8 Odd Items People Have Used to Decorate Christmas Trees

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Decorating a Christmas tree is a time-honored holiday tradition. But the ornaments that adorned the firs of yore looked a lot different than the colorful bulbs that are likely hanging from your tree right now. And some of them squawked! From ears of corn to live canaries, these old-school trimmings didn't make the jump to modern times.

1. FRUIT

An apple hangs from a Christmas tree
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For centuries, fruit—in many forms—was used to decorate Christmas trees. One legend even directly connects the modern red ornament to the fruit on these old trees. The story goes that in the village of Meisenthal in modern France, residents decorated Christmas trees with a small apple varietal. A drought destroyed the crop in 1858 and red glass baubles were created to fill the gap.

2. FANCY CAKES

Apples aren't the only edibles that have found their way onto Christmas trees. An 1896 Good Housekeeping article noted that, “The fancily frosted cakes in different designs found at German bakeries look well on a tree and are inexpensive ... Candy strawberries look very pretty, but several dozen will be required to make an effective display. They should be suspended near the tips of the branches.”

3. EARS OF CORN

Ear of Yellow Corn In Field Ready for Harvest
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A 1907 Harper’s Bazar (as it was originally spelled) article advised country children who couldn’t get store-bought decorations to make their own “gingerbread or doughnut animals, men, and birds” and use the ever-popular “ears of corn silvered for icicles.”

4. FAUX BIRD NESTS

In 1877's The Girls’ Home Book, writer Laura Valentine suggested that a fake bird nest would make a lovely decoration, and directed tree trimmers to “Get the cook to give you some halves of unboiled egg-shells. Dip them in white of egg (but first you must have some moss ready); make a hollow of moss in your hand, and put the half-shell in it. The moss will adhere to the outside very well ... Line it in the inside with feathers, and when dry, put sugar-plum eggs in it. These nests look charming in the foliage of the Christmas tree.”

5. LIVE BIRDS

A canary sits in a Christmas tree
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An 1895 Western Journal of Education article is full of tips on how to trim the perfect Christmas tree. Alongside solid advice (don’t light candles on the tree as they’re “more or less dangerous”) and old standbys ('old but effective' popcorn strings), they also had a slightly livelier idea: “Live canaries or mocking-birds, in small cages, are very pretty hung in trees or suspended about the room.” But if that doesn’t appeal, “stuffed birds can also be perched in trees, and a white dove or a larger bird, with wings spread, can be suspended over a tree with very pretty effect.”

6. FAKE SNOW

In 1896, Good Housekeeping had an "updated" idea for the strings of popcorn found on many trees: “[Popcorn] is much prettier and more effective when pinned to the tree, than when strung as is usually the case. Certainly, it requires more labor, but the result is so gratifying that I hardly think you would again return to the old method of stringing the corn.” Just get popcorn and very cheap pins and then pin each individual popped kernel to the tree, and “your tree will look as though [it's] covered with snow, and will present a fine appearance without any further decorations.”

Don’t have time to spend days pinning popcorn to your tree but still want to create the popular Victorian Christmas Snow Tree? A 1978 issue of The Old-House Journal explained that “all one needs is last year’s Christmas tree, glue, cotton batting, and patience.” They then advised spraying the tree a dark gold color so it looks more alive, tearing the batting into strips, and draping the strips over the tree. As for the glue? That’s for the next step.

7. TOXIC SPARKLES

A sparkling Christmas tree
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That glue was important for making your tree sparkle. Instructions in the Western Journal of Education (1895) advised applying glue to the tree and then scattering mica on it to create a spectacular dazzle. Sadly, 80 years later, The Old-House Journal was lamenting that “mica snow ... has all but disappeared from the market and may take some searching to find.” (Perhaps because, as a safety data sheet for mica says, “The substance is toxic to lungs [and] mucous membranes. Repeated or prolonged exposure to the substance can produce target organs damage.”)

The Girls’ Home Book had an alternate idea for these mica-less days, suggesting “[a] very pretty mode of ornamenting the Christmas tree is to hang small garlands or bunches of crystallized leaves ... on the branches.” Just take some pieces of fir branches and suspend them into a bucket filled with alum. Pour in a gallon of boiling water and a day later you have twigs that glitter like diamonds. (More safety warnings: “Breathing of dust may aggravate acute or chronic asthma and chronic pulmonary disease.” [PDF])

But the desire for a sparkly tree goes back much further than the 19th century, and didn’t always require safety warnings. One chronicler recorded that during the reign of Henry VIII there was a banquet for Epiphany (January 6th) that featured a glistening mountain topped with “a tree of gold, the branches and boughs [wrought into ornamental patterns] with gold, spreading on every side over the mountain with roses and pomegranates.”

8. PRESENTS

Present hanging from a Christmas tree
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In 1896, Good Housekeeping explained to its readers that “If the [Christmas] tree is placed in a carpeted room it would be well to previously cover the floor immediately surrounding the tree, with white paper or spread a sheet” on the floor, which all seems perfectly normal by today’s standards ... until the next paragraph. “It would be pretty,” the magazine continues, “to arrange the gifts about the base of the tree instead of hanging them upon the tree as is customary amongst Americans.”

Throughout the mid to late 19th century, there are references to hanging Christmas presents from the tree. “To save expense, yet at the same time to insure a brilliant effect, it is a good plan to hang the gifts so that bright contrasting colors may set off the tree," Ladies’ Home Journal suggested in 1890. "Bundles done up in brown paper are never pretty; but dolls, bright-covered books, gayly painted toys, bright silk handkerchiefs and white scarfs, sleds, wagons, etc. should be placed in prominent view.” An 1856 issue of Guardian (a magazine for “young men and ladies”) proclaimed that “the various presents, shine in the branches, which almost bend under their kind burdens,” which even included “a staff for grand-pa, and a pair of spectacles for grandmother.”

What killed off this tradition? There are many possibilities, but an 1894 issue of The Cultivator & Country Gentleman has a strangely familiar suggestion from a reader: “A pretty Christmas tree is pretty without decoration, and yet, after it has been stripped of its load of presents, it looks bare unless it has some trimming. In Germany the shining balls and the like are carefully put away each year, a few new ones being added from year to year, and one of the delights of Christmas is the bringing out of these treasures. We have tried this plan and find it works excellently.”

The Most Popular Christmas Movie in Each State

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dusanpetkovic/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone has a favorite classic holiday movie, from 1946’s It’s a Wonderful Life to 1983’s A Christmas Story to 1988’s Die Hard, which may or may not fit the criteria for a festive film depending on who you ask. Home advice website House Method decided to see if those favorites varied by state. To find out, the site polled 4580 people and compiled the results into handy infographics.

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

As you can see, A Christmas Story dominates the country, with 24 states and a total of 12.8 percent of respondents naming it their favorite. The 2003 Will Ferrell comedy Elf came in second, with 11 states and 11.2 percent of the vote. Rounding out the top five—when looking at the overall percentage—are 1990’s Home Alone and It’s a Wonderful Life, with a dark horse—1993’s The Nightmare Before Christmas—scoring 6.3 percent of voting and winning over Tennessee. Nebraska was an outlier, naming 1989’s National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation their favorite.

Here’s how it breaks down by count according to state:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by state is pictured
House Method

By percentage is where animated classics like 1964’s Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas rank:

An infographic breaking down favorite holiday movies by percentage of votes is pictured
House Method

Kansas and Vermont selected Die Hard, an often-contentious choice. (The film is set during Christmas in Los Angeles, with Bruce Willis’s everyman cop forced to battle terrorists in Nakatomi Plaza during a holiday party.) House Method decided to throw in a bonus question: Does the film qualify as a Christmas movie? The survey says no, with nearly 60 percent declaring it ineligible for holiday status. Sorry, Bruce.

An infographic depicting survey results about 'Die Hard' being a Christmas movie is pictured
House Method

[h/t House Method]

The Fascinating History Behind Why Jewish Families Eat Chinese Food on Christmas

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For Jewish New Yorkers, scoring a seat at one of veteran restaurateur Ed Schoenfeld’s Chinese eateries on Christmas Day could be compared to a holiday miracle. “I think on that day we do more business than many restaurants do in three months,” Schoenfeld tells Mental Floss. “We serve all day long, we stay open all day long.”

Schoenfeld is the Jewish owner-operator of RedFarm, an Asian-fusion dim sum restaurant with two locations in New York (plus one in London), and Decoy, a West Village shrine to traditional Peking duck. While his expertise lies in Far Eastern cuisine, Schoenfeld grew up in Brooklyn and learned to cook from his Eastern European grandmother. And just like his customers, Schoenfeld and his family sometimes craved Chinese food on Christmas, eschewing homemade fare for heaping plates of chow mein and egg foo yung. The future restaurateur's grandmother kept a kosher kitchen, but outside the home all dietary laws flew out the window with the single spin of a Lazy Susan. Suddenly, egg rolls with pork were fair game, transfigured into permissible delicacies through hunger and willful ignorance.

As Gentiles feast on turkey and roast beef during the Yuletide season, why do many Jews opt for chop suey? For starters, it's convenient: Chinese restaurants are open on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. But as historians and culinary experts tell Mental Floss, other ingredients play a part in this delicious story.

Jews developed their love for all things steamed, stir-fried, and soy-sauced after leaving the Old Country. Between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, Germany, and Greece began settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a gritty, inexpensive neighborhood teeming with tenements, docks, and factories—and filled with synagogues and kosher butcher shops. “You started here, and then moved on," Sarah Lohman, author of Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine, says.

While Jewish immigrants found community on the Lower East Side, "there was a lot of discrimination against Jews at the turn of the century,” Lohman adds. "They were often criticized not only for not dressing like Americans and not speaking the language, but also for not converting to an 'American' religion."

Right next door to the burgeoning Jewish community on the Lower East Side was the city's nascent Chinatown. Many Chinese immigrants had initially come to the U.S. to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. After its completion in 1869, these laborers faced violence and discrimination in the western states. They came to New York City seeking new business opportunities, and some opened restaurants.

By and large, Chinese restaurateurs didn’t discriminate against Jewish customers. Joshua Eli Plaut writes in his book A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish that the Chinese, as non-Christians, didn't perceive any difference between Anglo-Saxon New Yorkers and Jewish immigrants; they accepted all non-Chinese customers with open arms.

Jewish customers embraced Chinese food in return. The restaurants were conveniently located and inexpensive, yet were also urbane in their eyes. Jews saw dining out as an American custom that they wanted to try, largely because they sought upward mobility among other Americans. According to Yong Chen, a history professor and author of Chop Suey, USA: The Story of Chinese Food in America, "[Diners] were attracted to Chinese food because, in their mind, it represented American cosmopolitanism and middle class status." And they weren't deterred by the fact that food in Chinese restaurants wasn't kosher. But they could easily pretend it was.

Dairy wasn’t a big part of Chinese meals, so Jewish diners didn’t have to worry about mixing meat and milk (a no-no in kosher diets). And non-kosher ingredients like pork or seafood were often finely chopped, drowned in sauces, or mixed with other ingredients, like rice. These elements were well disguised enough that they could pass for more permissible forms of meat. “You could kind of willfully ignore that there might be pork in there," Lohman says. "It’s like a vegetarian eating a soup that has chicken stock. If you’re a little flexible about your Judaism, you would just ‘not notice’ the pork in your fried rice.”

Chinese food was exotic and new, filled with surprising flavors, ingredients, and textures [PDF]. But for some Eastern European Jews, it also had familiar elements. Both Eastern European and Chinese cuisines shared an affinity for sweet and sour flavors and egg-based dishes. "[Chinese restaurants] had these pancakes, which were like blintzes,” says Joan Nathan, author of King Solomon's Table: A Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World, and the wontons resembled kreplach (both are meat-filled soup dumplings).

The fact that the Chinese and Jews were America’s two largest non-Christian immigrant populations brought them together, Jennifer 8. Lee, author of The Fortune Cookie Chronicles: Adventures in the World of Chinese Food, tells Mental Floss. Unlike, say, Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants were open on Sundays and on Christian holidays. They also lacked religious imagery, which may have made them appear more welcoming for Jews.

Combined, these factors caused the number of Chinese restaurants in urban East Coast cities to skyrocket during the early 20th century. Jews soon accounted for 60 percent of the white clientele in New York City's and Philadelphia’s Chinese restaurants, Chen writes, and Chinese restaurants would often go out of their way to cater to these clients. The eateries delivered their food to Jewish neighborhoods and to individual customers.

Yet an unwavering affection for Chinese food wasn't shared by all Jews. In an example cited by Chen and Lee, a reporter for Der Tog (The Day), a Yiddish daily newspaper in New York City, noted in 1928 that Jewish diners were in danger of drowning their culinary roots in soy sauce. To take back their taste buds, Jewish-Americans should hoist protest signs reading “Down with chop suey! Long live gefilte fish!” the journalist joked.

But Jewish cookbooks had already begun including Americanized dishes like chop suey and egg foo yung, which Chinese chefs had specially created to appeal to homegrown appetites. And as Lower East Side Jews moved to different neighborhoods, boroughs, and suburbs, Chinese restaurants followed them.

By the mid-20th century, Nathan says, Chinese restaurants had become de facto social clubs in Jewish communities. Familiar faces were always present, children were always welcome, and eating with your hands wasn’t just encouraged—it was required. Everyone left filled with food and gossip, whether it was Christmas or an ordinary Sunday evening.

Thanks to immigration patterns, nostalgia, and convenient hours of operation, this culinary custom has stuck around. “Jewish guests want to go out and eat Chinese food on Christmas,” Schoenfeld, the Manhattan restaurateur, says. “It’s become a tradition, and it’s extraordinary how it’s really grown.”

This story originally ran in 2017.

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