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21 Oct 2021

The Christmas tree, a concise history




Have you seen the episode of the 'Victoria' series, where Christmas is celebrated with a Christmas tree as the centerpiece for the first time? A fir tree decorated with glittering ornaments and of course provided with a peak (an angel) and many burning candles? That scene was inspired by the famous Victorian engraving printed in 1848 in The Illustrated London News showing the royal family depicted around a decorated Christmas tree with gifts for the children under the tree.


The English royal family has always had ties with Germany. It was Charlotte van Mecklenberg-Strelitz, wife of Georg III, who introduced an old, medieval tradition from Germany to the English court. Sources tell about the baker's hands of the city of Freiburg. In 1419, as a kind of marketing stunt, they set up a colorfully decorated pine tree in the middle of the square, full of the most delicious baked goods of gingerbread, dried fruit and nuts. The children of the city were allowed to snack on it on January 1.


This tradition was introduced by Charlotte in England. In the Queen's Lodge in Windsor Castle she put up a beautiful tree every year, decorated with these kinds of delicacies. This tradition was given a huge boost when the German Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, husband of Queen Victoria, made the decorated Tannenbaum, or Christbaum (as the Christmas tree in Germany is also known) that he knew from his childhood the shining centerpiece of the Christmas party at the English court. The engraving made of this scene went around the world like a photo or a contemporary Instagram or Facebook post, influencing the rest of Europe and the US. The royal family as influencer avant-la-lettre.

In the heart of Central Europe, numerous glass factories had sprung up since the 16th century. In wooded areas, along rivers on soils rich in limestone and fine sand. Wood was needed to fire the kilns and to make potassium (potassium carbonate left over after burning wood). In addition to lime and sand, it is an indispensable raw material for the manufacture of glass. Famous glassworks arose in various places along the border of present-day Poland and the Czech Republic, in the Bohemian countries and in central Germany. Glass was an expensive product. Popular among the aristocracy and merchants.

The city of Lauscha in Thuringia was one of the first cities in Germany where the glass (blowing) industry flourished. A distant ancestor of Prince Albert, Johann Casimir of Saxe-Coburg, granted the company Greiner & Mueller the first license to manufacture glass here in 1590. In addition to utility glass and glass eyes for dolls, this company also made small glass beads that were strung into chains and used to decorate the Tannenbaum. In the mid-nineteenth century, this firm saw a market for Christmas tree decorations, decorations in the spirit of the tradition that the Freiburg baker's hands had set in motion. Shapes of nuts and various fruits were the inspiration for the mouth-blown ornaments that were shaped in a hand-formed clay mould. The hollow object was then coated with a thin layer of mercury on the inside to give the extra shine. The molds were then put to dry and once dry, painted by hand and provided with a hook on which they could be hung. This is how the Kugel came into being, the Christmas ball as we know it today. The   from Lauscha were an inspiration for many other glass works, each with their own shapes and decors, which formed a rich manufacture in the heart of Europe and continue to do so to this day.

From the mid-nineteenth century, the decorated Christmas tree conquered all walks of life and many other types of ornaments came on the market. In addition to glass Christmas ornaments, wire and papier-mâché ornaments were also popular.

The great success of the 'Christmas bauble' came later, when the American department store magnate Woolworth received a visit from a representative with Lauscha ornaments. Woolworth didn't really see a market for it. He thought it was pointless, a glass ball to hang? Quite fragile too. But he was persuaded to buy a batch anyway and it was an overwhelming success. The glass bauble conquered America. In Europe, the production of mouth-blown Christmas ornaments boomed from that moment on.

To this day, the most beautiful Christmas ornaments still come from the areas where the tradition once started. Where the mastery of the glassblowers, mold makers and decorators has been able to maintain itself among all modern industry. Who would suspect that behind the slight sophistication of a traditionally crafted Christmas ornament lies a lot of hard work? That a Christmas bauble has gone through many hands before it has taken its final shape and can hang in the Christmas tree.

Impermanence is inextricably linked to glass Christmas ornaments, but fortunately the tradition still lives on.


For those who want to take another look at the Christmas scene from Victoria, here it is:

A beautiful film has also been made about a glassblower family from Lauscha in which the origin of the 'Christmas ball' is one of the storylines. A romantic movie to watch during Christmas: Die Glasbläserin (2016). Unfortunately nowhere to stream but can be seen in German on You Tube or available on DVD via Amazon. (copy the link in your browser)

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