For many, the simple act of getting out the Christmas decorations every year has become a ritual of sorts; a visual act that marks the beginning of the festive season. In fact, for those who celebrate Christmas, the Christmas decoration ritual has become such a part of the yearly routine, few of us actually even know the origin of these glittering adornments that we use to decorate our homes.
The origin of Christmas decorations cannot be pinpointed to one particular time and place. This is likely a result of the wide variety of cultures and customs that have traditionally participated in this celebration of the birth of Christ. Historically, if we were to try to create a Christmas decorations timeline from the civilised world, one might be able to start the timeline as early as the Roman 10th Century, where nativity scenes were first recorded. Nativity scenes were also made popular by Saint Francis of Asissi in 1223. Generally, the first Christmas decorations are thought to be various versions of the nativity, created with found and naturally-occurring materials that might vary depending on the type and availability of resources for a specific region.
Apart from the original nativity scenes, there is one other decoration that has become the very icon of the Christmas season; the Christmas tree. The origins of the Christmas tree as we know it today are even harder to pin-down than that of the nativity. Thought by some to be a result of a gradual Christianisation of the pagan ritual of winter solstice tree worship, some believe that the origin of the Christmas tree dates back as far as the eighth century. As one legend tells it, eighth century German missionary Saint Boniface happened upon a group of pagans worshipping an oak tree in a dedication to Thor. Angered, St. Boniface took his axe to the oak tree. In its place, a fir tree grew. The mindset of the times being what it was, this somehow confirmed the Christian beliefs of St. Boniface, in that the fir was tall and triangular and therefore pointed towards the heavens.
Others yet believe the Christmas tree as we know it today really got its start in 16th century Germany. It is thought that Christians brought trees into their homes, and decorated them with candles and other things that they had on hand. If trees were in short supply, many would build pyramids of wood and decorate them with evergreen boughs and candles. Likely, this practice is grounded in yet another legend. It is a widely-held belief that the tradition of decorating the Christmas tree was started by Martin Luther in the 16th Century. This particular legend apparently sprung from a tale about Martin Luther walking through a snow-covered forest, and happening upon a grouping of small evergreens, covered with a dusting of snow and shimmering in the moonlight. Upon returning home, Martin Luther placed a small evergreen inside his house and decorated it with candles, so that he might share the story (not to mention the fire hazard) with his children. It is thought that the decorations that we are so familiar with today (tinsel, ornaments, paper chains, etc) all owe their inspiration to the original decorated evergreen experiment of Martin Luther.
Whatever you choose to believe about the root origin of Christmas decorations, it wasn’t until well after the 16th century that Christmas trees were no longer considered an oddity to a large portion of the civilised world. Although Christmas trees were seen in and around London after they became popular in Germany (having come up across the channel), it wasn’t until much later that they reached the rest of the world. In America, Christmas trees were still considered an oddity as late as the 19th century. It wasn’t until German settlers in Pennsylvania introduced them to the United States that they started gaining the momentum and popularity that they enjoy today.
In the UK, the Christmas tree is reported to have some very royal roots. In 1800, Queen Charlotte (the wife of George III) apparently introduced the first Christmas tree to the English Royal Family. According to John Watkins, the official biographer of Queen Charlotte, the tree was decorated with everything from “sweet meats” and “almonds and raisins wrapped in papers”, to toys and candles. Although both shocking and amusing by today’s health and safety-conscious standards, when we think about the development of modern Christmas decorations, it is easy to see the source of inspiration.
As is still true in these modern times, there is no such good press as that which can be provided by a photo opportunity with the Royal Family. In 1848, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria posed for a photograph at home with their children with a fully-decorated Christmas tree in the background. As one might expect, this caused a huge upswing in popularity for the humble Christmas tree, and by the very next year, all of the grand houses in the UK were in competition with one another as to who might have the grandest display. This is a practice that in parts of the country, still exists today, albeit on varying scales.
The evolution of Christmas decorations not only improved the sartorial aspect the homes of those who celebrate the holiday, it also vastly improved the public’s safety record. With the invention of electrical lights in the early 20th century, Christmas decorations were revolutionized. Prior to electricity entering the picture, every year, there would be incidents of fire in households that burned candles on dried-out evergreens, only to be surprised when flames leapt onto nearby curtains and furniture, often with catastrophic results. Electric lights have expanded the reaches of Christmas decoration from a hobby to a full-blown industry. Indoor, outdoor, blinking, musical, you name it, there is a type of light for every occasion during the festive season, no matter what you like to celebrate.
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