MARIETTA - The yuletide tradition of hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree goes back at least four centuries when Germans decorated evergreens with apples, according to the National Christmas Tree Association.
By the late 1800s, apples began to be replaced by the shiny glass baubles and other tree trimmings now part of American Christmas tradition.
Retail stores sell plenty of new tree ornaments, but many people prefer shopping antique stores for vintage ornaments reminiscent of the past.
Photo by Sam Shawver
Shana Woodford adjusts a string of vintage Christmas ornaments Monday at her antique store, H. Rietz and Company on Front Street in Marietta.
"When I come in and browse the store this time of year I like to look at the old ornaments. It's kind of nostalgic. A Christmas ornament like one that our family had when I was young will catch my eye," said Diane Crandall of Marietta who was shopping at the Marietta Antique Mall on Monday.
She noted families often hand ornaments down from generation to generation.
"My mom recently gave me an ornament she's had on her tree for years - a little 3-inch-high angel standing on a quarter moon," Crandall said. "I was thrilled. That ornament meant the world to me."
Christmas Ornament History
* 1600s - By the 17th century, it was common in Germany to decorate Christmas trees with apples. This practice was a holdover from the 14th and 15th centuries when evergreen boughs hung with apples were the only prop used in the "miracle plays" performed in churches on Dec. 24. Dec. 24 was Adam & Eve's Day in the early Christian calendar, and the plays taught the Bible to a largely illiterate population.
* 1700s - In parts of Austria and Germany, evergreen tips were brought into the home and hung top down from the ceiling. They were often decorated with apples, gilded nuts and red paper strips. Edible ornaments became so popular on Christmas trees that they were often called "sugar trees." The first accounts of using lighted candles as decorations on Christmas Trees come from France in the 18th century.
* 1800s - The Christmas tree was introduced in the United States by German settlers. It rapidly grew from tabletop size to floor-to-ceiling.
* Late 1800s - The first glass ornaments were introduced into the United States, again from Germany. The first ones were mostly balls, but later chains of balls, toys and figures became more common.
Source: National Christmas Tree Association.
Antique Mall associate Gary Townsend said the store sells many antique ornaments over the holidays.
"We sell quite a bit. Some are older, and some not so old," he said, placing a 2002 Coca-Cola Santa Claus snow globe on the counter with a tiny train running around its base.
From a glass case nearby Townsend produced a much older piece - a multi-colored treetop ornament.
"This type of tree topper was probably popular during the late 1940s or early 50s. They were made of very thin glass," he said.
Out on Front Street Charlie Clay, owner of Dad's Primitive Workbench, said by Monday the shop had nearly sold out of the antique ornaments he had in stock. He said customers buy them for different reasons.
"A lot of people like to decorate their trees with vintage ornaments, and some younger couples mix the old in with their newer ornaments every year," he said. "One customer from Bridgeport, W.Va., came in and bought all of our silver and blue ornaments because they matched the ornaments she'd had as a child."
Just up the street Shana Woodford, owner of the H. Rietz and Company antique shop, said she loves vintage ornaments and keeps a variety in stock at the store.
"My own tree at home is covered with them," she said. "But antique ornaments have really become a big deal. I've sold at least 200 so far this season."
Woodford said vintage ornaments are generally not the type of antique people will lock away, hoping the value of the piece will increase over several years.
"Most people take them home and hang them on their trees every year," she said. "I think it reminds some people of the ornaments their families had when they were young."
Some folks do collect antique Christmas ornaments, Woodford said.
"The older they are, the more valuable," she said.
One way to gauge the age of an ornament is to look at what the piece is made of.
Woodford said in the late 1800s many ornaments were made of wire instead of glass, and during World War II more paper was used due to the need for glass and metal materials in the war effort.