From baubles to swastikas: Christmas tree ornaments across three centuries

Adorning Christmas trees from the 19th century to today

It's not Christmas without a tree

Idyllic family life around a Christmas tree with candles is portrayed in a painting by German-Dutch painter Eduard Geselschap. Poets and writers such as Jean Paul and E.T.A. Hoffmann also describe cheerful children's play around a splendidly decorated tree in their stories. While the first Christmas trees were not originally illuminated, festive candles were a mainstay by the 19th century.

Adorning Christmas trees from the 19th century to today

From cookies to glassware

Christmas tree decorations have a long tradition. Before the 19th century, apples, baked goods, nuts and candy canes were hung on trees. Later, shiny balls and glass decorations were added. Here, Jerusalem's famous Dome of the Rock is the motif. The delicate glasswork was created in 2018, but such delicate adornments are produced by machines these days and no longer by hand.

Adorning Christmas trees from the 19th century to today

Miniature tree in a care package

Christmas decoration motifs changed during the First World War. Instead of colorful balls and cute angels, ornaments in the form of bombs and grenades hung on German Christmas trees. Warships and airplanes also abounded. This little tree is more traditionally decorated, and was sent to the front via the army postal service in 1914.

Adorning Christmas trees from the 19th century to today

Cooptation by the Nazis

The Nazis liked to exploit the German love for Christmas trees for their own propaganda ends, as illustrated by this Hitler Youth poster from 1939 showing Christmas decorations marching in front of green pine branches. While Christmas balls were also adorned with Nazi symbols such as the swastika, no photo survives that documents the actual use of Nazi symbols as tree decorations.

Adorning Christmas trees from the 19th century to today

A fusion Christmas

Nowadays, decorations on Christmas trees in German living rooms reflect traditions from around the world. You'll find everything from angels from the Erz Mountains to heavy fir cones, Santa Clauses with a Chinese-style beard or Russia figurines. The pictured installation by Ulrich Vogl and Evi Wiedermann named Weihnachtsverspannungen (Christmas Tensions), shows the merging of cultural traditions.

For the first time, Berlin's German Historical Museum is showcasing Christmas tree decorations over the centuries. From traditional glass baubles to Nazi emblems, some of the festive adornments will surprise.

When you think of the Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum (German Historical Museum), emperors, kings and other imposing historical figures spring to mind. Few people know that the museum actually has a vast collection of Christmas tree ornaments.

A close look at the objects in the current exhibition, "Angel, Swastika, Dome of the Rock: Christmas Tree Decorations from the 19th Century until Today," reveals that such adornments can be more than merely festive, shiny decorations at Christmas time. They can be politically significant, too.

The more than 500 objects dating from the 19th century to the present are on display from November 30 to March 3, 2019 — and they tell vastly different tales.

The exhibition "Angel, Swastika, Dome of the Rock" contrasts Christian and Jewish Yuletide decorations

The handmade wooden angels from the Erz Mountain region are reminiscent of pristine, idyllic scenes, while shiny colorful balls and tinsel represent the more commercial side of Christmas. Meanwhile, Swastikas and other Nazi emblems illustrate how the fascist regime tried to appropriate the holiday for its own propaganda ends.

Read moreGermany: 18-meter-high Christmas tree of crates breaks world record

The exhibition is further proof that the ornaments with which Germans have long chosen to decorate their Christmas trees are becoming ever more international, due in part to globalization, migration and the internet.

Click on the above gallery for a look at more Christmas tree decorations over the centuries as part of the "Angel, Swastika, Dome of the Rock: Christmas Tree Decorations from the 19th Century until Today" exhibit in Berlin's German Historical Museum.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Counting down to Christmas

With the opening of each little door, Christmas Eve creeps closer. Advent calendars aren't just popular for children in Germany, but also adults. Whether purchased or handmade, filled with chocolate or toys, they've got a big fan following. The story of this German tradition traces its roots back to early 20th-century Protestantism.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Back to the roots

Until the 16th century, children received their holiday presents on St. Nicholas' Day, December 6. Reformist Martin Luther, however, rejected the veneration of saints and changed the tradition. Since then, gift exchanges occur on Christmas. To shorten the longer waiting time for children, Protestants developed several customs, including the Advent calendar.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

One straw per day

Poor families often just marked 24 chalk lines on the door, and the children would erase one each day. Others put straws in a manger. Variations included candles with 24 tick marks or paper chains, from which one link was torn off each day. In some more wealthy homes, the children got gingerbread. Even Catholics enjoyed the advent calendar, and the tradition spread across Germany.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

First time in print

In 1902, a Protestant book store in Hamburg printed the first Advent calendar - in the form of a clock. Two years later the newspaper Stuttgarter Neuen Tagblatt included a "Christmas calendar" in one of its editions. In 1908, the Munich publishing house Gerhard Lang sold colorful photos to cut out and paste onto 24 slots on cardboard.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

A surprise behind every door

The first Advent calendars with little doors made their debut on the market in 1920. Behind every door was a picture or Bible verse. During Nazi rule, fairytale figures or Germanic gods replaced the Christian symbols in order to separate Christmas from its religious background.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Mass production

From the 1950s onward, the Advent calendar became affordable as a mass-produced product. Behind the doors, little photos with snow-covered villages and landscapes or religious motifs could be found. Some calendars contained chocolates or other sweets. The calendar pictured here is from 1965.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Purchased or homemade

Most of today's store-bought Advent calendars contain chocolates in various holiday shapes. Even little toys or other tiny treasures could be hiding behind the door. For those who choose to make their own Advent calendar for loved ones, anything goes. For example, 24 little wrapped packets representing each day could be tied onto a string or put into a box.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Advent calendars around the world

Christmas is no longer just a Christian holiday, but also a festival of consumerism. There are now Advent calendars around the world featuring jewelry, beer, cosmetics and other goods. In some cases, the motifs are universal: Instead of the Christ child, there are chocolate figurines in the shape of bears and even Bambi.

The Advent calendar's sweet history

Opening a window

Meanwhile, some cities feature house-sized Advent calendars, where a real window is opened every day. The world's largest free-standing Advent calendar is part of a house in Leipzig. Its area measures 857 square meters (9, 200 square feet). Up until Christmas Eve, one of the windows opens at 4:00 p.m. each day to reveal an illuminated holiday motif.

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