Fantasy room with a Christmas tree, stairs and candles

The History of Christmas Decorations (and Why Mistletoe Probably isn’t as Romantic as You Thought)

We’ve reached the time of year when we ask the really big, important questions. Namely, when is the right time to decorate your home for Christmas? Most people seem to have a strong opinion on this, whether they’re the sort to get the decorations down from the loft in mid-November (far too early!) or they prefer to hold off until the 23rd December (scrooges!) And that’s before we even get into the issues of real tree vs faux, or coloured lights vs classic white.

Wherever you stand on these very important issues, we hope you’ll forgive our seasonal blog foray into the not-especially-legal subject of the history of Christmas decorations. If you’re really itching to dive into some heavy legal topics, you could always hit up our back catalogue and read up on indemnity insurance, conservation covenants or proprietary estoppel. Not quite enough for you? Don’t worry, we’ve got a stonker of a legal post planned to kick of 2022.

But in the meantime…

Decking the halls with boughs of holly

The carol ‘Deck the Halls with Boughs of Holly’ was written in the 16th century, when it had already been common practice for a hundred years or more for folks to decorate their houses with evergreens like holly and ivy. Evergreens were said to symbolise the promise that spring would come. Now, isn’t that a nice thought?

While we’re on the subject of greenery, next time you find yourself puckering up under a sprig of mistletoe, you might like to keep in mind that the Ancient Romans used it to treat ulcers and the Ancient Greeks thought it a wonder for spleens and stomach cramps. Romantic, no?! Some time later, mistletoe started to be considered as a symbol of fertility and vitality thanks to its ability to grow even in the depths of winter, and later still English servants are said to have started snogging under it. The rest, as they say, is history.

Bringing in the whole tree

Perhaps it was a natural development for decorating fashions to graduate from sprigs and branches to full on trees. The first Christmas trees appeared in Germany in the 16th century, when Lutherans began to bring evergreen trees inside and decorate them with candles. Prince Albert is said to have brought this traditional with him to Britain when he married Queen Victoria, though the first British royal to have a Christmas tree was actually Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III. In the interests of historical accuracy, let it be known that Queen Charlotte had a tree up in her royal residence a good forty years before Prince Albert imported any spruces. By the mid 1800s, once the royal Christmas trees had been photographed in numerous magazines, they really began to take off.

Interestingly, though in the UK we seem to have embraced the Christmas tree traditional with fairly open arms, they took a little longer to catch on in some parts of America. There, for a time, they were considered dangerous pagan symbols that made a mockery of Christmas. Horses for courses, we suppose.

In the early days, Christmas trees were always real and were decorated with lit candles. (We have not come across any statistics on how many fires were caused by these set ups, though we suspect it is an altogether not-that-merry number.) The first artificial trees began to be made in the 1930s. 

Lighting things up

Decorating your house with Christmas lights may now seem like a reasonably harmless way to show off to your neighbours, but back in the 17th century it had a bit of a different meaning. At that time, it was customary in mainland Europe for good Christian households to put lit candles in their windows to indicate to other Christians that they were welcome to stop by and pray with them. So, you know, probably more about actual religious sentiment than one-upmanship with Dave up the road.

In 1880, Thomas Edison (he of the lightbulb) unveiled an electric Christmas light display outside his lab, which was said to be the first in the world. A few years later, Edward Johnson, an inventor who worked with Edison, produced the first string of electric Christmas lights. Though these did make it to department stores in 1890, it was another few decades until they became affordable enough to become popular.

Tinsel as a status symbol

We wouldn’t have believed it either, but apparently good old tinsel was once a major status symbol. To be fair, the original tinsel was made out of pure silver, not the plasticky vinyl we know and love today. In 17th century Germany, folks in Nuremberg set out to impress their less well-off acquaintances by displaying strands of silver on their Christmas trees.

Over time, tinsel began to be made out of cheaper metals such as copper and tin, which made it affordable for the masses. World War One put paid to that, however, as the metals were in short supply. A few bright sparks set out to solve this problem by using aluminium and lead… though their smugness was probably short-lived when they realised aluminium was a fire hazard and lead was poisonous. Whoops.

 A note on giant, blow-up Santas

God knows where these came from. We’re sure there are some excellent historical sources that document who we have to thank for these monstrosities/delightful harbingers of joy (delete as appropriate), but we think we’re just going to blame Americanisation and/or Coca Cola and have done with it.

If you’d like to learn more about the origins of some of these decorating traditions, we really enjoyed this article from English Heritage. Alternatively, if you’ve got the decorations covered and would like to talk about getting your legal house in order instead (see what we did there?!) we’d very happily offer some guidance. Drop us a line any time, though please note that we’re shutting up shop from the 17th December till the 4th January in order to fully concentrate on being festive.

All of us here at Newport Land and Law wish you a very happy festive season whatever you will be celebrating, and however you choose to decorate your front lawn.

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