You put them on your tree every year, but have you ever wondered – why? Why do we hang glass balls on a tree – it’s really kind of strange if you think about it. Yet we do it all around the world, year after year, after year. I’m often fascinated with how things became globally popular before we had this thing called the Internet, TV, or even radio. It wasn’t until this fall when I did a road trip learning about made in Germany products that I fully understood just how much Germany did have to do with Christmas traditions!
It started in Lauscha Germany in Thuringia in the mid-1800s. During Christmas people in Thuringia hung fruit and nuts on their trees for decoration as a "celebration of nature." However, in the 1800s money was tight and it was considered pretty wasteful to hang food that you could/should be eating on your tree. They needed a substitute. Since Lauscha was the epicenter of glass making, thanks to its natural environment with an abundance of wood and sand (the two main ingredients for glass blowing), Hans Greiner decided to make glass versions of the fruit and nuts and hang that on the tree instead, leaving all the real food available to eat.
Royalty and Celebrities
They might not have had social media and celebrities back then, but the closest thing to it was royalty. A picture of Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree, complete with lights and glass ornaments from her husband Prince Albert’s native Germany was published in a London newspaper. The glass German Christmas ornaments suddenly were all the rage, Lauscha began exporting its products throughout Europe, and they became a fixture on trees for the holidays around Europe. In the 1880s, American F. W. Woolworth discovered Lauscha’s ornaments during a visit to Germany and decided to bring them to Americans. He made a fortune by importing the glass German Christmas ornaments to the United States and selling them at Woolworths.
And that, my friends, is how something goes viral in the 19th century. And it’s also probably why you have glass Christmas ornaments hanging from your tree right now.
Make Your Own German Christmas Ornaments
While I was in Germany I stopped and visited the famous village of Lauscha which has risen once again to the glass blowing capital of Germany after the fall of the Berlin Wall. At Farbglashütte Lauscha (opened in 1853), one of the many glass factories in the area, I got a first-hand look at modern-day glass blowing and making. I was surprised to find out that it wasn’t very ‘modern’ since they still are doing everything by hand with a small team of glassmakers and apprentices. It was fascinating to watch. The day I visited a team of four young men was making drinking glasses out of a mold, but the process was still extremely manual and delicate. It takes two days to make a glass out of sand, soda, potash lime, and heat.
I even learned how to tell the difference between hand blown glass and manufactured Christmas ornaments. Manufactured ornaments have larger openings at the top as opposed to hand-blown ones. I was even able to make my own in the workshop, with a little help from a professional. I chose the colored beads, she heated the glass, and I delicately blew and formed the glass ball.
As I walked around the Christmas showroom waiting for my creation to cool, I was reminded of my childhood Christmases at my Grandma Ott’s home. I had never thought of the ornaments on her tree to be German, but as I looked at the designs in the showroom, I realized these were all designs she used to have on her tree in Nebraska. It was a fun trip down memory lane.
As you trim your tree this year now you can wow your friends and family with a fun story to tell about how German Christmas ornaments went viral around the world 200 years ago before Facebook, Pinterest or Twitter.
How You Can Recreate This Trip
Glass Blowing: Farbglashütte Lauscha has a glass showroom at their factory in Lauscha and they also have a dedicated Christmas ornament showroom. You can tour the factory at specific times during the day and it’s possible to do workshops on glassblowing there as I did (mine was an abbreviated workshop). Farbglashütte Lauscha Website
Lodging: Thüringer Hotel Schieferhof was a cute boutique hotel with a flair for design and art. They also had a phenomenal restaurant on the lobby level of the hotel, with one of the best meals I had in all of Germany. The rooms were big and it was perfectly situated for touring around the Lauscha area and for hiking!