The History of Stringing Popcorn
How the holiday tradition started, plus how to do it at home today.
By now, many families gearing up for Christmas will have already decked their halls with an attic’s worth of homemade baubles, hand-me-down ornaments and trinkets picked up during past vacations. But if you haven’t decorated your tree yet, you might consider engaging in the old-fashioned, food-themed tradition of wrapping your tree in popcorn garlands. The practice may seem archaic now, but at one time it was the favored method for introducing holiday flare to evergreen boughs. And like many American traditions, it was brought over by immigrants who were hoping to blend New World customs with their own.
According to The Popcorn Board, popcorn as a holiday decoration became particularly popular in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries because the inexpensive snack food was seen as a festive, fun treat, particularly by young people. Around Christmastime, Victorian revelers would use popcorn to spruce up their mantelpieces, doorways and evergreens; ornaments were created using popcorn balls, a popular sweet that was cheap to make. In America, German immigrants and German Americans largely popularized the concept of stringing popcorn as a yuletide decoration. They colored the popcorn using dyes and interspersed the garlands with nuts, fruits and other edible treats. However, popcorn had been used as a winter decoration in America as early as 1842, when a Christmas tree in Williamsburg, Virginia was adorned, in part, with popcorn and paper ornaments.
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Cranberries, which are often added to popcorn garlands for color and intrigue, became part of the tradition in the 1800s. The bright berry was largely cultivated in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, and became popular in popcorn garlands because of its long shelf life, according to the historical magazine Colonial Williamsburg. Cranberries could last 12 days or longer, meaning they were perfect for yuletide celebrations. Their festive color and winter availability also added to their reputation as a Christmas symbol.
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To make your own popcorn garland, find some wax-covered dental floss or fishing line and a tapestry needle. Use day old popcorn, since newly-popped kernels tend to break easily. Push the needle carefully through the center of the popcorn and move that kernel to the end of the string before continuing. If you choose to include cranberries if your garland, make sure to prepare for potential juice stains by wearing older clothes and putting down a few protective cloths.
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Popcorn garlands usually only hold up for a single Christmas, since they’re made of natural ingredients. The good part of that is less potential for waste; everything is biodegradable. But if you want your string to hang around for a bit longer, you could spray the garland with shellac. Just be sure not to keep shellacked garland outdoors, where birds and other animals could unknowingly snack on a toxic substance.
While popcorn strands have somewhat fallen out of favor, replaced by longer lasting commercial ornaments, stringing popcorn can still have holiday appeal. It can also be a fun reminder of how inventive people can be, especially when attempting to celebrate family traditions on a popcorn-stringed budget. By making your own popcorn garland at home, you’ll have the chance to participate in an affordable activity that entertained earlier generations, as well as the opportunity to teach something new to the younger members of your household.