Where do all those Christmas decorating traditions come from?

A History of Christmas Decorating

The tradition of using evergreens to brighten the home at the darkest time of the year began in the pagan era: at the time of the winter solstice throughout Europe bonfires were lit and houses were decorated with evergreens. The Roman celebrating the feast of Saturnalia, held at the same time of year, used evergreen garlands to decorate their homes.

The use of evergreens at this time of year as a decoration in the home was clearly pagan in origin, the early Christian Church cheerfully adopted this practice, and gave the plants Christian meanings

Tudor Christmas

In Tudor England we did not have Christmas trees, although they were around in 16th century. It is a Baltic/northern German tradition and even then it is not recorded until 1520. The first known record of a Christmas tree was in Riga, Latvia in 1510 which was then part of Germany.

They would have used natural ever greens like holly, ivy, yew, mistletoe, box and laurel to decorate the home but would have waited until Christmas Eve as it was thought to be unlucky to do it before.

The more modern tradition of fairy lights is said to originate from the 16th century.  Legend has it that Martin Luther was walking in the snow covered woods and was so struck by the beauty of seeing the stars through the trees that he took a tree home and put candles on it, and that’s why we have fairy lights!

Georgian Christmas

Evergreen plants continued to be used to decorate in the late 1700s and early 1800s.The aromatic leaves of bay, rosemary, ivy and yew were used on fireplaces and garlands, swags and wreaths made from holly were used staircases.Mistletoe would only have been found below stairs at this time because many churches banned it as a decoration because it was considered pagan and a bit risqué!

Christmas back then was a totally different celebration. In Georgian England celebrations extended over the traditional 12 days of Christmas and Christmas Day itself would have been a fairly low-key affair.

Christmas trees were first introduced to England by German-born Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. As early as Christmas 1799 she had a tree at Windsor Castle decorated with small candles, strings of almonds and raisins and gifts for the children.

Victorian Christmas

When we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, we have the Victorians to thank for many of its joyful festivities and delightful customs. They revived old traditions, such as carolling, and invented new ones such as sending Christmas cards.

Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle and in 1848, an etching of Victoria, Albert, and their children gathered around their decorated tree was published in The Illustrated London News. As a result, Christmas trees became the popular fashion in England and the focal point of the Victorian family Christmas. German settlers had brought the custom to America, but when the same illustration of Victoria and her family appeared in Goody’s Lady’s Book in 1850, Christmas trees became even more popular in America then in England.

What made the Victorian Christmas tree so special was its elaborate decoration. These included gingerbread men, marzipan sweets, fruit, paper fans, small tin toys and whistles, pine cones, nuts, berries, and trinkets of all kinds. Paper cones filled with nuts, sweets and other treats were the Victorian favourite.  Hand-dipped candles were placed carefully on each of the branches. A Christmas doll or angel could usually be found adorning the top of the tree.

Later in the century imported ornaments from Germany began to replace the homemade ones. First came glass icicles and hand-blown glass globes called kugels. Dresdens, which were embossed silver and gold cardboard ornaments, took exotic shapes–moons, butterflies, fish, birds, ships, animals and  flowers .

20th Century

During the 30’s and 40’s electric tree lights began to be produced, and after WWII they replaced candles, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end.  By the 1950’s mass production meant that artificial decorations became  very common and there was a move away from natural decorations. Decorations were bright and colourful and artificial tinsel trees replaced natural ones. Paper and foil garlands were popular.
In the later part of the 20th century there was a swing back to natural decorations also a revival of the traditional Victorian look. New themes and conceptual ideas come and go but the traditional look of Christmas remains ever popular.