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The custom of decorating Christmas Trees

With all the amazing London Christmas tree decorations that are available for us to buy these days, don’t you ever wonder what we all did before you could just wander into your local big retail outlet and buy ready made items in exactly the right colour scheme to complement your carpet, curtains or even the cat?

The custom of decorating one’s home during what we now think of as the Christmas period goes a long way back to pre-Christian Roman times when people would bring evergreens into their homes during the winter.  In the 7th Century a priest called Boniface from Crediton, Devon went to Thuringia in Germany to teach the word of God.  Legend has it, that he used the triangular shape of a fir tree to emphasise the Holy Trinity.  This idea developed slowly through the centurys and eventually evolved into what we all call the Christmas Tree.

Now, we may all consider that we’re very sophisticated here in the 21st Century, but in Germany they were having Christmas Markets back in the 16th Century.  Here you could buy everything you needed from the Christmas Goose to the Christmas presants and even the Christmas Tree decorations.  These would be sold as souvenirs in the form of shaped gingerbreads and wax ornaments that you would take home and hang on your Christmas tree.  One historical record of a traveller to Strasbourg in 1601, describes a Christmas tree being decorated in “wafers and golden sugar-twists (barleysugar) and paper flowers of all colours”.  However, here in Britain we were somewhat reluctant to uphold the German tradition of a Christmas Tree due to our dislike of our German Georgian monarchy until the reign of Queen Victoria when, ironically, her German consort Albert, introduced the practice at Windsor Castle.

Back in the 18th Centrury, decorations were all made by hand by, yes, you’ve guessed it, the women and children of the household.  In early Victorian times when money wasn’t exactly growing on Christmas Trees and the nights were long, families would sit around in the evening making decorations from what they had available.   Women would toil for hours, crocheting snowflakes and stars with the children making coloured paper chains.  Many of the ornaments on trees were of the edible kind such as sugared almonds, dried fruits and nuts in little paper baskets.  Later on candles were added to brighten the tree, with this came items made in the shape of stars, leaves and fruit made from polished tin or brigtly coloured paper to reflect the candle light thus adding light and sparkle to the tree.

As Christmases came and went, decorations for Christmas trees began to get more sophisticated and as the nations wealth improved tinsel and glass ornaments were imported from Germany.  These became a status symbol and for a while Christmas trees even became patriotic with the nation’s flag used as the tree topper!  Decorating your Christmas tree became a national obsession, Christmas trees became floor standing therefore bigger to allow for even more decorations to be crammed on and things began to get very gaudy with every decoration conceivable from tinsel to toys and candy to candles being placed on the overladen branches.

Thankfully, after Queen Victoria died things calmed down a little and Christmas trees became less of a status symbol.  They were repositioned on table tops and with advent 1st world war German decorations became obsolete with Japanese and American suppliers stepping in smartly to supply the new electric lights and much cheaper plastic decorations.  After WW2, when the ban of cutting trees for decoration was lifted, Britain embraced the Christmas tree with relish and for the first time were able to buy British decorations made by Swanbrand and sold by F W Woolworths.

In the ‘60’s things some people went a bit crazy with silver aluminium trees imported from America which needed no decorations as they were lit from below by revolving coloured lights – who needed LSD?   During the 70’s lurid glass balls, tinsel and multi coloured lights were sticking to the trees like resin.  Thankfully, the 80’s came and we all saw the error of our ways.  Tinsel was tossed out, multi coloured lights were mutilated and bows and bead garlands appeared – we had gone full circle – Victoriana was back!

Today, we are spoiled for choice and almost anything goes, so spare a thought for our ancesters with their sugared almonds and gingerbread men when you’re buying your multi coloured, flashing LED lights.  We’ve never had it so good… have we?


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