By Tara V. Kohlenberg –
With Wurstfest in our rear-view mirror, the calendar and Hallmark Channels tell us that Christmas is but a short six weeks away. In the movies, it always looks cold and snowy with brightly lit decorations everywhere. I have only ever experienced a few white Christmases, and they weren’t here in New Braunfels. My Gran lived in the Texas Panhandle where it snowed. Christmas at her house meant traditional Thanksgiving-type pies and tall noble firs trimmed with opulent store-bought globes. Christmas at my Oma’s house in New Braunfels meant twelve different types of cookies locked in the dining room until Christmas Eve and a short cedar tree decorated with oranges and small glass ornaments. I wondered about how these decorating styles came to be so different.
Christmas trees have a long and varied history. Evidence suggests that adorning the home with evergreen branches during the winter solstice predates the ancient Egyptians, serving a similar purpose in the various pagan winter solstice rituals of the Druids, Romans, and Vikings. I have found that there are several theories about the origins of the Christmas tree. One such, is that the monk, St. Boniface, Apostle to the Germans, in the 7th or 8th century, incorporated the fir tree into his teachings by claiming that the triangular shape represented the Holy Trinity. Another legend has it that in the 16th century evergreen trees were used in plays depicting Adam & Eve in Paradise, earning them the moniker “Paradise” tree. When trees were in short supply, they would simply hang green branches on a pyramid shaped frame and adorn them with wafers and paper ornaments. It is from that practice that the German Pyramid (candle carousel) and the Christmas tree originated. It is said that Martin Luther promoted the evergreens in celebration of bible stories. Lutherans took the practice into their homes, which evolved into the Christmas trees, which eventually spread across Germany. German immigrants carried their Christmas traditions to the New World in the 18th Century. By mid-19th century, German immigrants were bringing their traditions to Texas. Even Prince Carl decorated an oak tree with candles on the coast at Indianola when the first settlers arrived.
The popularity of Christmas trees grew after an illustration of Queen Victoria and her family around an elegantly decorated tree appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book. By the 20th century, both Europeans and Americans embraced the tradition and celebrated with enthusiasm.
As for the ornament history, we have to go back a little further to the 3rd & 4th Centuries where St. Nicholas, the Bishop of Myra, made it his life’s work to help the poor and infirm. The legend tells of a poor man with three daughters and no dowries. As each girl came of age, a bag of gold (or, in some versions, a ball of gold) appeared in a sock or shoe near the hearth, with Nicholas presumed as the gift-giver. That story inspired the placement by the fireplace of stockings or shoes, to be filled with gifts and candy. It also inspired golden globes to be used for decoration signifying wealth long before they were hung on trees.
Much of the history of Christmas ornaments comes from the holiday traditions of Germany. It is said that in 1605, a tree was adorned with paper flowers, lighted candles, wafers, nuts and sweets in an indoor setting. Over time, decorations included painted eggshells, cookies, candies, fruits, and nuts. In 1610, tinsel, made of real silver strands, was invented. Tinsel was an instant hit as it helped to reflect the light of the tree out into the room.
Early ornaments were painstakingly hand made. Some were of folded paper, shaved wood or twisted wire. The works of art were often created by farmers during the months after harvest. It is also Germany that gives us the use of foods like gingerbread that were baked in varied shapes as fruits, stars, bells, hearts, angels. Artisans then created ornaments of German hand-cast lead and hand-blown glass decorations. Fish and bird ornaments of pressed paper were also found. As Christmas trees gained in popularity, other countries put their own spin on decorations. In England, ornaments were made of lace and paper. Americans wrapped their trees in long strands of popcorn and cranberries.
In the 1880s, German entrepreneurs in the city of Lauscha began to make glass ornaments skillfully blown from a long tube, molded and painted. The molds were shaped like children, saints and animals. Woolworth’s Five & Dime knew a good thing when they saw it and by the 1890s, immediately began importing glass ornaments for sale in the U.S. In 1973, Hallmark began pushing the idea of ‘keepsake’ ornaments documenting important events in life, like births, weddings, etc.. Many ornaments today tell more about the life of the owners: soccer balls, skates, football teams, schools, and places visited.
New Braunfels has held tightly to her traditions, and it is our job here at the Sophienburg to maintain them. In our gift shop, at Wurstfest and Weihnachtsmarkt, you will find Inge-Glas ornaments directly from Lauscha, Germany. Some ornaments are still from the same molds used for 130 years. 2020 is the 175th anniversary of the founding of New Braunfels and we commissioned a special Kitty Keller 175th ornament that will make its debut at Weihnachtsmarkt 2019. In addition, the history of New Braunfels buildings and places in the form of a beautiful coffee table book will also be available.
What’s a Weihnachtsmarkt? (Vy-noks-markt) It is three full days of shopping at the Civic Center, fashioned after the open air markets of Germany. Sophie’s Shop is there along with approximately 60 other merchants with the finest offerings in Christmas decorations and gifts. This market will be open November 22-24 and is a fundraiser supporting the Sophienburg Museum & Archives daily operations.
On December 5, bring your children to visit St. Nicholas. For more information on Weihnachtsmarkt or St. Nicholas family event check https://sophienburg.com/event/st-nikolaus/