Decorating is important to any holiday, but most of the iconic images connected with Christmas are filled with trees, wreaths, and strings of lights timed to music. Every year, millions of people around the world, both religious and secular, go all out to get their homes into the Christmas spirit. While many of the decorations we connect with Christmas have more to do with winter than anything else — think snowmen and sleighs — some have surprisingly ancient histories, like the Christmas tree itself and mistletoe. Even those with more modern origins have taken a fascinating journey to get to where they are today.

Why Do We Put Ornaments on the Tree?

Cutting down an evergreen tree and bringing it into the house predates the glass and plastic ornaments that adorn them today by hundreds, if not thousands, of years. However, decorating the tree in some fashion has long been connected to the tradition, at least since Germany in the 16th Century. Prior to that, there were two traditions similar to what we know today.

Paradise trees would merge with the Christmas pyramid to become the illuminated centerpiece of most families’ Christmas decorations.

First, there was the paradise tree, which was set up at churches and included on Christmas Eve in plays about the story of Adam and Eve. They would be decorated with apples (connected to Adam and Eve), wafers (symbolizing the Eucharist), and lit candles (symbolizing the light of the Christ child), as well as pastries and other fruits. These would later be moved inside the house, where the apples would become red baubles (glass ornaments). This would merge with the Christmas pyramid, another popular decoration that you can still find today, to become the illuminated centerpiece of most families’ Christmas decorations.

What About the Decorations Themselves?

Many modern iterations of Christmas decorations were chosen to improve the longevity and safety of the decorations and the tree. The pitfalls of the original decorations found on the paradise tree were often perishable foods or fire hazards. As more people began to decorate for Christmas and the pace of modern life, simplifying the decoration process made it more desirable, and the modern versions of ancient classics arrived.

Tinsel

A great example to start with is tinsel. The shining strings we wrap around the tree were an early addition to Christmas, pairing with the candles to create a twinkling starlight effect at night. Originally, it was made of actual silver shavings, but it had two drawbacks. First, it was prohibitively expensive for most. Second, the silver would turn black from the smoke of the candles. The first replacement (aluminum) wasn’t much better, since it was extremely flammable. It was quickly replaced with lead, though this would have issues too. Many other replacement materials would be tested out until they eventually settled on plastic.

Christmas Ornaments

A Christmas ornament is an umbrella term for anything we put on the tree, but in this case, we’re referring to the little glass balls that are commonly hung. As we mentioned earlier, the original Christmas tree ornaments were apples and pastries, and when the paradise trees were moved into the home, they were replaced with red baubles. But the story doesn’t end there. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that decorative glass ornaments became popular, with craftsman Hans Greiner making ones shaped like fruits and nuts. An American businessman, F. W. Woolworth (yes, that Woolworth), would discover these ornaments and make his fortune importing and selling them across the United States.

Christmas Lights

Of course, the most important decoration on any tree or any home is the beautiful strings of lights, making the hours of frustration and tangles worth it. Candles were originally used to replicate twinkling starlight, but it’s pretty clear to see — fires were a real threat. A candleholder was designed to make the decorations safer, but fires were still enough of a hazard that insurance companies wouldn’t cover fires caused by Christmas trees. It wasn’t until Edward Johnson sought to advertise Thomas Edison’s recently invented light bulb that electric lights were used on a tree. Though the first try was underwhelming compared to what we see today (only 8 bulbs on a single string), it changed the Christmas tree game. In the 1920s, General Electric would release pre-assembled Christmas lights, making them more accessible to the common American, and we haven’t looked back since.

What’s the Deal with the Tree Pickle?

Perhaps the most (unintentionally) controversial Christmas decoration is the Christmas pickle. If you’re not familiar with it, some people hang a glass or plastic pickle on their Christmas tree. It’s said to be a very old tradition from Germany, where the parents would hide the glass pickle somewhere in the tree after all the other ornaments were up. On Christmas Day, the first child to find the pickle (therefore the most observant) would get an extra present from Santa, while the first adult that didn’t hide the pickle to find it got good luck all year.

Most Germans have never heard of the tradition and those that have believe it’s an American tradition (which seems to be correct).

The truth is that there’s just no truth to these claims. Most Germans have never heard of the tradition and those that have believe it’s an American tradition (which seems to be correct). In fact, anyone familiar with the Christmas traditions in Germany, specifically with Santa, will know that he doesn’t come on Christmas Eve, but on December 5, the eve of the Feast of St. Nicholas. Children also don’t open their gifts on Christmas morning, like they do in the United States, but on Christmas Eve.

A number of possible explanations have cropped up over the years, ranging from a story about how Santa saved two children who had been killed and stored in a pickle barrel to a Civil War prisoner of war who credited pickles with saving his life during captivity. Our money, however, is on a clever salesman coming up with a good sales pitch that really took off.

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Christmas traditions are what have made this holiday such a popular one, even for people who aren’t Christian. Those traditions wouldn’t be nearly as iconic or popular if it wasn’t for the decorations that make them stand out. When it comes to big, festive displays that bring warmth and happiness to the hearts of those seeing them, it’s hard to beat Christmas decorations. They’ve come a long way from fire hazards and baked goods stuffed into trees!

Further Reading

Medicareful Living — Why Do We Celebrate That? Classic Christmas Traditions
Medicareful Living — Why Do We Celebrate That? Santa Claus and His Helpers
Medicareful Living — Why Do We Celebrate That? Christmas Gift-Giving