When Christmas Tree Ornaments Were Edible Treats
People used to deck out their Christmas trees with candy, cakes, and even popcorn
The Nutcracker and the Mouse King is now a classic Christmas tale, inspiring the famous ballet as well as many other productions, like the recent Disney movie. Originally written by German author E.T.A. Hoffman and published in 1816, the young protagonist Marie is dazzled by her family’s Christmas tree. During a climactic scene in many stagings of the ballet, it magically expands to fill half the stage. In the original story, the effect of the tree is nearly as magical: the branches were lit by flaming candles and weighed down by sparkling apples and sugared almonds, lemon drops, and “every kind of confectionary.”
Christmas for many of us means dragging down boxes of ornament from the attic. But for centuries, Christmas tree decorations weren’t passed down from Grandma or glued together in art class. Instead, ornaments were tasty snacks like nuts, cookies, popcorn, candies, and fruit.While the occasional cookie or candy cane still makes it onto the boughs these days, it’s a far cry from the times when nearly all ornaments were edible treats.
The very first ornaments likely weren’t sweets at all but rather apples. While European pagans and, later, Christians saw winter greenery as a symbol of renewal and rebirth in the dark months, another prototype for the Christmas tree developed from medieval German “Paradise plays.” Though December 25 has long been celebrated as the day Jesus was born, December 24 was the feast day for Adam and Eve. Such plays told the story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden and featured a fir tree strung with apples representing the forbidden fruit, and wafers representing the eucharistic host.
A more recognizable Christmas tree came later According to historian Joe Perry, one early account of a Christmas tree dates to 1604, when Protestants in Strasbourg decked out fir trees in “roses made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, [and] sweetmeats.” (Tales that the religious rebel Martin Luther invented the Christmas tree are simply legends, Perry writes.) Often, German Christians decked their trees out with cookies and cakes. Gingerbread and gorgeously decorated, anise-flavored springerle cookies made for ideal ornaments. According to food writer Sharon Hudgins, these cookies were pretty (and hard enough) to last as decorations until Epiphany, on January 6, when children were allowed to eat them.
While gingerbread was popular across Europe for centuries, the tradition of a holiday tree spread more slowly. The British royal family began displaying a Christmas tree in the mid-18th century, but it wasn’t until Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha married a young Queen Victoria that the trend became a custom. One 1849 account breathlessly described Queen Victoria’s tree for her children as dripping with sweets: “elegant trays, baskets, bonbonnières, and other receptacles for sweetmeats, of the most varied and expensive kind, and of all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread, and eggs filled with sweetmeats, are also suspended by variously-coloured ribands.” America, despite no longer being a British colony, eagerly imitated all things Victoria, including her Christmas tree.
Homemade ornaments stayed the norm for decades. While “the modern Christmas tree started as a vehicle for displaying Christmas confections,” writes culinary historian Cathy K. Kaufman, candles and paper ornaments were also prolifically used. Decorating trees with sweets was a special treat, though, intended for the delight of children. In 1832, Harvard’s first German language professor, the radical Charles Follen, decked out his tree with "seven dozen wax tapers… gilded egg cups, gay paper cornucopiae with comfits, lozenges and barley sugar.” (Follen’s exciting life included an arrest in connection to the murder of a political foe, exile for revolutionary agitation from Germany and then Switzerland, and passionate advocacy for abolishing American slavery, before dying in a steamboat explosion at 44, writes Christmas chronicler Stephen Nissenbaum.) The description of his tree was published by visiting English writer Harriet Martineau, and has long been lauded as one of the first recorded Christmas trees in the United States.
Around this time, German immigration to the United States increased, and. their treat-covered trees were a stark counterpoint to how Americans had celebrated Christmas before: sparsely, or not at all, due to Puritanical strictures against it. But with the influence of literature such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol and the famous 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” holiday celebrations throughout the first half of the 19th century spread through American households like fire through a dry Christmas tree.
With industrial production of Christmas ornaments still to come, Americans turned to their kitchens and candy shops for ornaments. Though the candy cane’s history is murky, historian Wendy A. Woloson writes that they may have first appeared on American Christmas trees in the 1840s, in the midst of the new trend for tree decor. It’s even possible its iconic shape was intended for decking out tree branches. For treats without convenient handles, such as “sugar-coated almonds, rock candy, and fresh and candied fruits,” they “were often stuffed into brightly colored printed “horns” (paper cones) and hung from the Christmas tree or placed in stockings,” writes Woloson. Said horns, according to Woloson, were often exported at great expense from Europe.
Americans soon put their own spin on Christmas tree decorations: popcorn. In the 1860s, decorators found that the light popped morsels could be strung on a thread with the help of a needle, making long white garlands that imitated snow. One still-popular cookie even started off as a Christmas ornament: Barnum’s Animals Crackers. Their iconic boxes, which until this year showed caged circus animals, originally came with string handles for people to hang upon their Christmas trees.
But by then, a more lasting ornament was on the rise. In 1850s Germany, “mass-produced ornaments of paper, tin, wood, and especially glass began to replace edible and homemade ornaments,” writes Perry. Companies in the German town of Lauscha soon perfected the art of the glass ornament. By 1912, not only did the town produce innumerable globes, but churned out every shape imaginable, from reindeer to airships to stars. Such fragile yet permanent ornaments set a new standard for Christmas tree decor around the world. After all, these pre-made baubles could be kept and treasured year after year, with no threat of crumbs.
The older, tastier custom didn’t go down without a fight, though. One writer in a 1902 issue of Good Housekeeping complained that Christmas trees were no longer bearing fruit. “Yet I have seen trees ablaze with lights and glittering baubles, and never a goodie to eat! The pity of it! The disappointment of it!” Instead of such shining but tasteless decor, the author recommends cornucopias and silk bags of popcorn, nuts, and raisins; gold-painted walnuts ready for cracking; and gingerbread men.
That’s not to say that food never makes it onto modern American Christmas trees. Candy canes remain perfect for decking purposes, and recipes abound online for making gingerbread cookies tough enough to hang on a tree for a month or more. Some glass ornaments even mimic food-like shapes, such as the infamous Christmas pickle, a holiday tradition many Midwesterns swear originated in Germany, but one that leaves most Germans baffled.