Every year, in preparation for Christmas, families around the world select an evergreen tree to bring into their homes and decorate with glistening lights and beautiful ornaments. This tree often becomes the focal point of the family gathering on Christmas morning. But where did this tradition originate?
The practice of adorning one’s home with evergreen boughs serves as a symbol of the promise of life to come after the cold months of winter, and the tradition began as a Pagan ritual for the winter solstice for various civilizations, including the Druids, Romans, and Vikings, even dating back to the ancient Egyptians.
The tradition of decorating evergreen trees for Christmas dates back to the 16th century in Germany, where families would decorate trees with apples, as a representation of the tree in the Garden of Eden. Later, nuts, berries, cookies, and paper streamers were added to the décor. Much of this depended on what was available and what the family could afford. The idea of decorating a tree for Christmas did not come to America until the 1770s, but Colonial Americans found this tradition odd and saw it as a frivolous Pagan ritual.
In the 1800s, with German and English immigration, this tradition began to take hold. Its popularity skyrocketed during the reign of Queen Victoria because a publication released a depiction of the Queen and her family surrounding a decorated evergreen. Thus, the practice became fashionable for all American families.
The origin of glass ornaments began in Germany in the 1830s. The area around Lauscha was the hub of the glass ornament, or kugel, trade in Germany. Initially replacing fruits, nuts, and other food items, they branched out into making hearts, stars, angels, bells, and other shapes, eventually creating molds of children, saints, famous figures, and animals.
W. Woolworth visited Germany in the 1880s and decided to import glass ornaments to sell in his stores. By the 1890’s, he was selling $25 million in German imported ornaments made of lead and hand-blown glass. World War I halted production and imports of ornaments from Germany, but also created momentary backlash against all things German. New York importer, Max Eckhardt, saw that his business and the supply of ornaments suffered after the Great Depression, and in the late-1930s, he and Woolworth joined forces to persuade the Corning Glass Company to make American glass ornaments. Corning agreed, and by 1940 they were producing 300,000 per day, and sending them to various companies for decoration, and from there to retailers.
Today, collectors look for glass ornaments from the late-19th and early-20th centuries. The greatest value is usually with ornaments that are shaped like objects or figures, rather than glass balls. Additionally, condition is extremely important, and it is rare that these delicate baubles make it to market in pristine condition. Shapes like clusters of grapes, famous personalities, and animals can sell anywhere from $40-$1,000 apiece depending on color, rarity, and condition, although the higher end is extremely rare. On the other hand, an entire box of stenciled ‘Shiny Brite’ ornaments from the mid-20th century, in good condition, might sell for $50-$60. If you are looking to give your tree a vintage look you don’t have to spend a fortune, but, as always, beware of reproductions!
Photo Credit & Resources: KugelObsession.com; History.com; ReadersDigest.com