Decking The Tree

By Sharon Naylor

October 29, 2015 5 min read

According to the National Christmas Tree Association, approximately 25 million to 30 million real Christmas trees are sold each year in the United States. From homes to offices to department stores, Christmas trees are brought in and decorated, with personal style and tradition influencing their design. Many families incorporate traditional and old-fashioned tree decor into their designs, enjoying the feel of long-ago holidays shared with family and creating opportunities for fun family activities as they prepare to deck the tree.

Seeing as so many of our Christmas tree traditions got their start long ago, it's fascinating to look at what we use today to decorate our holiday trees and trace those items' origins back in time.

For instance, in 1605, a tree in Strasbourg, France, was brought indoors and adorned with paper roses, lit candles, wafers, nuts and sweets, an act that is said to have defined our current traditions of tree trimming inside our homes. Some Christmas historians believe that Martin Luther originated the tradition of Christmas tree decorating indoors.

Later decor included candles and cookies, as well as painted eggshells. In 1610, tinsel was invented, originally made of pure silver. You very likely remember those cascades of tinsel on your family tree, often painstakingly applied strand by strand (or tossed onto higher, out-of-reach branches with some abandon).

*The History of Tinsel

Calling to the idea of Martin Luther's involvement in tree trimming are stories about how he was traveling through the woods one night, noticing how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He took home a fir and placed small candles on the branches to emulate the look. Another story holds that in 16th-century Germany, the Paradise tree represented the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. A pyramid-shaped frame contained glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top, serving as a symbol of the birth of Jesus. These traditions hold that tinsel, symbolizing the light of the sun -- or the "light of the world," as Jesus described himself and his disciples -- came into tradition as an item of light, especially during the long, dark days of winter.

Tinsel also has a royal connection. In 1846, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England, trendsetters of their day, appeared in The Illustrated London News standing with their children by their Christmas tree, which was decorated with tinsel, ornaments and candles.

A fascinating tidbit in the history of tinsel is the fact that tinsel was once banned by the U.S. government. A study by the University of Illinois says that in 1971, the federal government found that tinsel made of lead -- as it was then -- was a health risk and asked companies to voluntarily stop producing it. Tinsel as we know it today is made of plastic.

*The History of Cranberries

Fruit was often used to decorate Christmas trees. Cranberries were quite available out in nature, so they were most easily used as tree decor by stringing them together and creating a garland.

According to a study at Cornell University, there is no proof that cranberries were eaten at the first Thanksgiving. They are, however, symbolic of abundance, and in the Victorian-era "language of flowers" tradition -- which assigned meanings to different flowers, greenery and natural items, symbols that are still looked to today -- cranberry blossoms signify peace. Some flower symbolism experts say that cranberries symbolize comfort from heartache, but it's quite unlikely that this factors into cranberries' popularity as a Christmas decor item. What may factor in is religious historians' take that the red berries symbolize Jesus' drops of blood.

Stringing cranberries with popcorn creates a festive red-and-white look; and again, early trees were decorated with edibles that were plentiful, popcorn being something our ancestors could make from their abundance of corn. Some people strung cranberries and popcorn outside as food for birds, squirrels and other wildlife.

Stringing popcorn and cranberries, together or separately, continues to be a family activity and tradition, keeping some of the natural and non-purchased tradition of the past and also serving as an eco-friendly option that's friendly on the household budget.

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