Long before the first Christmas Tree, there were Paradise Trees also called Christ Trees. During medieval times, they were popular in northern and eastern Europe where they were paraded through the towns as part of their winter celebrations. The trees were hung with ribbons and edible decorations such as fruits, nuts and sweets, and gingerbread and pastries in all sorts of shapes to represent the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. Sometimes there was the addition of paper flowers in red and white to represent Innocence and Knowledge, and roses to represent Mary the mother of Jesus.
The story goes that Martin Luther, a great 16th century German preacher, was walking home through a snowy wood on Christmas Eve in 1517, when he was inspired by the stars twinkling through the fir trees. Once home, he wanted to share the beauty of the scene with his family and so he dug up a small fir tree and brought it into the nursery where he covered it with lighted candles. Due to the fame and influence of Martin Luther, the practice became popular across Germany and much of Europe although it did not catch on in Britain until the mid 1800s.
Beads and baubles
What do artificial eyeballs and Christmas trees have in common? Well, the answer is baubles. The connection starts in 1597 when a glass blowing factory was founded in the small mountain town of Lauscha in the German state of Thuringen. It soon became well established and by 1755 was well known for its high quality products which included beautiful glass beads used in the fashion industry and made into garlands to hang on trees. From manufacturing beads they went on to produce decorative pieces such as fruit, nuts, animals, birds, figurines and baubles. These early decorations were coloured on the inside with mercury or lead and coloured wax.
It seems a natural step from producing glass beads to making glass eyeballs which is what happened in 1835 when a local glass blower in Lauscha, Ludwig Muller-Uri, invented the artificial human eyeball (apparently these were much in demand after the Napoleonic Wars).
New innovations in production and the building of a gasworks in Lausha in 1867 lead to the industry’s expansion. The glass blowers could now produce ornaments with thinner glass and more regular shapes, making them lighter and cheaper and giving more potential to push the boundaries on design and colour. By the 1870s they were exporting to Britain and in the 1880s F. W. Woolworth was importing them to his shops in America.
Like so many of our Christmas traditions, tinsel is yet another Germany creation. Tinsel, originally called “lametta,” was first made in the 17th century from beaten silver that was cut into long metal strips making it very expensive and heavy to use. To make it more affordable, in the 1900s the silver was replaced with other metals such as copper and aluminium but during WWI these were in short supply and so a lead foil was used instead. However, in the 1960s, when scientists became aware of the dangers of lead poisoning, the use of lead was phased out. With the innovation of manmade materials such as plastic, tinsel is now mass produced and much cheaper and easier to use. Our word for tinsel comes from the French word, étinceler, which means to sparkle.
When researching the history of tinsel, I came across this alternative version which I rather like, here it is: Legend has it that the Christ Child first made tinsel by turning spider's webs into silver after taking pity on a poor family that couldn't afford any decorations for their Christmas Tree.
I leave you to decide which version you choose to believe.