Christmas just would not be Christmas without flickering lights and those glittering glass ornaments, so where did these traditions originally come from? When you think about it, placing hot lights and heavy ornaments on a living tree seems like a strange and somewhat hazardous tradition to have, but it is a tradition that has been around well before there was electricity to power the Christmas lights and factories to make the Christmas ornaments.
It is thought that the very first Christmas tree was decorated by Martin Luther, the founder of the Lutheran Church, in the 16th century in his hometown of Riga, Latvia. While Christmas trees had been cut down and brought into the homes prior to that, they remained undecorated with Christmas lights and Christmas ornaments until this time. The story goes that Luther wanted to show his children how the stars twinkled throughout the winter night and placed lighted candles all over the tree. The children loved the lighted tree so much that everyone from town came to look at it and the tradition of decorating trees with lights began. The tradition of placing lighted candles on the Christmas tree spread throughout Europe and eventually to Germany. By the 17th century, just about everyone who celebrated Christmas was decorating their Christmas trees with lighted candles.
Candles were attached to the trees by pouring a small bit of melted wax on the tree branches and attaching the candles to the branches as the wax cooled. By the 19th century, special candleholders and glass balls were being produced that could be attached to the tree and would catch the melting wax, making it slightly safer for a burning candle to be attached to a flammable Christmas tree. It was not until the late 19th century that the first Christmas tree lights were invented that used electricity rather than a burning flame. Eighty individual electric light bulbs were used to decorate a tree in New York City and less than ten years later the first strings of electric Christmas tree lights were being sold in department stores across the country.
While these electric Christmas lights were an improvement upon candle lit trees, they were still quite dangerous and nothing like the Christmas tree lights we use today. During the early 20th century, the first safety Christmas tree lights were invented that did not overheat and were no longer the fire hazard that the candles and regular electric lights had been up until that time. These first lights were white only and were not a big hit the first year they were produced, however, the second year multi-colored lights were produced and the twinkling, multi-colored lights we enjoy today took off.
Christmas ornaments have been used to decorate Christmas trees in a variety of different ways since around the 7th century, however, the practice did not really become overwhelmingly popular until around the 16th century, around the time that Luther began decorating his tree with lighted candles. Christmas decorations of that time were mostly made up of fruits, candies, and wafers. As Christmas tree decorating became more popular, people began making their own Christmas ornaments out of cut paper, hand carved wooden ornaments, and a variety of winter flowers. By the 17th century, heavily decorated Christmas trees were the norm throughout Europe and the need for beautiful handmade Christmas ornaments were in great demand. In German markets, the German ornaments that are still popular today began being made and people could buy wooden ornaments, paper ornaments, and wax ornaments. Craftsmen created beautiful Christmas ornaments out of fruit, gingerbread, pretzels, eggs, candy, nuts, flowers, and just about anything else you can think of.
By the 19th century, glass ornaments were being made and the glass German ornament industry revolutionized the Christmas ornament industry. Because glass ornaments were nonperishable and could be used over and over again year after year, glass ornaments easily took over as the most sought after of all the Christmas ornaments that were available up until that time. Germans loved the fact that they no longer had to use edible decorations to decorate their trees with and glass ornament making took off. Once the glass mold was invented, German ornament makers were able to mass produce their glass ornaments and sell them throughout Germany, Europe, and eventually to America. It is those early glass ornament making origins that have made Germany the leader in Christmas ornament making for generations. Hand carved wooden ornaments, hand blown glass ornaments, and painted nutcrackers have all been produced by the same families that started the Christmas ornament business hundreds of years ago.
From lighted candles to fruit on trees, the Christmas tree decorating traditions of today have come a long way. While advancements in safety, quality, durability, availability, and style have made the tradition of Christmas tree decorating much easier for us today than it was even a hundred years ago, the basic concept of adding sparkling lights and beautiful ornaments remain the same. It just would not be Christmas without the awe and joy that fills the eyes of every child on Christmas morning if it were not for Christmas lights and Christmas ornaments.