How German Christmas Ornaments Went Viral In The 19th Century

By Sherry Ott / Ott's World

You put them on your tree every year, but have you ever wondered — why? Why do we hang glass balls on a tree? It's really kind of strange if you think about it. Yet we do it all around the world, year after year. I'm often fascinated with how things became globally popular before we had this thing called the Internet, TV, or even radio. It wasn't until this fall — when I took a road trip with the mission to learn about made-in-Germany products — that I fully understood just how much Germany had to do with Christmas traditions!

It started in the town of Lauscha, in the state of Thuringia, in the mid-1800s. During Christmas, people in Thuringia hung fruit and nuts on their trees for decoration as a celebration of nature. However, in the 1800s, money was tight, and it was considered pretty wasteful to hang food on your tree that you could/should be eating. They needed a substitute. Lauscha was the epicenter of glass making, thanks to its natural environment with an abundance of wood and sand (the two main ingredients for glass-blowing), so Hans Greiner decided to make glass versions of the fruit and nuts and hang those on the tree instead, leaving all the real food available to eat.

Royalty and Celebrities

They might not have had social media and celebrities back then, but the closest thing to it was royalty. A picture of Queen Victoria's Christmas tree, complete with lights and glass ornaments from her husband Prince Albert's native Germany, was published in a London newspaper. The glass German Christmas ornaments suddenly were all the rage, Lauscha began exporting its products throughout Europe, and they became a fixture on trees for the holidays around Europe. In the 1880s, American F. W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha's ornaments during a visit to Germany and decided to bring them to Americans. He made a fortune by importing the glass ornaments to the United States and selling them at Woolworth's.

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And that, my friends, is how something goes viral in the 19th century. And it's also probably why you have glass Christmas ornaments hanging from your tree right now.

Ornaments started as fruits and nuts and morphed into animals and soldiers. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

Make Your Own German Christmas Ornaments

While I was in Germany, I visited the famous village of Lauscha, which has risen once again to be the glass-blowing capital of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At Farbglashütte Lauscha (opened in 1853), one of the many glass factories in the area, I got a first-hand look at modern-day glass-blowing and making. I was surprised to find out that it wasn't very "modern" since they are still doing everything by hand with a small team of glass makers and apprentices. It was fascinating to watch. The day I visited, a team of four young men were making drinking glasses out of a mold, but the process was still extremely manual and delicate. It takes two days to make a glass out of sand, soda, potash lime, and heat.

Related: Top European Cities for Christmas Markets

Creating glasses by hand is still a time-consuming process. (Photo: Sherry Ott)

I learned how to tell the difference between hand-blown glass and manufactured Christmas ornaments: Manufactured ornaments have larger openings at the top. I was even able to make my own in the workshop, with a little help from a professional. I chose the colored beads, she heated the glass, and I delicately blew and formed the glass ball.

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As I walked around the Christmas showroom waiting for my creation to cool, I was reminded of my childhood Christmases at my Grandma Ott's home. I had never thought of the ornaments on her tree as German, but as I looked at the designs in the showroom, I realized these were all the designs she used to have on her tree in Nebraska. It was a fun trip down memory lane.

As you trim your tree this year, you can now wow your friends and family with a fun story about how German Christmas ornaments went viral around the world 200 years ago — before Facebook, Pinterest, or Twitter.

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