Christmas Ornament History

For Christians and others who celebrate Christmas’s secular traditions, decorating their home and Christmas trees with ornaments is one of the most enjoyable ways to capture the magic and excitement of the Christmas holidays.

The Christmas tree is often explained as a Christianization of pagan tradition and ritual surrounding the Winter Solstice, which included the use of evergreen boughs and pagan tree worship. The modern Christmas tree tradition is believed to have begun in Germany in the 18th century.

The invention of the blowpipe by some unknown artisan brought about the craft of glass blowing, eventually evolving into the fine art of Christmas glass ornaments we know today. Items originally produced were not Christmas ornaments but practical items used mostly in the home. Christoph Muller and Hans Greiner set up Germany’s first glassworks in 1597 in Lauscha, then in the Duchy of Sachsen-Coburg, now in the German state of Thuringia (Thuringen). Lauscha, located in a river valley, had several elements needed for glass making: timber (for firing the glass ovens) and sand. Soon other glashutten (glassworks) were established in the town, producing drinking glasses, flasks, glass bowls, glass beads (Glasperlen), and even glass eyes (1835).

In 1847 Hans Greiner, a descendent of the Hans Greiner who had established Lauscha’s first glassworks, began producing glass ornaments (Glasschmuck) in the shape of fruits and nuts. These were made in a unique hand-blown process combined with molds. The inside of the ornament was made to look silvery, at first with mercury or lead, then later using a special compound of silver nitrate and sugar water. Greiner’s sons and grandsons, Ernst (b. 1847), Otto (b. 1877), Willi (b. 1903), and Kurt (b. 1932), carried on the Christmas ornament tradition. They were also responsible for another product: glass marbles.

Glass ornaments had become popular in 1846 when an illustration of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree was printed in a London paper. The Royal tree was decorated with glass ornaments from Prince Albert’s native land of Germany. Soon these unique glass Christmas ornaments were being exported to other parts of Europe.

Because of the Puritan influence, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in the United States until the 1800s. As a result, decorated trees did not become widely popular until people saw the ornaments brought to America by families emigrating from Germany and England in the 1840s. Some historians attribute the Hessians, German mercenaries fighting in the Revolutionary War, with introducing Americans to decorated trees. In the 1880s the American dime-store magnate F. W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha’s Glaskugeln during a visit to Germany. He made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments to the U.S. By 1890, he was selling $25 million worth of ornaments at nickel and dime prices.

Germany faced virtually no competition until 1925. Then Japan began producing ornaments in large quantities for export to this country. Czechoslovakia also entered the field with many fancy ornaments. By 1935, more then 250 million Christmas tree ornaments were being imported to the United States.

The work of the German glass blowers and the distribution of the German ornaments remained almost unchanged from the middle of the 19th century through World War ll. When the Russian occupation of Germany began in 1953, many of the old world family molds that had been passed down for generations among all the families in Lauscha were destroyed. Families splintered when craftsmen fled their homeland to settle in Neustadt, a territory occupied by Americans, later establishing what is now the modern day Inge-glas workshop.

During the occupation, members of the Muller-Blech family stayed behind in Lauscha. Some of the old molds were found in garbage piles, other molds were bartered for. Since the border guards would have destroyed the molds if they had known the molds were going across the border, they were ingeniously smuggled. The molds were in two pieces, so, to ensure that the entire mold would get across the border, present day Inge-glas owner Klaus Muller-Blech’s grandmother would send them to him in a box of about a dozen or so, but only one half of each mold. She would put a note with the package, “Little Klaus, here are some molds for you to play with in the sand.” By sending the molds this way the border guards would think that the molds were of no importance. Later she would send the other half of the mold in a similar manner. For many years the old original recipe used to making the molds was lost. Recently the recipe to make the original molds used for making the old world Christmas glass ornaments was found, making Inge-glas the only company able to exactly reproduce the old molds.

The Muller-Blech family practiced the craft of ornament blowing in the same workshops in Lauscha Germany for thirteen generations. In the 1960’s Klaus Muller-Blech, a 14th generation descendant, and Birgit Eichhorn Jeremias-Sohn, descendant of the Eichhorn family, joined forces by marriage and combined their familys’ tradition and skills at the Inge-glas workshop. Today their collection includes more than 6000 antique blown glass ornaments molds dating from the 1850s. In addition, new ornaments are created each year to represent the traditions of today.

To find out if you own any original Inge-glas ornaments, look for the authentic star crown ornament holder. This star crown is the Inge-glas trademark. The Inge-glas ornaments are recognizable as one of the oldest generational German Christmas ornament makers and in the year 2000 Inge-glass established their own distribution site in the United States. Not until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II did an American company significantly enter the ornament business. Using a machine designed to make light bulbs, Corning engineers produced more than 2,000 ornament balls a minute. In 1973, Hallmark introduced six glass ball ornaments and 12 yarn figures as the first collection of Hallmark Keepsake Ornaments, a new tradition of Christmas decorating was started and a new collectible industry was born. When the first line was introduced, they were unique in design, year-dated and available only for a limited time, innovations in the world of ornaments. Since 1973, Hallmark has introduced more than 3,000 different Keepsakes Ornaments and more than 100 ornament series, groups of ornaments that share a specific theme. The finished Keepsake Ornaments reflect the way styles, materials, formats and technology have expanded since the first ones appeared in Hallmark stores in 1973. Once a collection of decorated glass balls and yarn figures, ornaments are now made in a wide array of wood, acrylic, bone china, porcelain, and handcrafted formats.

Many unusual glass Christmas ornament traditions and stories have evolved from the German families. The German tradition of hanging a Christmas glass ornament pickle on the Christmas tree is the oddest German Christmas ornament story, some say even a myth. The pickle ornament is always the last ornament to be hung on the Christmas tree, with the parents hiding the pickle glass ornament in the Christmas tree among all the other ornaments. When the children are allowed to view the Christmas tree they would begin gleefully searching for the German Christmas glass ornament pickle. The children knew that whoever found the pickle ornament first would receive an extra little gift and would be the one to begin the unwrapping of the Christmas gifts.

It would be interesting to hear from any readers that have experienced this tradition, so if you did, please do share your story with us, thank you and Merry Christmas!