Christmas trees have changed through the years, but one thing remains the same — they bring cheer for the holiday.
The Martinsville-Henry County Historical Society has an exhibit featuring Christmas tree styles throughout the years.
“Nobody seems to know exactly when Christmas trees were first used to celebrate Christmas,” the museum’s Executive Director Debbie Hall said. However, sources tend to point to mid-16th century Europe.
The first documented Christmas tree in a town was in 1510 in Riga, Latvia, in Northern Europe, she said. The trees’ popularity grew gradually.
Christmas trees were popular in Germany and other parts of Europe for hundreds of years. It took until the mid-1800s for Christmas trees to catch on in America, she said.
According to several accounts, it was by example of the popular Queen Victoria that Christmas trees caught on in England and America. The queen was married to the German Prince Albert, so the family had a Christmas tree. It was a newspaper picture that started the Christmas tree craze in England and America: In 1846 the royal family was featured enjoying their decorated Christmas tree in The London News.
Families first decorated their trees “with whatever they had on hand,” Hall said. That include berries, mistletoe, nuts and fruits. People also made ornaments by carving wood, twisting metal and cutting and folding paper.
Also in the mid-1800s, “Germany was the first to get into the market of commercial ornaments,” Hall said. Those German ornaments were shiny, delicate blown glass baubles.
In the 1880s, Woolworth Five and Dime sold German ornaments in the U.S., helping to popularize the tree-decorating tradition in America.
Germany held tight as the key producer of ornaments until the 1930s and 1940s, when American concerns began manufacturing them on a big scale, Hall said.
“Now it’s a booming business,” she said. “It still celebrates Christmas, but it’s become an industry in and of itself, whereas it started with people with whatever they had on hand.”
Years ago, people used to clip small candle-holders onto branches so the flames of slim candles would decorate the tree with light. Both Hall and Carolyn Beal remember being volunteers at the Reynolds Homestead when its Christmas tree was decorated with lit candles. The center stopped using candles inside the house just a few years ago, said Reynolds Homestead Program Manager Lisa Martin.
“You sacrifice some authenticity for safety issues these days,” Hall said.
However, people missed the candles so much that last year the Reynolds Homestead began a new tradition of using lit candles to decorate a tree outdoors, Martin said.
The way people get their trees also has changed through time. People used to cut down trees found in nature. Now they have the option of buying one from a Christmas tree farm each year, re-using an artificial tree or even re-using a pre-lit tree, Hall said.
Several decorated trees are on display at the museum in the former Henry County court house. Many of the ornaments used to decorate them were lent by Beal. They include a velvet-covered and beaded ornament her grandmother made at least 50 years ago and German blown glass ornaments her parents had when they were newlyweds, at least from the 1940s or 1950s.
Several of the ornaments also are from Hall’s collection. They include a set of shiny, colorful faceted transparent plastic shapes featuring 3-D scenes inside. Her mother, Margie Hall of Bassett, bought those American-made ornaments in the 1970s.
One small tree on a stair landing is decorated with miniature ornaments Beal bought for her daughter to use in her dorm room when she was in college. It features a paper chain made of cut-out teddy bears.
Another tree is a silver aluminum tree from the 1960s. The material was so flammable lights could not be strung on the tree, Hall said. Rather, a light set would have been put under the tree to shine different colors on its branches.