An American Christmas

This article was originally published in the Grand Haven Tribune in December 2014, written by Steven Radtke, Executive Director

As the Holiday season approaches, many of us decorate for Christmas without giving much thought to the historical context behind the decorations we put up year after year. The roots of an American Christmas go back centuries, but Christmas as we know it today was the deliberate invention of early 19th century writers in a new republic hungry for traditions. Although the celebration was relatively common by the 1850s, Christmas was not recognized as a legal holiday in the United States until 1890.

For many, the Christmas tree is the center of Christmas celebrations. The tradition of the Christmas tree began in Germany, as early as the 16th century, although widespread acceptance throughout Europe was not gained until the 18th century. An interesting side note is the use of trees hung upside down from the ceiling, a 200-year-old predecessor to the recent hot "new" fad.

The British royal family can be credited with popularizing the Christmas tree in England and America around the middle of the 19th century. While parts of Europe had been using Christmas trees for a hundred years or more, they were relatively unknown in England. Queen Victoria's consort Albert was of German decent, and he brought the tradition to England. Everything the royal couple did was widely copied both here and in England, so a fad for the decorated tree was started and has continued ever since. The decorations have a history too. Almost all of the commonly used decorations on the Christmas tree have some deeper meaning, many of them religious.

Lighting the tree originated from the custom of attaching lit candles on a tree on Christmas Eve to celebrate Christ's birth. As soon as electricity became commonplace in the 19teens, electric bulbs quickly replaced candles as they were much easier and safer to use. Early electric lighting sets consisted of about 15 lights total for the whole tree, and to showcase the new technology, the light sets themselves were decorative, with multicolored wires, elaborate bulb holders, and shaped, hand-painted bulbs in a variety of holiday themes. The golden age for decorative holiday lighting was the 1950s, when old standards like bubble lights and "lighted ice" snowballs made their first appearance. Other lighting novelties of the decade included "twinkle" flashing bulbs and such oddities as neon bulbs. Near the end of the decade we saw "fairy" lights, tiny bulbs that were the precursor to today's ubiquitous mini lights.

An early custom of hanging "hosts" (wafers) on the tree has evolved into the gingerbread men, fruit, candy, strings of popcorn, nuts, etc., that many of us are familiar with. Gift giving was another early custom that was intended to remind the recipient of the gift that God gave the world with the birth of Christ. The early custom of hanging small gifts such as tops, drums, and dolls on the tree is a direct evolution of this belief, and can be found on today's tree in any ornament representing a toy.

Apples hold special significance, as they were originally hung on trees to represent paradise and the forbidden apple. From the apples we got red glass balls, which evolved into the ubiquitous multi-colored glass ball ornaments of today.

The multicolored balls that many remember as a child have an interesting story as well. Before World War I, the undisputed leader in the production of glass Christmas ornaments was Germany. Almost every home in America proudly displayed their beautiful, German-made ornaments. However, tide of anti-German sentiment after the war opened the door for other manufacturers to enter the scene. One manufacturer in the United States rose quickly to prominence, becoming a powerhouse in the industry and dominating the American market for years.  The name of the company was Shiny Brite.

Shiny Brite began in the 1920's when Max Eckardt, a long-time importer of Christmas ornaments and novelties, realized an opportunity when he saw one. Starting soon after WWI, he began converting his business over from an importer of ornaments to a producer. In 1935, his company adopted the name "Shiny Brite", and in 1937, he convinced the Corning Glass Works that another war in Europe was inevitable, and that there were profits to be made in glass ornaments as the German supplies dried up.

By 1939, Corning was making 400 ornaments a minute; 200 million a week. The glass blanks were then sent to the new Shiny Brite plant in New Jersey for silvering and decoration, which was a combination of hand-painting and automated machine finishing. The Corning-made blanks were available in 180 different styles and sizes.

When war did come in the 1940's, the glassmaking plants were not in vital need for the war effort, so production continued. Materials such as mercury for silvering and metal for the caps was hard to come by, however, so wartime production ornaments feature a small piece of tinsel in the center of a clear striped ball or shape, often with a cardboard top. These "austerity" ornaments are rare and highly prized by collectors today.

A sure fire way for a novice collector to know if they are looking at a Shiny Brite ornament is to examine the cap. Shiny Brites all have a large, fluted, scalloped cap with the words "Shiny Brite" and U.S.A. stamped into the top surface.

Stop by the Tri-Cities Historical Museum, 200 Washington Ave., during the holiday season for a look at the delightful holiday decorations provided by Alice Waterous and James Lutke. We also feature a 1940s Nativity scene created for our window when we were Addison Baltz department store, the tail end of the Lakeland Artist's fall show, and our ever fascinating permanent displays on the history of the area. The Museum is open from 10-5 Tuesday through Friday, 12-5 Saturday and Sunday. We are closed Mondays, Christmas Day, and New Year's Day. For more information, please call (616) 842-0700, or visit us at

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