Trimming the Tree: Your Ancestors’ Christmas Decorations

Introduction: In this article, Gena Philibert-Ortega searches old newspapers to learn more about how our ancestors decorated their Christmas trees. Gena is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.

Have you given much thought to those colorful trinkets on your Christmas tree, or what your ancestors put on their tree? Germans started bringing decorated trees into their homes in the 16th century, but it was not until well into the 19th century that most Americans embraced the idea of decorating a tree for Christmas. Those early American trees sported homemade decorations, but by 1890 Christmas decorations were being imported from Germany and sold in stores.*

Photo: Christmas tree ornament
Photo: Christmas tree ornament. Credit: Kris De Curtis; Wikimedia Commons.

A History of Early 20th Century Decorations

What’s the history of your family Christmas tree? Christmas tree decorations are part of a family tradition that can be recent or passed down through the generations. To learn more about this, turn to a collection of online newspapers such as GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives – they are a great way to expand the story of your family Christmas traditions.

The newspaper is more than a place for family historians to find names and dates; it is a great way to learn more about the history of an event, a product, or a place.

For example, a search I conducted on the keywords “Christmas,” “Tree,” and “Ornaments” found this 1919 newspaper article about the making of Christmas tree ornaments. It reminds readers that prior to World War I, “beautifully glistening balls and other ornaments” were made in Germany. However, after the war consumers could purchase decorated glass balls made in America. Further discussion explains the process for blowing glass, and adding color and decoration. This particular article was published in various newspapers nationwide and even included an illustration of a glass blower.

An article about Christmas tree decorations, Plain Dealer newspaper article 14 December 1919
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 14 December 1919, page 76

Not Everything Is Store-Bought

When I put up my tree every year, I place on it decorations my kids have made featuring lots of glitter, glue, and colored construction paper. When I was growing up, my parents’ tree included fabric ornament depictions of the 12 Days of Christmas that my mom had sewn. For my family, and most likely yours, homemade decorations always have an important place on the family Christmas tree.

This 1904 newspaper article imagines that year’s Christmas tree with the latest colored decorations and illumination, but also points out that some of the ornaments can be handmade:

…almost any girl can make little figures of heavy paper, pasting on heads of Santa Claus, babies, angels or pretty girls, and dress them in suitable cloaks and garments built from sheet cotton batting sprinkled thickly with silver dust. From this same sheet wadding snow-balls may be formed and fastened to the tree by a thin wire.

An article about Christmas tree decorations, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 18 December 1904
Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 18 December 1904, page 2

Have you documented your family’s homemade ornaments and their importance? Or what about that special store-bought ornament purchased to commemorate an occasion?

The Cost of Christmas Decorating

How much do you spend buying and decorating your Christmas tree? Obviously, prices run the gamut for decorations – from the very inexpensive found at a dollar store to the more expensive items made by artisans. Historical newspaper advertisements provide us some ideas of not only the price of decorations, but in some cases a rough sketch of what they looked like.

This 1895 newspaper advertisement features ornaments ranging in price from 5 to 50 cents. Ornaments that could be purchased included Christmas Tree Candle Holders, Silver and Gold Beads, Tinsel, and of course the man himself, Santa Claus.

An ad for Christmas tree decorations, Denver Rocky Mountain News newspaper advertisement 15 December 1895
Denver Rocky Mountain News (Denver, Colorado), 15 December 1895, page 14

In this 1922 newspaper advertisement, Christmas Tree Candles could be replaced with 8-bulb cords of electric lights (at a cost of $3.25 each, which would equal $47.74 today). Other decorations included colored balls, tin foil ornaments, and ornaments depicting vases, violins, and swans ranging in price from 10 to 75 cents each.

An ad for Christmas tree decorations, Evening Star newspaper advertisement 24 November 1922
Evening Star (Washington, D.C.), 24 November 1922, page 20

One Christmas in the 1980s, a decoration my dad purchased was the Christmas Bubble Lights he remembered from when he was a kid. If you’re not familiar with these types of lights, they were patented in the United States in 1944 but were in existence decades earlier in the U.K. Bubble lights are on a strand of wire like more familiar Christmas lights, but instead of a colored bulb they have a decorative base and then a slender glass vial filled with a liquid that bubbles when the light strand is plugged in and warms up. This 1949 newspaper shows a “greatly reduced” price of $1.98 for a 9-bulb strand of bubble lights.

An ad for Christmas tree lights, Omaha World-Herald newspaper advertisement 14 December 1949
Omaha World-Herald (Omaha, Nebraska), 14 December 1949, page 13

How Do You Trim Your Tree?

How is your 2016 tree different than your tree from 10, 20, even 30 years ago? Are there any decorations that are family favorites? Any ornaments passed down in your family? What decorations has the family made? I’d love to hear about your Christmas tree in the comments section below.

Happy Holidays!

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* “History of Christmas Trees,” History. (http://www.history.com/topics/christmas/history-of-christmas-trees: accessed 3 December 2016)

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