From Hanukkah to Kwanzaa, Boxing Day, Christmas and many others, the month of December is filled with vast traditions for families across the world. One of the older traditions is the Christmas tree though—decorated with glass ornaments and globes, it is one of the most modern and most traditional at the same time. These glass ornaments range from intricately detailed and painted figurines to simple glass globes, and even tree topping stars.
Let’s back up and start at the beginning. Evergreen trees were symbols long before becoming associated with Christmas. Trimmings were often hung above windows and doorways to ward off evil during the long nights and cold days. They were seen as symbols of everlasting life or the triumph of life over death and meant there was hope for warmer days. Thus Pagan tradition was adopted by Christians in the 16th century in Germany who began decorating trees with apples, symbolizing the Garden of Eden.
It is said that the first glass Christmas ornaments were made by Hans Greiner and Christoph Muller in a German town called Lauscha. This town was located in a region prime for making glass with plenty of nearby timber and sand. The story goes that one year around 1600, Hans didn’t have enough money to buy apples to decorate his family’s Christmas tree. So he used the materials he had on hand and blew glass ornaments to decorate the tree with.
It wasn’t until nearly 250 years later in 1847 when Hans Greiner (a descendant of the original Hans Greiner) produced glass ornaments that similarly resemble what we decorate our trees with today. He produced what is referred to as mercury glass or silvered glass. Mercury glass starts with the artisan blowing glass into a mold, which allows them to create detailed objects. Once the glass has cooled and been removed from the mold, the silvering process can be started. Usually, a mixture of mercury and tin was then inserted through a small hole in the ornament to coat the inside. The hole would then be sealed.
Obviously, the use of mercury was not the best of ideas. Once its toxicity was discovered, a compound of sugar water and silver nitrate was used to replicate the silvered effect. Early glass ornaments were usually in the shapes of fruits and nuts, the real version of which were typically used as tree decorations. Soon, artisans were making shapes like animals, birds, angels, and Santa figurines. These glass ornaments were often painted by hand. Another popular early Christmas tree decoration was tinsel to replicate icicles. Soon, glass blowers were replicating these too. Strands of glass beads to string around Christmas trees were popular as well.
Glass had other uses on Christmas trees too, but not until the 1900s. Up until this point, trees were lit with candles. You can imagine the fire hazard that open flames on a dead, dried tree could create. So in 1882, Edward H. Johnson, partner to Thomas Edison in Edison’s Illumination Company, strung the first set of electric lights onto a Christmas tree. Unfortunately, the public was not ready to trust the modern concept of electricity and it would be nearly 20 years before popularity grew. Even still, electric Christmas tree lights could only be afforded by the wealthy due to manufacturing and assembly costs. Today, Christmas tree lights are cheaper and more reliable than ever. The tree at Rockefeller Center in New York City is adorned with 50,000 lights.
Today’s Christmas tree ornaments are made from a multitude of materials, but glass ornaments are still prominent. From globes to shapes to icicles, the way that these glass ornaments are made may have come a long way, but the basic ideas behind them are the same. Even looking at glass Christmas tree ornaments from high-end makers like Steuben, their lineup includes a star, acorn, angel, penguin, Santa, bear, and an owl.
Speaking of high-end Christmas tree ornaments, there are some beauties out there. Many start off as glass baubles or glass figurines which are then painted. Others like those from Swarovski showcase the beauty of the natural glass itself. These ornaments ring in around the $50 range. That makes decorating a tree an expensive endeavor! These new ornaments may look beautiful, and some extra special ornaments even sell for thousands, but believe it or not, certain vintage blown glass ornaments can sell for just as much!
Do you have any extra special glass ornaments on your tree? We’d love to hear about them, and even see them! Comment below and email your ornament pictures to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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