Besides the tree itself, Germany’s contributions to Christmas ornaments include blown glass globes and tinsel. Learn more about both…
Blown Glass Tree Ornaments
Germany and Austria have contributed many of the elements that we consider a “natural” part of the Christmas celebration. What would Christmas be without “Silent Night” (Austria) or the Christmas tree (Germany)?
But there are other Christmas items we take for granted that have their origins in German Europe. The next time you decorate the Christmas tree (or take the decorations down!), take a closer look at the ornaments. Those shiny glass balls (Glaskugeln) and tinsel (Lametta) are German inventions.
Although the glass globes you use to decorate your tree may have been manufactured in China, Mexico, the USA, or elsewhere, the originals were invented in Germany. In the late 16th century the small German town of Lauscha, then in the Duchy of Sachsen-Coburg, now in the German state of Thuringia (Thüringen), became known for its glass-blowing (Glasbläserei). The Thuringia region had been home to glass-making as early as the 12th century. Lauscha, located in a river valley, had several elements needed for glass-making: timber (for firing the glass ovens) and sand. (Nearby Jena would later become famous for its optical glass.) Christoph Müller and Hans Greiner set up Lauscha’s first glass works in 1597. Soon other Glashütten (glass works) were established in the town. Lauscha’s Glashütten eventually produced drinking glasses, flasks, glass bowls, glass beads (Glasperlen), and even glass eyes (1835).
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In 1847 Hans Greiner (a descendent of the Hans Greiner who had established Lauscha’s first glass works) began producing glass ornaments (Glasschmuck) in the shape of fruits and nuts. These Glaskugeln were made in a unique hand-blown process combined with molds (formgeblasener Christbaumschmuck). The inside of the ornament was made to look silvery, at first with mercury or lead, then later using a special compound of silver nitrate and sugar water. Greiner’s sons and grandsons, Ernst (b. 1847), Otto (b. 1877), Willi (b. 1903), and Kurt (b. 1932), carried on the Christmas ornament tradition. (See the Greiner Web link below.) They were also responsible for another product: glass marbles.
Soon these unique glass Christmas ornaments were being exported to other parts of Europe. By the 1870s, Lauscha was exporting its unique glass ornaments to Britain. Glass ornaments had become popular in 1846 when an illustration of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree was printed in a London paper. The royal tree was decorated with glass ornaments from Prince Albert’s native land of Germany.
In the 1880s the American dime-store magnate F.W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha’s Glaskugeln during a visit to Germany. He made a fortune by importing the German glass ornaments to the US.
After World War II, East Germany turned most of Lauscha’s glassworks into state-owned (VEB) concerns. After the Wall came down, most of the firms were reestablished as private companies. Today there are still about 20 small glass-blowing firms active in Lauscha.
The Lauscha glass ornaments are also related to a supposed German legend concerning the “Christmas pickle” or Weihnachtsgurke. See The German Christmas Pickle for more on that topic.
German Tinsel – Lametta
Tinsel (das Lametta) was probably invented in Germany in the early 1600s. The precise details about where and by whom are vague, but the original tinsel was made out of real silver with machines that pressed the silver into thin strips. Silver was durable, but it tarnished easily, especially with the smoke from the candles commonly used on Christmas trees in Germany. Later versions were also made out of pewter, a tin alloy.
The German name for tinsel, Lametta, is a diminutive form of the Italian word lama, meaning blade.
In the 1920s and ’30s, German icicle tinsel (Eis-Lametta) and tinfoil tinsel (Stanniol-Lametta) were popular tree decorations. Today’s plastic foil tinsel or aluminum tinsel is less popular and has none of the charm of the German original. Beginning in the 1980s, some German communities banned its use for ecological reasons.
More | Christmas from A to Z
AT THE GERMAN WAY
- Christmas from A to Z – German Christmas traditions and terms
- Photo Gallery: Christmas in Germany – Berlin – A visual tour of Christmas markets and other December sights in Berlin
- Advent and Christmas – The “arrival”
- Christmas in the USA and Germany– A comparison chart
- Barbarazweig – The legend and the Christmas custom
- Epiphany and the Sternsinger – January 6 in the Germanic Christmas tradition
- Erntedank (“harvest thanksgiving”) or Erntedankfest in Germany and Austria is different from the American Thanksgiving tradition.
- St. Nicholas – The many German St. Nicks
- Thomas Nast created the modern Santa image.
- The Christmas Pickle Ornament – Fact or fiction?
- Silent Night (Stille Nacht) – Our “Silent Night” page has the true story and related links.
- Holidays and Celebrations in Austria, Germany and Switzerland
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