The History of Christmas Tree Decorating

Angel Topper on Christmas Tree

On the third Friday of every November, like clockwork, eager holiday decorators across the United States stow away Thanksgiving dinnerware sets and begin dusting off their most treasured childhood Christmas Tree ornaments.

For some, decorating the Christmas Tree is a time to get crafty, try new things, or maybe even get in touch with the latest decorating trends, while others find comfort in the timeless red/green Christmas Tree decorating palette guaranteed to make any holiday occasion feel cozy.

Regardless of how you choose to decorate for the holidays this year, you may be surprised to learn the art of decorating the Christmas Tree—a true staple of the holiday season—has hardly changed since its first debut over a thousand years ago.

Christmas tree, wreath, and stockings beside fireplace

That’s right: your great-great-great-great-great grandparents may have spent their last week each November deciding which ornaments, ribbon colors, or tree toppers to put on their Christmas Tree just like you might be this very moment.

That’s why, to kick off this year’s holiday decorating festivities, we’re taking a deep dive into the history of Christmas Trees and where they come from, how tree decorating trends have changed over the years, and also sharing why we love decorating our own Christmas Trees here at Ballard Designs each holiday season!

Before there was Christmas, there was Christmas Tree Decorating

Pagan Yule Celebration

1880 Depiction of a Pagan Winter Solstice “Yule” Festival

Before Christmas was ever a holiday, Pagans living in Europe during the height of the Roman Empire celebrated each winter solstice by adorning their homes with green fir trees and mistletoe, often decorating these fir trees with berries, pine cones, and other natural ornaments.

The underlying symbolism of this Pagan decorating tradition, commonly known as “Yule”, helped all who slept near the chopped down evergreen pines remember that life could survive and even thrive during the coldest of winters.

For hundreds and hundreds of years thereafter, the Pagan “Yule” tradition became intermeshed with various cultures, customs, religions, and holiday traditions in and around Europe, eventually finding its way in the homes of 16th century German Christians.

Germans of this time period found their own symbolic meaning within the indoor evergreen tree, eventually associating the practice with Christmas holiday traditions rather than the original Pagan winter solstice.

 

The Humble Beginnings of “Modern” Christmas Tree Decorating

Martin Luther 1536 Christmas Tree

1860 Depiction of 15th Century German Christmas featuring Martin Luther

It didn’t take long for 16th century German Christians to pioneer many Christmas Tree decorating staples we know and love today, turning what was a simple and symbolic Pagan tradition into a cause for crafting custom tree ornaments and tree toppers meant to delight the household throughout the entire Christmas season.

Notable Christmas Tree decorating staples such as bulb-shaped ornaments, paper snowflakes, tree toppers, hanging fruit, and even early versions of the Christmas stocking originated in a relatively short amount of time from talented German artisans of the 16th and 17th century.

Ornaments arranged into a snowflakeAs Christmas Tree decorating traditions were taking shape and becoming widely popular across European Christians with each passing generation, 18th and 19th century German immigrants bound for America brought their own favorite holiday tree decorating traditions across the Atlantic Ocean with them.

     Read more: 13 Creative Christmas Decorating Ideas

 

How Christmas Tree Decorating Became an American Tradition

By the last decade of the 1800s, long before the Christmas Tree’s widespread popularity across the United States, a growing population of second and third generation German immigrants were proudly keeping their ancestral Christmas Tree traditions alive in metropolitan U.S. cities.

Woolworth’s Department Store in New York reportedly imported upwards of $25 million bulb ornaments each holiday season to meet the growing demand for Christmas Tree decorations. Over time, this growing demand led American artisans to try crafting their own versions of custom Christmas Tree ornaments, eventually pioneering the use of new ornament materials such as tinsel and wool that are still commonly used today.

19th Century Christmas

1858 Wood Engraving Showcasing German Christmas in U.S.; Courtesy of Boston Public Library

This new market for holiday decorating inspired countless of other major department stores and home good suppliers to join in on the Christmas Tree decorating frenzy; And, by the turn of the 20th century, it wasn’t uncommon to see Christmas Trees adorned with beautiful ornaments of all shapes, sizes, and designs in most public spaces.

At this point in the history of Christmas Tree decorating, right when the German-inspired Christmas Tree tradition became commonplace within cities, the invention of the electric light bulb introduced a new decorating staple and (literally) turned on American appetites for Christmas Tree decorating almost overnight… and for good reason!

Before the availability of the light bulb, Christmas Tree enthusiasts and critics alike avoided implementing the Christmas Tree in their holiday decorating plans due to the very rational fear of household candles igniting dried evergreen pines.

But, as soon as electric Christmas tree lights became widely available and affordable, the Christmas Tree—as well as the long history of German decorating traditions that came with it—accelerated in popularity across the United States.

In 1923, for instance, President Calvin Coolidge pressed the “on” switch on the first-ever electrically lit National Christmas Tree in Washington D.C.. Only eight years later, at the height of the Great Depression, the first-ever Rockefeller Christmas Tree in New York City debuted and became a national holiday phenomenon.

Many PR stunts by major corporations and governmental agencies soon followed, inevitably cementing the Christmas Tree as a holiday decorating staple within American pop culture.

By the end of the 50s, the combination of growing public endorsement for Christmas Tree decorating, variety of American and German-inspired ornaments for customization, and the sudden explosion of the modern-day suburbs following WWII put the Christmas Tree and all the fun decorating traditions we still love today at the forefront of the holiday decorating to-do list.

 

Why We Still Love Decorating Christmas Trees Today

Here at Ballard, we think home decorating should be an expression of yourself, which is why we look forward to decorating our Christmas Tree all year!

Although the art of Christmas Tree decorating stems from thousands of years of history and tradition, what you choose to hang on your own tree this holiday season is completely up to you—much like the Christmas Tree’s Pagan originators intended.

From our own custom glass or mistletoe ornament sets to something more sentimental or passed down through generations of family holidays, Christmas Trees give us a wide-open canvas we can tweak to make our homes feel cozy and inviting every season. Let us know in the comments what you found fascinating, what holiday decorating tradition we should cover next, or what your favorite nostalgic Christmas Tree decoration is!

Get even more decorating inspirations this holiday season by checking out a few of our other Christmas Tree decorating design guides here:

Find more entertaining ideas and shortcuts, or get inspired on our website Ballarddesigns.com.

See our related Pinterest Board — Holiday Decor, Entertaining Essentials, and Tabletop Ideas.

Kelley Bostian

Kelley enjoys a light and livable interior design pallet complimented by an insatiable desire to find the next perfect "final touch" antique piece. Here on How to Decorate, it's his goal to help you bring your own unique design vision to life.

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  1. Reply

    Nereida

    December 21, 2022

    What I found fascinating is the underlying symbolism of the Pagan decorating tradition or “Yule”. Hope to get through winter, a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s no wonder I always get a cozy feeling with the tree and the holiday season. Even today it symbolizes so much. Thank you for sharing!

    • Reply

      Kelley Bostian

      December 22, 2022

      We couldn’t agree more! Nothing feels more hopeful during the cold weather season than snuggling up beside the fire and admiring your Christmas Tree decorations. We hope you have a great holiday decorating season, Nereida!

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