Culture & Events

Christmas decorations – where do our traditions come from?

Why do we decorate a tree at Christmas? And what are Christmas stockings all about? What about the star on the top of the Christmas tree? We’ve all asked ourselves these questions on a Christmas afternoon. These objects have become essential decorations over the years, and we couldn’t imagine Christmas without them.

But where did they come from? What is the origin of these decorations and traditions, and what are the stories behind them?

Let’s take a closer look into these myths and stories which have shaped our Christmas celebrations – some of them go back centuries!

Christmas decorations – the essential pine tree

A traditional Christmas tree, decorated with baubles, garlands, lights and a star
A Christmas tree decorated with baubles and lights – © Eline Fairytale

Surely the most important and symbolic image of Christmas is the decorated tree.

As the most important part of your holiday decorations, the Christmas tree is often associated with Christianity and the birth of Jesus. However, it actually comes from a pagan ritual celebrating the solstice: the tree was decorated to symbolise new life and renewal.

The first official mention of a Christmas tree in France, for example, was in Alsace in 1521. The custom became more widespread after the 1870 war between France and Prussia, when immigrants from Alsace-Lorraine brought their tradition with them to France.

The advent crown

An advent crown with four candles - one for each of the Sundays in December
An advent crown with its four candles – © Pixabay

You’ll often find a crown or wreath made of holly branches and pine cones on the doors of houses at Christmas.

Traditionally, the advent wreath is placed on the dining table and is made of natural materials – pine cones, fir branches and red berries.

Part of the Christian tradition, it also has four candles which symbolise peace, love, hope and joy – a candle is lit every Sunday through December.

Baubles and garlands

Baubles and garlands are used to decorate the Christmas tree and the house – inside and outside!

Today, there are so many different shapes and colours, from traditional red and green to the more fanciful ones, such as silver.

You’ll find them at the various Christmas markets in the Alps. Nowadays, they are often made of plastic, but this was not always the case!

Christmas baubles date back to the skilled glassblowers of the Renaissance. At that time, fruit was used to decorate the tree as an offering to the gods.

But then a craftsman in Germany came up with the idea of reproducing apples in glass. The idea was taken up in France after a terrible drought in 1858 – the poor harvest saw a glassblower making glass balls to replace the fruit.

Glass baubles were made to replace the fruit which traditionally decorated Christmas trees
The garlands come from Germany, where they were used to celebrate the winter solstice. – © Anita Jankovic

Christmas decorations – the star on top of the tree

The star is a symbol that is found almost everywhere at Christmas. The most important one is placed at the top of the tree, to represent the star that appeared to announce the birth of Jesus and guide the shepherds and wise men to Bethlehem.

Traditionally, the Christmas star would have been made of wood. Today, there are plastic, metal, fabric, paper and homemade Christmas stars. Snowflakes can also be used to top the tree.

The snowman

A snowman garden ornament – © Adriaan Greyling / Pexels

The very first snowmen appeared in England in the 16th century. However, they weren’t associated with Christmas until the 19th century in North America.

The traditional snowman is made of three snowballs, with the smallest representing the head. The eyes would have been depicted with pieces of coal. Today, stones are often used instead, and other parts have been added over the years, such as buttons on the body, a carrot nose and tree branches for arms.

However, more durable snowmen have now been made from plastic, so they can be enjoyed in the garden and in the house – even without snow!

Christmas stockings

Christmas stockings come from the legend of St Nicholas, who is celebrated with a very important holiday in the Netherlands.

The most famous story of St Nicholas tells of three sisters who fell on hard times. St Nicholas put gold coins in their socks at night to help them.

Nowadays, children perpetuate this tradition by hanging up their stockings, which are now filled with gifts.

Christmas stockings are often hung from the fireplace at Christmas
Traditional Christmas stockings hang from a mantelpiece

Christmas decorations – how do they differ across Europe?

In the United Kingdom

The tree is a traditional element of decoration in the UK, as are baubles and tinsel.

However, in the UK, there is a strong tradition of decorating gardens and windows. The origins of some decorations differ too. In the UK, the use of a tree was made popular by Queen Victoria, who had a huge decorated pine at Windsor Castle in 1841.

In the Netherlands

An advent calendar counts down the days to Christmas
An advent calendar counts down to Christmas – © Torsten Dettlaff

In the Netherlands, presents are not opened on December 24th or 25th, but much earlier in the month, for the feast of St Nicholas on December 6th.

The birth of Christ is also celebrated, but not with presents. It is simply an opportunity to get together with friends and family and share some festive moments.

In Hungary

You could say that Christmas in Hungary combines the traditions of other European countries including France and the Netherlands.

Hungarians celebrate both Christmas and St Nicholas, as in the Netherlands. The first decorations are put up at the end of November, so that they can be enjoyed for as long as possible.

In Hungary, these are mostly bright, and outdoor – garlands, candlesticks, and trees decorated with lights. Even trains and buses join in!

Christmas decorations: How can we make them eco-friendly?

Wherever we live, Christmas is an important time for everyone. Much more than just a tradition, it’s a time for families to get together and share happy times.

However, as issues such as global warming and caring for the environment become increasingly important, how can we celebrate Christmas in an eco-friendly way?

A homemade Christmas tree ornament in traditional red and green
Making your own Christmas decorations from recycled objects is a great way to be eco-friendly – © Laura James

By using your imagination and creativity! For example, you can reuse old Christmas decorations, or make them yourself from natural materials, avoiding disposable plastic wherever you can.

These trends will continue to grow in the coming years, as more and more of us look for eco-friendly alternatives to modern plastic decorations.

It is wonderful to be able to celebrate our Christmas traditions, but it’s even better if we can do so in an environmentally friendly way.

What are your Christmas traditions? Have you learned anything about the origins of your favourite decorations? Share your thoughts with us on our social networks! And don’t forget to subscribe to our newsletter so that you don’t miss any of our articles.

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