8 Odd Items People Have Used to Decorate Christmas Trees

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iStock

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
Felip1, Flickr // CC BY NC 2.0

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.”

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EvgeniyShkolenko/iStock via Getty Images

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12 Things You Might Not Know About Juneteenth

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

There's more than one Independence Day in the U.S. On June 19, 1865, General Gordon Granger rode into Galveston, Texas, and announced enslaved people were now free. Since then, June 19 has been celebrated as Juneteenth across the nation. Here's what you should know about the historic event and celebration.

1. Enslaved people had already been emancipated—they just didn’t know it.

The June 19 announcement came more than two and a half years after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. So technically, from the Union's perspective, the 250,000 enslaved people in Texas were already free—but none of them were aware of it, and no one was in a rush to inform them.

2. There are many theories as to why the Emancipation Proclamation wasn’t enforced in Texas.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendering to Union General Ulysses S Grant at the close of the American Civil War, at the Appomattox Court House in Virginia on April 9, 1865.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

News traveled slowly back in those days—it took Confederate soldiers in western Texas more than two months to hear that Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox. Still, some have struggled to explain the 30-month gap between Lincoln’s proclamation and the enslaved people’s freedom, leading to speculation that some Texans suppressed the announcement. Other theories include that the original messenger was murdered to prevent the information from being relayed or that the federal government purposely delayed the announcement to Texas to get one more cotton harvest out of the enslaved workers. But the real reason is probably that Lincoln's proclamation simply wasn't enforceable in the rebel states before the end of the war.

3. The announcement actually urged freedmen and freedwomen to stay with their former owners.

General Order No. 3, as read by General Granger, said:

"The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere."

4. What followed was known as “the scatter.”


Internet Archive Book Images, Flickr // No known copyright restrictions

Most freedpeople weren't terribly interested in staying with the people who had enslaved them, even if pay was involved. In fact, some were leaving before Granger had finished making the announcement. What followed became known as "the scatter,," when droves of former enslaved people left the state to find family members or more welcoming accommodations in northern regions.

5. Not all enslaved people were freed instantly.

Texas is a large state, and General Granger's order (and the troops needed to enforce it) were slow to spread. According to historian James Smallwood, many enslavers deliberately suppressed the information until after the harvest, and some beyond that. In July 1867 there were two separate reports of enslaved people being freed, and one report of a Texas horse thief named Alex Simpson whose enslaved people were only freed after his hanging in 1868.

6. Freedom created other problems.

Despite the announcement, Texas slave owners weren't too eager to part with what they felt was their property. When freedpeople tried to leave, many of them were beaten, lynched, or murdered. "They would catch [freed slaves] swimming across [the] Sabine River and shoot them," a former enslaved person named Susan Merritt recalled.

7. There were limited options for celebrating.

A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
A monument in Houston's Emancipation Park.
2C2KPhotography, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When freedpeople tried to celebrate the first anniversary of the announcement a year later, they were faced with a problem: Segregation laws were expanding rapidly, and there were no public places or parks they were permitted to use. So, in the 1870s, former enslaved people pooled together $800 and purchased 10 acres of land, which they deemed "Emancipation Park." It was the only public park and swimming pool in the Houston area that was open to African Americans until the 1950s.

8. Juneteenth celebrations waned for several decades.

It wasn't because people no longer wanted to celebrate freedom—but, as Slate so eloquently put it, "it's difficult to celebrate freedom when your life is defined by oppression on all sides." Juneteenth celebrations waned during the era of Jim Crow laws until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, when the Poor People's March planned by Martin Luther King Jr. was purposely scheduled to coincide with the date. The march brought Juneteenth back to the forefront, and when march participants took the celebrations back to their home states, the holiday was reborn.

9. Texas was the first state to declare Juneteenth a state holiday.

Texas deemed the holiday worthy of statewide recognition in 1980, becoming the first state to do so.

10. Juneteeth is still not a federal holiday.

Though most states now officially recognize Juneteenth, it's still not a national holiday. As a senator, Barack Obama co-sponsored legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, though it didn't pass then or while he was president. One supporter of the idea is 93-year-old Opal Lee—in 2016, when she was 90, Lee began walking from state to state to draw attention to the cause.

11. The Juneteenth flag is full of symbolism.

a mock-up of the Juneteenth flag
iStock

Juneteenth flag designer L.J. Graf packed lots of meaning into her design. The colors red, white, and blue echo the American flag to symbolize that the enslaved people and their descendants were Americans. The star in the middle pays homage to Texas, while the bursting "new star" on the "horizon" of the red and blue fields represents a new freedom and a new people.

12. Juneteenth traditions vary across the U.S.

As the tradition of Juneteenth spread across the U.S., different localities put different spins on celebrations. In southern states, the holiday is traditionally celebrated with oral histories and readings, "red soda water" or strawberry soda, and barbecues. Some states serve up Marcus Garvey salad with red, green, and black beans, in honor of the black nationalist. Rodeos have become part of the tradition in the southwest, while contests, concerts, and parades are a common theme across the country.