For millions of families in countries that celebrate the holiday Christmas on December 25, one of the Christmas centerpieces is the decorating of a live or artificial evergreen tree in a prominent location in the home with Christmas ornaments. Usually Christmas ornaments are passed down from generation to generation with new items being added to the familial collection as older pieces break or as younger children make decorations as part of a school or church project.
As one of the more prominent of the Christmas centerpieces the figure of Santa Claus, his sleigh, and flying reindeer are popular motifs for Christmas ornaments that also range in configuration from simple, colored, reflective balls to more elaborate figures produced in a variety of materials and colors. (Other popular themes include various angels and nativity scenes although in modern times less religiously-themed decorations have become widely available.)
The placing of a Christmas tree in the home has its origins in Germany in the 15th and 16th century but became a staple of the American celebration of the holiday in the 1700s. Many of the first Christmas ornaments in vogue were edibles like apples, small pastries, or strings of popcorn used to festoon the branches, which could be produced in the home with relatively minor or no additional expense attached.
However, by the 1890s famous early retail giant F.W. Woolworth reported an annual sale of German-made Christmas ornaments of some $25 million. These items tended to be cast lead or blown glass. As the ornament industry expanded spun glass, silk fibers, and various reflective materials became increasingly popular and countries like Czechoslovakia and Austria became leading producers of the popular ornaments as well.
The production of Christmas ornaments became an American based business with the outbreak of World War II as both the fighting in Europe made the production and import of the items more difficult and the significant anti-German sentiment in this country led buyers to look for other sources for their decorations.
Strings of colored electrical lights became standard after the war and Christmas ornaments began to be less religiously themed, targeting figures like the characters from the popular "Peanuts" comic strip, for instance, or, in more recent years, from the classic science fiction film series "Star Wars." (These types of Christmas ornaments carry great appeal to young children whereas adults tend to appreciate the more traditional motifs.)
Regionally, Christmas ornaments may reflect elements of local culture. In Texas, for instance, it is not uncommon to find lights in the shape of jalepeno peppers, a staple of the hybrid Tex-Mex cuisine so popular in the state. As a matter of course, one special, large ornament usually tops the tree, often an elaborate star or angel, but even this tradition if much more open these days to personal interpretation.
Whether store bought or hand made, Christmas ornaments are often cherished family heirlooms. Their use reflects a holiday tradition dating back as many as six centuries. The decorations not only represent an important aspect of holiday culture for many families but also an industry of considerable profit potential, especially to makers of collectible ornament series like those made by the greeting card giant Hallmark.