History of Christmas Ornaments – Part 2
28 Wednesday Aug 2013
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In the first part of our seven-part series on the history of Christmas ornaments, we described the questions we seek to answer along our journey, such as, How did Christmas ornaments become so ubiquitous in America? And for a country that celebrates the unique customs of so many ethnicities and religions, how did Christmas ornaments rise to the surface of our great melting pot to become a single and dominant source of family pride?
In this, the second part, we pay homage to the Christmas tree, realizing that no account of the history of Christmas ornaments would be complete without the medium that displays these artistic representations of our past.
History of Christmas Ornaments: The Origin of the Christmas Tree
As any history student knows, facts often mix with legend, myth, religious faith and, in the case of Germany, folk tales and fairy tales. Despite this heady rhetorical cocktail, it is largely accepted by historians that St. Boniface played a large role in cultivating the growth of Christianity in 8th century Germany.
An apostle of the church, St. Boniface erupted in a tirade when he discovered a group of Germans worshiping an oak tree. He took a mighty blow at the tree with his ax, only to discover a fir tree growing inside of it. Even back then, seeing fostered believing, and St. Boniface believed that he saw a triangular shape amid the fractured tree. He quickly interpreted that the shape represented the Holy Trinity: the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Moreover, he believed he had borne witness to a religious miracle, so he dutifully spread the word and the Christmas tree became an article of Christian faith in Germany.
Despite the best efforts of St. Boniface, it took some time for German families to adopt the custom of bringing an entire tree into their home at Christmastime. For many years, they simply draped evergreen branches on their mantels and book shelves, sometimes inserting foil-wrapped candies or flowers as makeshift Christmas ornaments.
Many historians agree that it took the vision of Martin Luther, the German monk who played a key role in the Protestant Reformation, to illuminate the Christmas tree. He carefully positioned lit candles on a fir tree in about 1500. It is said that he was trying to replicate the star-lit sky of Bethlehem on the very first Christmas Eve, though it is not quite clear how he managed to set the tree aglow without starting it on fire.
A turning point in the evolution of the Christmas tree in general and Christmas ornaments in particular is said to have occurred in 1605, in the city of Strasbourg, located in eastern France, near the German border. It was here that St. Boniface’s beloved tree was brought indoors and decorated with an array of practical items, including candy, nuts, gingerbread cookies, silk and paper flowers and, of course, Luther’s candles. Thus, the notion of decorating a tree with unique Christmas ornaments was born.
The Germans refined this new custom with the addition of the golden angel – the subject of part three in our series. She struck a resounding chord, as angels continue to be a favored Christmas ornament hundreds of years later.
Stay tuned for Part 3 of our “History of Christmas Ornaments” series when we pay homage to the “Golden Angel!”