In the late 19th century, James Clements, a Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman decorated his evergreen Christmas tree with seventy-thousand dollars worth of gold nuggets he had found in the Klondike gold rush. And, though most of us probably won’t be able to enjoy such extravagance this holiday season, a beautifully decorated Christmas tree sets the tone for a joyous holiday spent with close friends and family.

Most Christmas trees are decorated with cherished ornaments passed down through recent generations and, though many have stories attached to them, their history remains clouded. This holds true for the history of the Christmas tree itself, and the story is fascinating in its own right.

Unlike James Clements’ tree, the earliest known ornaments did not have the glitter of gold, but they did have an epicurean appeal. These early trees, decorated with apples, were often thought of as an edible treat; however, the apple as we know had deeper significance.

The first detailed description of a decorated Christmas tree comes from early 15th century Strasbourg, Germany, and so many delicacies were known to have decorated the early Christmas tree, it soon became know as the “sugar tree”. Unlike today, children actually looked forward to dismantling the tree, for it was only on Epiphany, that they got to enjoy the treats.

Together, with many of the other customs we inherited from our ancestors, the immigrants of Germany brought with them to America their tree-decorating tradition. And, as this German tradition continued in the 19th century, Americans soon adopted the Christmas tree decorating custom. Innovative women began fashioning ornaments of beaded strings, ribbons, popcorn and paper, while others continued the German custom of hanging gifts on the branches of the tree for their children. Rather than the heavy boxed gifts that we place under our trees today, the nineteenth century gifts tended to be lightweight, unwrapped trinkets that also served the purpose of adorning the tree.

In the 1870s commercially made Christmas ornaments began to replace hanging gifts and edible ornaments. These early crafted ornaments were primarily made in Germany where artisans specialized in this novel craft. Often designed in tin, wax, embossed paper and hand-blown glass, the early designs were as numerous as they were unusual, ranging from exotic animals to mundane daily artifacts. By 1939, as World War II approached, the glass-blowing town of Lauscha was devastated by war and fell into the territory of the Soviets, eventually becoming part of East Germany. Disappearing as well was the satisfying profession of the craftsman glassblower. By 1940, to meet the demand for ornaments, the Corning Glass Company, of Corning, New York filled the market once dominated by German craftsmen with glass-blowing machines that churned out uniform round balls.

Antique German ornaments are still much sought after by collectors today. And, as with all antiques and collectibles, condition and rarity dictate the prices that some ornaments command in the market. Particularly valuable, are early blown-glass ornaments embellished with reflectors, pictures, and wire tinsel – while some of the most collectible ornaments have glistening effects produced by applied, shimmering chips of tiny glass.

In 1850, Charles Dickens captured the allure of the Christmas tree adorned with ornaments in the following abbreviated passage:  “I have been looking, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas tree…”

Dicken’s enchanting description of the nineteenth century Christmas tree leaves little room to wonder why American families became and continued to be fascinated with the tradition of Christmas tree decorating. If you are lucky enough to have inherited these cherished ornaments, you’ll probably agree that their most alluring feature is their whimsical character that brings out the child in even the most somber adult.

Photo 1: Photo Courtesy, Jim Morrison, National Christmas Center

Photo 2: Photo Courtesy, Motka.com


Martine White, of Bernards Appraisal Associates, LLC in Gladstone, New Jersey is a Senior Certified Appraiser of Antiques & Decorative Arts with the American Society of Appraisers and the Appraisers Association of America. Ms. White has been appraising personal property in the Metropolitan area since 1988. Martine and her associates specialize in appraising antique furniture, silver, paintings, decorative art and Oriental rugs. Martine can be reached at 908-234-1153.