Placing angel ornaments on top of Christmas trees or on their evergreen branches is a beloved holiday tradition. Just look at the Christmas trees around you this Christmas season, and you'll see a huge variety of angels: shiny metallic angels that reflect Christmas tree lights, fabric angels that kids have crafted with loving care, fragile glass or porcelain angels that have been passed down through generations, and even doll-like angels with microchips inside that enable them to move and sing. Here's a look at the fascinating history of Christmas tree angels:
Angels on the First Christmas
Angels played an important role in the first Christmas. Gabriel, the archangel of revelation, informed Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus Christ on Earth, an angel visited Joseph in a dream to tell him that he would serve as Jesus' father on Earth, and a vast amount of angels appeared in the sky over Bethlehem to announce and celebrate Jesus' birth as the world's savior.
Christmas Tree Angels
Considering the vital role that angels played in the first Christmas, it's not surprising that they began to take prominent places on Christmas trees soon after people developed the tradition of decorating trees for Christmas.
Evergreen trees had been a symbol of life before the first Christmas, and people had prayed outside among evergreens or decorated their homes with evergreen branches during the winter months for many years to celebrate life. After the Roman Emperor Constantine selected December 25th as the date to celebrate Christmas each year beginning in 336 AD and Pope Julius I made that the official Christmas date several years later, the holiday fell during the winter season for much of Europe. By the 700s, a monk named Boniface (who later became a saint) had established a tradition of using the triangular shape of evergreen fir trees to help teach people in Germany and France about the holy trinity (God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Holy Spirit).
Later, in the Middle Ages, people began decorating "Paradise Trees" that symbolized the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. They hung fruit from tree branches to represent the world's fall that occurred when Adam and Eve sinned, and they hung wafers made from pastry on branches to represent Communion, which symbolizes how Jesus Christ's sacrificial death makes salvation possible for people in this fallen world.
The first time in recorded history that a tree was decorated specifically to celebrate the Christmas holiday was in 1510 in Latvia, when people placed roses (a symbol used to honor Mary, the mother of Jesus) on the branches of a fir tree. After that, the tradition quickly gained popularity, and people began to decorate Christmas trees in churches, town squares, and their homes with other natural materials such as fruit and nuts, as well as cookies baked in a variety of shapes, including angels.
Tree Topper Angels
Often, people would place angels on the very top of their Christmas trees to symbolize the significance of the angels who appeared high above Bethlehem to joyfully announce Jesus' birth on the first Christmas. If they didn't use an angel ornament as a tree topper, they usually used a star, to represent the bright star that appeared in the sky to guide people to Jesus' birthplace.
By placing angels on the top of their Christmas trees, some people were also making a statement of faith intended to scare any evil spirits away from their homes.
Streamers and Tinsel: Angels' "Hair"
Soon after people began decorating Christmas trees, they would sometimes pretend that angels were actually decorating the trees, as a way of making the Christmas festivities even more fun for children. They wrapped paper streamers around Christmas trees and told children that the streamers were like pieces of angel hair that had gotten caught in the branches when the angels leaned in too closely to the trees while decorating.
Later, after people figured out how to hammer out silver (and then aluminum) to produce a shiny type of streamer called tinsel, they continued to use it on their Christmas trees to represent angel hair. Tinsel is usually made out of a chemical called Polyvinyl Chloride today, but it still drapes easily over Christmas tree branches and resembles shiny hair.
Angel Ornaments: From Handmade Glass to High-Tech Wonders
The first angel ornaments were handmade ones, such as angel-shaped cookies baked by hand or angel ornaments fashioned out of natural materials like straw. By the 1800s, glassblowers in Germany had invented glass Christmas ornaments, and glass angels began to adorn many Christmas trees throughout the world.
After the Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass-produce Christmas ornaments, people created and sold many different styles of angel ornaments in large department stores, like Woolworths in the United States. Popular culture often showed Christmas trees decorated with angels, such as in the famous Christmas movie 'It's a Wonderful Life' where the characters are singing near a decorated tree when a bell rings to signify that a real angel in heaven has earned its wings.
Angels remain popular Christmas tree decorations today. High-tech angel ornaments implanted with microchips (that enable the angels to glow from within, sing, dance, talk, play trumpets, etc.) are now widely available. Only God knows what creative angel Christmas tree ornaments people will invent in the future!