Christmas decorations through time

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A huge part of the fun of Christmas is the decorations. Adding to your tree-dwelling character collection each year and putting up everything from twinkling fairy lights to mistletoe with family and friends is somewhat of a ritual. Once your home is full of festive cheer, you can really get into the spirit of the season. But it wasn’t always red, green and gold at every turn: the first Christmas decorations were, in fact, nothing like those we see today. Let us take you on an ornamental journey, beginning in 16th century Germany and finishing right here at OKA.

The origins of the Christmas tree

Christmas decorations were originally rooted in religion and the birth of Jesus Christ, but as there are so many cultures and customs that traditionally celebrated this event, in different ways, it is difficult to pinpoint their exact emergence. The general consensus however is that it was the Germans in the 1500s who began the Christmas tree tradition as we know it today. They brought evergreens – called Paradise Trees – inside churches and adorned them with items such as candles, nuts and apples. Over the years, this practice gradually spread across Europe and was adopted by devout Christians in their homes too. Why evergreen foliage, you may ask? Even before this time, these plants and trees were symbolic to people during the winter months – in many places they were thought to ward off evil spirits and illness.

Tinsel was brought to life in the 1600s, but it was originally crafted from thin strips of real silver. Despite its beauty, it was not the most practical of materials; it wasn’t long before people realised that the smoke from the candles on the tree turned the silver black. Tin and lead versions were tested, and deemed too heavy, and it is the English who first created the lightweight, sparkly version that we see today.

The Victorian influence and the rise of the bauble

In 1848, an engraving was published that depicted Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert gathered around a heavily decorated tree in Windsor Castle – as they both had German ancestors, they had each grown up with the tradition. Whilst they weren’t the first to introduce the idea to England, it was this image that popularised the convention. People flocked to adopt the fashion of the Royal Family, and soon most people had a conifer, pine or fir tree, adorned with homemade sweets, treats, or, in wealthier homes, glass ornaments.

Just as the Germans introduced the Christmas tree, they were also the first to create the iconic glass bauble. These were, at first, not baubles at all, but fruit and nut-shaped decorations that were hung in windows. Later, they became more spherical and began to embellish trees. By the turn of the century, businesses had realised that the production of decorations could be very profitable, especially when using plastic instead of glass. The owner of Woolworth’s in America reportedly made his fortune importing baubles into the country and selling up to $25 million worth in one year. 

Dresdens and the impact of the World Wars

Some of the most popular decorations at the start of the 1900s, and most coveted by collectors today, are Dresdens – named so as they were crafted in the German city. Hand-made from carefully cut pieces of cardboard, each animal, mythical creature, symbol, ship or instrument was individually assembled, and most were silvered, gilded or painted by hand. Production stopped due to the First World War, and whilst thousands were created at the time, they are very hard to come by now – you can expect to pay upwards of £1,000 for an original, most of which are just two to three inches in size.

All kinds of Christmas decorations relied on metal to some degree; those crafted from pressed tin were popular, but each variety included a metal cap that allowed the ornament to be hung on the tree. Come the 1940s, the necessities of war required that metal be rationed and used elsewhere, and so many households turned their hands to newspaper paper chains and cut-outs.

In more recent years

Up until the 1960s, decorations were fairly traditional – think angels sitting atop trees and elegant stars – but more recent years have seen a much more creative and non-conventional approach. In fact, it was around this time that America pioneered the trend for fake snow in a can and the artificial ‘frosted’ Christmas tree. The 1970s saw plenty of gold ornaments and accessories – in keeping with its disco reputation – as well as the triumph of the gingerbread house; the 1980s plenty of fabric decorations and needlework. Come the turn of the millennium, just about anything could be given a wonderfully festive twist – which is particularly lucky for characters like The Marvellous Mrs Mousham and Lord Dashing.

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Topics: christmas