit until we’ve put up the tree. That’s hardly new. In fact, its been this way since the late 19th century when indoor Christmas trees were popularized and many of the decorations we know today went into style.
The Christmas tree has its origins in 16th-century Germany, when candles were placed on outdoor evergreen trees to recreate the appearance of the heavens over Bethlehem. Such early trees were bedecked with such decorations as paper roses (a symbol of the Virgin Mary), apples, wafers (representing the host), candies, and sugar lumps.
From Germany, the Christmas tree spread slowly throughout Europe. Because they were viewed as something of a foreign tradition, Christmas trees were not particularly popular in Britain during the early 19th century. It was not until Prince Albert married Queen Victoria in 1840 that the Christmas tree became part of the British domestic landscape. After that, it was enthusiastically embraced by British subjects who brought the tradition with them to Canada.
In Victorian-era, most trees were small and would be placed on a tabletop in the parlour. In some wealthier homes, every member of the family might have his of her own little table-sized trees. By the early 1900s, the tradition had evolved to a single, large tree in the home.
Decorations evolved too. In the earliest hardscrabble years of settlement, trees would be trimmed with dried fruit, nuts, and paper ornaments, but soon store-bought decorations began to appear.
Tinsel was extremely popular in the Victorian era, though it was a far cry from the modern, lightweight, shiny version. With its roots in 17th century Germany, tinsel in those days was made of silver that was hammered into thin sheets, cut into reflective strips, and shaped like icicles.
Glass baubles, or balls as we call them today, were first made in the town of Lauscha, in the Thuringia region of Germany. They were blown into clay moulds and, like many Christmas traditions, were popularized in the early Victorian period. By the 1870s, the craze had hit North America and department store chains began to sell imported baubles.
“Dresdens,” paper and card-based decorations, were popular in the 19th and early 20th centuries. As the name suggests, production was centred around the German city of Dresden where wet-moulded, printed and decorated card images in the shape of animals, nativity figures and holiday scenes were fabricated. Sometimes, Dresdens would be glued together and filled with small gifts.
Equally popular at the time were items made of cotton batting, which often took a figurative form made around a wire armature. Lithographed faces and features, even porcelain heads, were glued on and then decorated with tinsel and sequins.
Before incandescent Christmas lights became available in the 1920s and 1930s, Christmas tree candles were the only option for illuminating a tree. They were secured in place by clip-on Christmas tree candle holders (or candle clips). Candles on trees were obviously quite dangerous, so most families only lit them on Christmas Eve when the tree was revealed to the children for the first time.