Germany has contributed many of the elements that we consider a “natural” part of the Christmas celebration. But there are other Christmas items we take for granted that have their origins in German Europe. The next time you decorate the Christmas tree (or take the decorations down), take a closer look at the ornaments. Those shiny glass balls (glaskugeln) are German inventions.
It is believed that the first glass balls made to be hung on a Christmas tree were produced by a German glassblower in the river valley town of Lauscha in the early part of the 19th century. It wasn’t long before locals fell in love with the shiny decorations, and he began producing enough for gifts to be sold in his shop.
Soon this unique holiday decoration spread across Germany and all the glassblowers in Lauscha began producing blown glass ornaments to keep up with the demand. By the mid to late 1800s, entrepreneurs were blowing glass Christmas ornaments all over Germany not only for domestic use, but for export into the United States as well.
By the time the Christmas ornaments actually made their way to the United States, they were no longer just tiny glass balls. The Christmas ornaments now consisted of all sorts of glass pieces such as fruits and nuts, hearts and stars, and dozens of other shapes that had been molded and colored in an endless prism of hues and forms. The inside of the ornaments were made to look silvery, at first using mercury or lead, then later using a special compound of silver nitrate and sugar water.
In the 1880s it was the American dime-store magnate, F. W. Woolworth, who discovered Lauscha’s glassworks during a visit to Germany. Despite his initial reluctance to stock the glass ornaments, he later made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments to the U.S. By 1890, Woolworth’s was selling millions of dollars of ornaments at nickel and dime prices.
The American love affair with European glass ornaments continued through to the beginning of the Second World War when the British Blockade of 1939 prevented exports to the U.S. The Corning Glass Company in New York seized the opportunity and stepped in by converting a light bulb making machine to one that made ornaments. Many of us probably remember these glass ornaments as part of our childhood. They take us back in our minds and hearts to a more uncomplicated, innocent time. Like a smell or a song, one look at a special ornament can bring all those memories back again, and reconnect us to one another and the past.
While early ornaments resembled fruits and such, today’s Christmas ornaments remain a beautiful sight to see. No two Christmas trees ever look alike and the traditions that began in the early years continue to grow and prosper. Those tiny glass balls that were once blown in Germany now are sold all over the United States and many other countries in the world. Not only does nearly every Christmas tree have at least a few of these traditional Christmas ornaments on it, we now cover our trees with a spectacular showcase of lights and other ornaments, many of which have been passed down through the family for generations.
The next time you look at your Christmas tree, or any Christmas tree, think about the origin of the Christmas ornament. It was more than 200 years ago when the first glass bulbs were hand blown by the glassblower in Lauscha, Germany. And yet still today, we decorate our Christmas tree with bulbs that are nearly identical in nature. Christmas ornaments have only become increasingly popular over the years. It’s a tradition that is likely to be passed on for many more years to come!