Tinsel on a tree

The History of Christmas Trees

The evergreen fir tree has traditionally been used to celebrate winter festivals (pagan and Christian) for thousands of years. Pagans used branches of it to decorate their homes during the winter solstice, as it made them think of the spring to come. The Romans used Fir Trees to decorate their temples at the festival of Saturnalia. Christians use it as a sign of everlasting life with God.

Nobody is really sure when Fir trees were first used as Christmas trees. It probably began about 1000 years ago in Northern Europe. Many early Christmas Trees seem to have been hung upside down from the ceiling using chains (hung from chandeliers/lighting hooks).

Other early Christmas Trees, across many parts of northern Europe, were cherry or hawthorn plants (or a branch of the plant) that were put into pots and brought inside so they would hopefully flower at Christmas time. If you couldn’t afford a real plant, people made pyramids of woods and they were decorated to look like a tree with paper, apples and candles. Sometimes they were carried around from house to house, rather than being displayed in a home.

It’s possible that the wooden pyramid trees were meant to be like Paradise Trees. These were used in medieval German Mystery or Miracle Plays that were acted out in front of Churches on Christmas Eve. In early church calendars of saints, 24th December was Adam and Eve’s day. The Paradise Tree represented the Garden of Eden. It was often paraded around the town before the play started, as a way of advertising the play. The plays told Bible stories to people who could not read.

The first documented use of a tree at Christmas and New Year celebrations is argued between the cities of Tallinn in Estonia and Riga in Latvia! Both claim that they had the first trees; Tallinn in 1441 and Riga in 1510. Both trees were put up by the ‘Brotherhood of Blackheads’ which was an association of local unmarried merchants, ship owners, and foreigners in Livonia (what is now Estonia and Latvia).

Little is known about either tree apart from that they were put in the town square, were danced around by the Brotherhood of Blackheads and were then set on fire. This is like the custom of the Yule Log. The word used for the ‘tree’ could also mean a mast or pole, tree might have been like a ‘Paradise Tree’ or a tree-shaped wooden candelabra rather than a ‘real’ tree.

In the town square of Riga, the capital of Latvia, there is a plaque which is engraved with “The First New Year’s Tree in Riga in 1510”, in eight languages. You can find out more about the Riga Tree from this website: www.firstchristmastree.com

A picture from Germany in 1521 which shows a tree being paraded through the streets with a man riding a horse behind it. The man is dressed a bishop, possibly representing St. Nicholas.

In 1584, the historian Balthasar Russow wrote about a tradition, in Riga, of a decorated fir tree in the market square where the young men “went with a flock of maidens and women, first sang and danced there and then set the tree aflame”. There’s a record of a small tree in Breman, Germany from 1570. It is described as a tree decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers”. It was displayed in a ‘guild-house’ (the meeting place for a society of business men in the city).

The first person to bring a Christmas Tree into a house, in the way we know it today, may have been the 16th century German preacher Martin Luther. A story is told that, one night before Christmas, he was walking through the forest and looked up to see the stars shining through the tree branches. It was so beautiful, that he went home and told his children that it reminded him of Jesus, who left the stars of heaven to come to earth at Christmas. Some people say this is the same tree as the ‘Riga’ tree, but it isn’t! The Riga tree originally took place a few decades earlier.

The custom of having Christmas trees could well have travelled along the Baltic sea, from Latvia to Germany. In the 1400s and 1500s, the countries which are now Germany and Latvia were them part of two larger empires which were neighbors.

Another story says that St. Boniface of Crediton (a village in Devon, UK) left England and traveled to Germany to preach to the pagan German tribes and convert them to Christianity. He is said to have come across a group of pagans about to sacrifice a young boy while worshipping an oak tree. In anger, and to stop the sacrifice, St. Boniface is said to have cut down the oak tree and, to his amazement, a young fir tree sprang up from the roots of the oak tree. St. Boniface took this as a sign of the Christian faith and his followers decorated the tree with candles so that St. Boniface could preach to the pagans at night.

There is another legend, from Germany, about how the Christmas Tree came into being, it goes:

Once on a cold Christmas Eve night, a forester and his family were in their cottage gathered round the fire to keep warm. Suddenly there was a knock on the door. When the forester opened the door, he found a poor little boy standing on the door step, lost and alone. The forester welcomed him into his house and the family fed and washed him and put him to bed in the youngest sons own bed (he had to share with his brother that night!). The next morning, Christmas Morning, the family were woken up by a choir of angels, and the poor little boy had turned into Jesus, the Christ Child. The Christ Child went into the front garden of the cottage and broke a branch off a Fir tree and gave it to the family as a present to say thank you for looking after him. So ever since them, people have remembered that night by bringing a Christmas Tree into their homes!

In Germany, the first Christmas Trees were decorated with edible things, such as gingerbread and gold covered apples. Then glass makers made special small ornaments similar to some of the decorations used today. In 1605 an unknown German wrote: “At Christmas they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many-colored paper, apples, wafers, gold foil, sweets, etc.”

At first, a figure of the Baby Jesus was put on the top of the tree. Over time it changed to an angel/fairy that told the shepherds about Jesus, or a star like the Wise Men saw.

The first Christmas Tree in the UK might well have been set-up by Queen Charlotte, the German wife of King George III. In 1800 she had a tree set-up at the Queen’s Lodge in Windsor for a children’s party for rich and noble families. Soon having a tree had become popular amongst some rich families.

They became very popular throughout the country from the mid 1840s, when reports of ‘the Royal tree’ were printed in newspapers. In 1848, a drawing of “The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle” was published in the Illustrated London News. It showed Queen Victoria, her German Husband Prince Albert and their young children around a tree which was set-up on a table. The drawing was republished in Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia in December 1850 (but they removed the Queen’s crown and Prince Albert’s moustache to make it look ‘American’!).

The publication of the drawing helped Christmas Trees become popular in the UK and USA.

In Victorian times, the tree would have been decorated with candles to represent stars. In many parts of Europe, candles are still used to decorate Christmas trees.

Christmas Tree ‘skirts’ started as Christmas Tree ‘carpets’. They were made from heavy fabric, often decorated and with fancy frills around the edges, and were used either on the floor, or on tables, and went under the trees and their stands – rather than ‘around’ them. They were used to catch the needles from the trees and also protect the floor or table tops from dripping wax coming from the candles on the trees.

In Germany in the early/mid 1800s it was also ‘fashionable’ to have a forest scene and/or a nativity scene under trees (especially if the trees were placed on tables) and so these scenes also stood on the Tree carpets.

At this point trees were either normally put in pots (if they still had roots on them) or they were attached to a larger piece of wood or other heavy support (if they’d been cut) and so the scenes help to hide these.

In the 1860s proper metal tree holders, for cut trees, started being made. If you were rich, you could get them in very fancy shapes – and some even had music boxes in them, so they ‘plinked’ Christmas tunes!

Less expensive tree holders also became available and were made out of cheaper metals (and they also didn’t look so good), so the ‘carpets’ became smaller and were also put ‘around’ the tree holders and became the Christmas tree skirts that we have today.

Tinsel and The Legend of the Christmas Spider

Tinsel was also created in Germany, were it was originally made from thin strips of beaten silver. But when plastic/man made tinsel was invented, it became very popular as it was much cheaper than real silver and also lighter to go on the tree!

There are also folk stories about how tinsel was created – by The Christmas Spider!

These tales seem to have started in Eastern Germany, Poland or Ukraine but are also told in parts of Finland and Scandinavia. The stories are now also popular in other countries such as the USA; although I live in the UK and most people in my country have never heard of the story/legend!

All the versions of the story involve a poor family who can’t afford to decorate a Tree for Christmas (in some versions the tree grew from a pine cone in their house, in others the family have bought a tree into the house). When the children go to sleep on Christmas Eve a spider covers the tree in cobwebs. Then on Christmas morning the cobwebs are magically turned into silver and gold strands which decorate the tree!

Some versions of the story say that it’s the light of the sun which changed the cobwebs into silver and gold but other versions say it’s St Nicholas / Santa Claus / Father Christmas / das Christkind which made the magic happen.

In parts of Germany, Poland, and Ukraine it’s meant to be good luck to find a spider or a spider’s web on your Christmas Tree. Spider’s web Christmas Tree decorations are also popular in Ukraine. They’re called ‘pavuchky’ (which means ‘little spider’) and the decorations are normally made of paper and silver wire. You might even put an artificial spider’s web on your tree!

Christmas Tree Lights

There are a few different claims as to who invented popularised the first strings of ‘electric’ Christmas Tree lights. In 1880, the famous inventor Thomas Edison put some of his new electric light bulbs around his office. And in 1882 Edward Johnson, who was a colleague of Edison, hand-strung 80 red, white and blue bulbs together and put them on his tree in his New York apartment (there were two additional strings of 28 lights mounted from the ceiling!).

In 1890 the Edison company published a brochure offering lighting services for Christmas. In 1900 another Edison advert offered bulbs which you could rent, along with their lighting system, for use over Christmas! There are records in a diary from 1891 where settlers in Montana used electric lights on a tree. However, most people couldn’t easily use electric tree lights at this time as electricity wasn’t widely installed in homes. But rich people liked to show off with lights installed just for Christmas, this would have cost about $300 per tree then, more than $2000 money today!

Electric tree lights first because widely known in the USA in 1895 when President Grover Cleveland has the tree in the White House decorated with lights as his young daughters liked them! The tradition of the National Christmas Tree on the White House lawn started in 1923 with President Calvin Coolidge.

The first commercially available electric string of lights, which more people could afford, were advertised in 1903 when a string of 24 lights cost $12 or you could rent lights from $1.50. This was still quite expensive, but much cheaper than $300.

Another claim to the first widespread sale of strings of lights comes from Ralph Morris, an American telephonist. In 1908, he used telephone wire to string together small bulbs from a telephone exchange and decorated a table top tree with them. Leavitt Morris, the son of Ralph, wrote an article in 1952 for the Christian Science Monitor, about his father inventing Christmas Tree lights, as he was un-aware of the Edison lights.

In 1885 a hospital in Chicago burned down because of candles on a Christmas Tree. In 1908 insurance companies in the USA tried to get a law made that would ban candles from being used on Christmas Trees because of the many fires they had caused. However, people still used candles to light Christmas Trees and there were more fires.

In 1917, a fire from Christmas Tree candles in New York, gave a teenager called Albert Sadacca an idea. His family came from Spain and made novelty wicker bird cages that lit up. Albert thought of using the lights in long strings and also suggested painting the bulbs bright colors like red and green. In the following years, he and his brothers formed the NOMA Electric Company, which became a very famous name in Christmas lights (I’ve actually got some old NOMA lights in my Christmas decorations!)

The most lights lit at the same time on a Christmas tree is 194,672 and was done by Kiwanis Malmedy / Haute Fagnes Belgium in Malmedy, Belgium, on 10 December 2010!

Many towns and villages have their own Christmas Trees. One of the most famous is the tree in Trafalgar Square in London, England, which is given to the UK by Norway every year as a ‘thank you’ present for the help the UK gave Norway in World War II. The White House in the USA has had a big tree on the front lawn since the 1920s.

The record for the most Christmas trees chopped down in two minutes is 27 and belongs to Erin Lavoie from the USA. She set the record on 19th December 2008 on the set of Guinness World Records: Die GroBten Weltrekorde in Germany.

Artificial Christmas Trees really started becoming popular in the early 20th century. In the Edwardian period Christmas Trees made from colored ostrich feathers were popular at ‘fashionable’ parties. Around 1900 there was even a short fashion for white trees – so if you thought colored trees are a new invention they’re not! Over the years artificial trees have been made from feathers, papier mâché, metal, glass, and many different types of plastic.

The tallest artificial Christmas tree was 52m (170.6ft) high and was covered in green PVC leaves!. It was called the ‘Peace Tree’ and was designed by Grupo Sonae Distribuição Brasil and was displayed in Moinhos de Vento Park, Porto Alegre, Brazil from 1st December 2001 until 6th January 2002.

In many countries, different trees are used as Christmas trees. In New Zealand a tree called the ‘Pohutakawa’ that has red flowers is sometimes used and in India, Banana or Mango trees are sometimes decorated.

You can decorate an online Christmas Tree in the fun section of the site!

For many of us, we begin our Christmas shopping and start decorating for Christmas shortly after Thanksgiving. Decorating the Christmas tree is a very popular family activity during the holidays in many households. We think that the ornaments are what make Christmas trees beautiful, joyful and unique. So we wanted to share a few tips with you for hanging your Christmas ornaments.

Before You Hang Your Christmas Ornaments

Decorating your Christmas tree can be a fun activity for the family to enjoy together or a project for someone who loves to do it on their own. Hanging the Christmas ornaments on the tree is one of the most exciting parts of decorating the tree for most people. Before you start hanging your Christmas ornaments, we recommend that you hang the lights and garland first. Leave the lights on when you start hanging your ornaments so you can see how things will look when lit.

Hanging Your Christmas Ornaments

When it comes to hanging the ornaments on your tree, you will always end up with a beautifully decorated Christmas tree that you and your family will enjoy if you follow these simple steps.

  1. First you need to pick your Christmas ornament hangers. Decide if you are going to be using ornament hooks, ribbon, string or maybe even green florist’s wire to hang your ornaments. For most people, ornament hooks are the cheapest and easiest way to go. If you have pets or small children, you may want to consider ribbon or string to hang your ornaments (at least on the ones on the lower portion of the Christmas tree) because they may be less harmful to them if they come into contact with the hangers. Currently, all Swarovski Crystal ornaments come with an elegant satin ribbon for hanging.
  2. Ornaments should hang freely, (not resting on branches) evenly spaced around the Christmas tree to create a balanced look. Another thing to consider in achieving a balanced look is the selection of your Christmas ornaments. If you have a large number of the same exact Christmas ornaments to hang, we recommend that you start with those first and make sure they are evenly spaced around the tree before hanging the remaining ornaments. If all your Christmas ornaments are mostly unique and different from each other, you can start with whatever ornament you prefer.
  3. Your larger and heavier Christmas ornaments should be hung further inside a little closer to the trunk of the tree where the branches are sturdier. Also, by hanging your larger ornaments further inside the Christmas tree, it helps improve visual depth appearance of your decorated tree.
  4. We recommend that more valuable and highly sentimental Christmas ornaments, such as your Swarovski Crystal annual ornaments, be hung on higher and sturdier branches to stay out of the reach of children and pets.
  5. Once all your Christmas ornaments are hung, stand back, smile and enjoy your beautifully decorated Christmas tree for the holiday season with your family and friends.

When you think of Christmas, there are a lot of things that come to mind. Family. Falling snow. Steaming mugs of hot cocoa. But there’s likely one specific object that’s in each and every one of those scenarios: a Christmas tree. Getting into the holiday spirit just isn’t the same if an evergreen isn’t standing tall in the living room, dressed in homemade ornaments, bright lights, and adorned with a magical tree topper.

But when exactly did people start chopping down trees and putting them in their homes? Some may think Christianity gets all the credit, but the tradition actually dates all the way back to the times of the ancient Egyptians.

The Start of the Christmas Tree

Whenever a winter solstice came around, the ancient Egyptians would decorate their temples and homes with evergreen trees and wreaths as a form of celebration. The prosperous plant represented everlasting life, peace, and opulence, which was important because winter was a time when their sun god, Ra, was ill and weak, reports History.comAfter the solstice, Ra would slowly start glowing brighter and stronger, and an evergreen’s immortality symbolized the triumph of life over death.

The Egyptians weren’t the only ones bringing the plant indoors, though. In Scandinavia, the Vikings believed evergreens were special gifts from Balder, their god of light and peace. And the Druids, an ancient Celtic priesthood said to walk the line between the gods and mankind, started bringing evergreens into the home around the 8th century, reports The Washington Post. Before then, the Druids worshipped oak trees as their idol. But English Benedictine monk St. Boniface, a man who devoted his life to converting pagans, offered the Druids a triangular shaped balsam fir tree as a symbol of the Trinity, and it went on to replace their beloved oaks. They then used evergreens to adorn their temples as a celebration of life without death, hanging mistletoe sprigs over their doorways and windows to ward off evil spirits of diseases.

Christmas Trees and Christianity

Though 16th century German theologian and priest Martin Luther is famed for sparking the Protestant Reformation, he’s also credited with bringing the Christmas tree to Germany and introducing it to Christianity in the way that it’s known today.

According to History.com, German Christians built pyramids of wood and adorned them with evergreens and candles outside to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Luther, in awe of the magical, sparkling trees shining bright outside, decided to recapture the beautiful scene for his family by bringing the tree inside and covering it with wire and candles.

Most 18th and 19th-century Americans thought the tradition was odd though, and to some it was even taken to be a representation of paganism. According to Panati’s Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, Plymouth Colony governor called it a “pagan mockery,” and the general court of Massachusetts even implemented a law in 1659 that banned any observance of December 25 that wasn’t a church service — including decorations.

The Rise in Popularity

It wasn’t until the late 19th century that decorated evergreens became the ultimate Christmas symbol we all know and love today. In 1846, the second longest-reigning monarch, Queen Victoria, was sketched with her children and husband, Prince Albert, alongside a Christmas tree in Windsor Castle. Because Queen Victoria was so popular (kind of like another royal family we know), the decision instantly became an iconic one and went mainstream worldwide.

Ornaments flooded to the U.S., and trees started popping up in households across the States, Britain, and Germany. By the early 20th century, Americans had large floor-to-ceiling trees and decorated them with homemade items like popcorn strings, marzipan cookies, nuts, apples, and candles, reports the The Mint Hill Times.

The introduction of electricity brought about string lights instead of candles, as Thomas Edison also created the first strand of electric lights in 1880, which he strung outside of his Menlo Park Laboratory, according to the Library of Congress. Two years later, his friend and partner, Edward H. Johnson, hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue lights that he wrapped around a Christmas tree. By 1903, General Electric offered pre-assembled kits for everyday customers to buy.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the tradition of lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights. And less than a decade later, in 1931, the very first Rockefeller Center Tree was lit — an occasion that soon became a trademark sign of the holidays. Today, many famous displays stand tall around the world, including the Pope’s Christmas Tree in Vatican City, the Floating Christmas Tree in Brazil, and the Murano Christmas Tree in Italy.

So as you go to hang your ornaments this year, think about how far the Christmas tree has come. And remember, it represents a time of peace and prosperity — something we could all use a little more of as we cozy into the holiday spirit.

Nicol Natale Freelance Editorial Assistant Nicol is a freelance Editorial Assistant at WomansDay.com and is a Manhattan-based journalist who specializes in health, wellness, beauty, fashion, business, and lifestyle.

Before the 16-th century, Tinsel was used for decorating sculptures rather than Christmas trees

Germans invented tinsel around 1610

Each Christmas season we decorate our homes and Christmas trees with tons of tinsel. Glittering and ravishing tinsel adds to the color, the overall ambient, and the life to our favorite winter holiday season but little do we wonder about how tinsel became so popular and a widely used Christmas decoration around the world.

Tinsel was first invented by the Germans, in the city of Nuremberg, around 1610. Originally, tinsel was made from shredded silver, but as Christmas candles dimmed the silver very quickly, tinsel producers looked for other shining metals which would serve as a better substitute to silver.

Original lametta (silver foil with tin and lead)

Nevertheless, the first usage of tinsel was not to decorate Christmas trees but to decorate real sculptures. Using tinsel for Christmas trees came out much later, during the 19-th century. Until then, tinsel had a couple of other uses.

Back in the day, tinsel symbolically represented the starry sky over the Nativity scene. The Nativity scene gained much popularity after the 16-th century as the church started to display artistic and even life-size representations of the scene at public spaces. This is ongoing even today.

The famous scene depicts the birth of Jesus and has a rich tradition overall in history as numerous paintings and drawings represent and revolve around this scene.

Static and even live Nativity scenes would embrace various objects to re-create the scene physically, and tinsel was the key material to represent the starry sky over.

Original lametta (silver foil with tin and lead) Photo Credit

Tinsel was also used for garlands, a decoration which was formerly made of flowers or leaves, but tinsel came up as a substitute for it as well. Later, people started using tinsel to decorate their Christmas trees, thanks to the British Royal family.

The British Royal family made tinsel popular in 1846

It is estimated that tinsel’s first wide public appearance happened in 1846, in England. An illustrated portrayal of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, standing with their children around a Christmas tree, decorated with tinsel, candles, and other ornaments, was featured at the London News and soon became really popular.

Queen Victoria was very popular and the Royal family’s Christmas tree brought tinsel to fashion around the British isles, and outside its territories as well.

A Christmas tree decorated with dangling strands of lametta.Photo Credit

Today tinsel has much changed compared to the past, but the traditions live on as strong as ever. The first variants of tinsel were heavy and very gentle as they were made out of silver. The threads would easily break and not last the season. In addition, the smoke of the Christmas candles caused the tinsel to dim and it would not associate to snow, ice, and winter any longer. Today tinsel is made of plastic and the sparkly threads keep on intensifying the Christmas spirit across our living rooms.

Read another story from us: Since 1923, The National Christmas Tree Lighting has been a highly-anticipated holiday event and a celebrated American tradition

As far as the origin of the word “tinsel” is concerned, the Oxford Dictionary states that it originates from the old French word “estincele”, meaning sparkle.

Spiders might seem like a symbol specific to Halloween, but the eight-legged creatures actually play an important part in another holiday. When we recently reported on the history of the pickle ornament, some readers shared that they also practice the tradition of the Christmas spider.


Another folk tale from Europe, this one has been attributed to various countries, most often Ukraine and Germany. In one version of the Christmas spider story, a widowed mother and her children were too poor to decorate their Christmas tree, so friendly spiders spun elaborate webs on the evergreen. When the family awoke on Christmas morning, they opened the curtains and the sunshine hit the webs, turning them silver and gold (sometimes said to be the origin of tinsel). The family had good fortune from then on. Other iterations claim it was Santa Claus or Jesus himself who transformed the webs so that they wouldn’t upset the mother.

It’s likely the legend is linked to the idea that spiders are lucky. Whatever the real reason, several sources including the Evening Standard report that Ukrainians decorate their Christmas trees with spider-shaped ornaments (often made of beautiful beads) to this day. Shop these striking spider ornaments to start the tradition in your own home this year.

When it comes to the correct date to put up your Christmas tree, we’re all in disagreement. But one thing we can all agree on, is that decorating our trees is a very exciting part of the festive season.

But before we dust off our boxes filled with last year’s decorations, we took a look at where tinsel and baubles came from – and the reasons for both is quite interesting.

Tinsel was created in Europe in the 1600s and while it’s thought of as the flimsiest decoration, it was developed by hammering paper-thin silver alloy until it was paper-thin and cut into strips. People then added to trees to reflect the flickering of candle flames.

And the thought of that is making us feel all cosy inside!

Meanwhile, baubles were created with a more symbolic meaning behind them. The idea for baubles originated from the Roman tradition to hang fruit from trees.

Over time, the tradition transformed into baubles and became a popular practice in the 1800s, when inventor Hans Greiner produced glass ornaments in the shape of fruits and nuts, which, we have to admit, sounds like something we’d buy now. No wonder they became so popular…


(Images: Getty)

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