• Gerard Donley


Updated: Dec 14, 2019

Hanging Christmas ornaments always gives me a deep sense of comfort. While preparing to begin the process again this year, I wondered why such a seemingly mundane exercise carried so much meaning for me.

Sure, we all get a kick out of replaying childhood rituals surrounding the holidays. But there’s something more emotional in it for me. Memories rush into my mind with almost every ornament I handle as I lift it from its box. I decided to research where the practice of putting ornaments on Christmas trees began.

Who Started Hanging Ornaments on Trees?

Before you can hang ornaments on the Christmas tree, you need to have a tree. Where did the whole tree thing start in the first place?

I was surprised to learn that ancient Egyptians, Romans, Hebrews, and even Chinese used evergreen trees, wreaths, and garlands to symbolize eternal life. Pagan European cultures commonly worshipped trees. And decorating homes with evergreens in winter still persisted after Christianity became widespread.

Ornaments began not as we know them, but as strictly religious symbols. The medieval Scandinavians and Germans customarily placed what they called a Yule tree inside their house during the winter holidays. The popular winter play of the time (like our “A Christmas Carol”) was a play about Adam and Eve, featuring a fir tree decorated with apples called a “paradise tree,” evoking the Garden of Eden. The tree would be placed in the house on December 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve.

People also hung wafers in the tree, representing the eucharist host, recognized by Christians as the symbol of redemption. Over time, cookies of different shapes replaced the wafers as ornaments. Candles were added later, alluding to Christ as the light of the world.

Introduced to England (and us) by Prince Albert

Though decorated Christmas trees were long familiar to Germans, it was only in the 19th century when Prince Albert, from central Germany, introduced the practice to England. It became the hot-hot-hot fashion, and Christmas trees were soon being decorated across Britain and the US.

Evolution of Ornaments

Ornaments that began as apples on the medieval paradise tree ultimately evolved into cookies, candies, small toys and gifts, and finally, to hand-blown silver glass ornaments. When Queen Victoria’s elaborate Christmas tree, decorated with German glass ornaments, was depicted in London newspapers, the demand for similar glass baubles exploded.

At first, German glassblowers created ornaments in shapes of fruit and nuts, coating the inside of the glass with mercury (yikes!), then silver, and later with silver nitrate and sugar water. Until 1925, Germany had the market cornered. Soon, competition from Japan and Czechoslovakia made glass ornaments more affordable, and by 1935, more than 250 million ornaments were being imported into the US. The following decades brought infinitely more variations from still other producers. Now, ornaments made of every conceivable material are available.

Enough History – These Are My Favorites

My most cherished ornaments as a child were the indented glittering balls. They seemed to shine more than any of the others, and I always thought they were the oldest. Somehow, these were the ones I seemed to drop every year. But no matter how many I broke, I became more upset than my parents did Now I know the ones I valued so much were probably from an inexpensive box bought just recently at Woolworths.

When my wife Lena and I began our own Christmas traditions, we started with some store-bought boxed ornaments, but we always added a few hand-made porcelain or terracotta ornaments Lena made.

As a potter, Lena created porcelain rocking horses, gingerbread men and women, bells, stars, and still others that spelled-out “N-O-E-L”

In the years since, we began to mark each year’s memorable events with Christmas ornaments we found as we traveled. That’s how we discovered the beauty of Christopher Radko glass ornaments. We were in Provincetown, Massachusetts in the middle of July in 2002 when we stumbled into a little shop called Monty’s of Provincetown. Monty sold only Christmas ornaments. We were instantly transported to December in the middle of the summer.

Among the thousands of displayed ornaments were some that we recognized were made in especially fine, classic, European style. They were designed with contemporary themes but made of old fashioned, high quality, hand-blown glass. We bought a postman ornament to commemorate my father who was a letter carrier for 30 years, a fireman in honor of the 911 NYFD heroes, and a Human Rights Campaign jack-in-the-box as a sign of our commitment to LGBTQ equal rights.

Postal Letter Carrier

We rented a small boathouse on the West End of P-town every July and December for the next several years and shopped at Monty’s every time. We continued to add Radko ornaments to memorialize meaningful milestones in our lives.

A small leprechaun bowler hat was perfect to remind us of our trips to Ireland.

A bunny wearing a red ribbon commemorating the many lives lost to AIDS was another of our picks.

And the year we lived in Florence, Italy was remembered with the Lily of Florence ornament, a special lily from a design used in the city’s coat of arms.

And yet another selection we chose was a menorah to remind us of our dearest Jewish friends.

The Best Ornaments Have Special Meaning to You

You may have figured out by now that I believe the best ornaments, those that are far and away the most valuable, are those with meaning to you. It doesn’t matter if they are European blown glass, or handmade terracotta, or linen, or wood.

A Christmas ornament can be so much more than merely a decoration to be hooked onto a tree branch. No, it needn’t be a sacred relic representing a holy spirit, though it’s perfectly fine if it is. What’s important is that we remember Christmas is an annual opportunity to connect with our families, our neighbors, and our wider community. It’s a reminder that life is short, and we need to appreciate every moment we can while we’re still able to remember.

Everyone can add one new ornament each year. And it doesn’t have to be round, or shiny, or even Christmassy. It need only be meaningful to you, to trigger some memory of an experience you’ve shared with someone. It can be a token in honor of a friend you’ve lost, or a cause you believe in.

Take the opportunity this year to make your Christmas tree a place to display your personal memories, your wishes, your loves, your hopes.

Sure, matching, monochrome balls you buy by the dozen are pretty. And they will always be a big part of the decorations. But don’t settle for only those. You are special. Your ornaments can be too.

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