8 Odd Items People Have Used to Decorate Christmas Trees

iStock
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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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
iStock

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.”

Why Mother's Day Founder Anna Jarvis Later Fought to Have the Holiday Abolished

A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
A portrait of Mother's Day founder Anna Jarvis.
Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Years after she founded Mother’s Day, Anna Jarvis was dining at the Tea Room at Wanamaker’s department store in Philadelphia. She saw they were offering a "Mother’s Day Salad." She ordered the salad and when it was served, she stood up, dumped it on the floor, left the money to pay for it, and walked out in a huff. Jarvis had lost control of the holiday she helped create, and she was crushed by her belief that commercialism was destroying Mother’s Day.

During the Civil War, Anna's mother, Ann Jarvis, cared for the wounded on both sides of the conflict. She also tried to orchestrate peace between Union and Confederate moms by forming a Mother's Friendship Day. When the elder Jarvis passed away in 1905, her daughter was devastated. She would read the sympathy cards and letters over and over, taking the time to underline all the words that praised and complimented her mother. Jarvis found an outlet to memorialize her mother by working to promote a day that would honor all mothers.

On May 10, 1908, Mother's Day events were held at the church where Ann Jarvis taught Sunday School in Grafton, West Virginia, and at the Wanamaker’s department store auditorium in Philadelphia. Anna did not attend the event in Grafton, but she sent 500 white carnations—her mother’s favorite flower. The carnations were to be worn by sons and daughters in honor of their own mothers, and to represent the purity of a mother’s love.

Spreading the Word

Mother’s Day quickly caught on because of Anna Jarvis’s zealous letter-writing and promotional campaigns across the country and the world. She was assisted by well-heeled backers like John Wanamaker and H.J. Heinz, and she soon devoted herself full-time to the promotion of Mother’s Day.

In 1909 several senators mocked the very idea of a Mother’s Day holiday. Senator Henry Moore Teller (D-CO) scorned the resolution as "puerile," "absolutely absurd," and "trifling." He announced, "Every day with me is a mother's day." Senator Jacob Gallinger (R-NH) judged the very idea of Mother's Day to be an insult, as though his memory of his late mother "could only be kept green by some outward demonstration on Sunday, May 10."

A pile of white carnations
iStock.com/ma-no

The backlash didn't deter Jarvis. She enlisted the help of organizations like the World’s Sunday School Association, and the holiday sailed through Congress with little opposition in 1914.

The floral industry wisely supported Jarvis’s Mother’s Day movement. She accepted their donations and spoke at their conventions. With each subsequent Mother’s Day, the wearing of carnations became a must-have item. Florists across the country quickly sold out of white carnations around Mother’s Day; newspapers reported stories of carnation hoarding and profiteering. The floral industry later came up with an idea to diversify sales by promoting the practice of wearing red or bright flowers in honor of living mothers, and white flowers for deceased moms.

"Sentiment, Not Profit"

Jarvis soon soured on the commercial interests associated with the day. She wanted Mother’s Day “to be a day of sentiment, not profit.” Beginning around 1920, she urged people to stop buying flowers and other gifts for their mothers, and she turned against her former commercial supporters. She referred to the florists, greeting card manufacturers and the confectionery industry as “charlatans, bandits, pirates, racketeers, kidnappers, and termites that would undermine with their greed one of the finest, noblest, and truest movements and celebrations.”

In response to the floral industry, she had thousands of celluloid buttons made featuring the white carnation, which she sent free of charge to women’s, school, and church groups. She attempted to stop the floral industry by threatening to file lawsuits and by applying to trademark the carnation together with the words “Mother’s Day” (though she was denied the trademark). In response to her legal threats, the Florist Telegraph Delivery (FTD) association offered her a commission on the sales of Mother’s Day carnations, but this only further enraged her.

Jarvis’s attempts to stop the florists’ promotion of Mother’s Day with carnations continued. In 1934, the United States Postal Service issued a stamp honoring Mother’s Day. They used a painting colloquially known as Whistler’s Mother for the image, by artist James Whistler. Jarvis was livid after she saw the resulting stamp because she believed the addition of the vase of carnations was an advertisement for the floral industry.

A young girl gives her mom a handmade Mother's Day card
iStock.com/fstop123

Jarvis’s ideal observance of Mother’s Day would be a visit home or writing a long letter to your mother. She couldn’t stand those who sold and used greeting cards: “A maudlin, insincere printed card or ready-made telegram means nothing except that you’re too lazy to write to the woman who has done more for you than anyone else in the world.”

She added: “Any mother would rather have a line of the worst scribble from her son or daughter than any fancy greeting card.”

Going Rogue

Jarvis fought against charities that used Mother’s Day for fundraising. She was dragged screaming out of a meeting of the American War Mothers by police and arrested for disturbing the peace in her attempts to stop the sale of carnations. She even wrote screeds against Eleanor Roosevelt for using Mother’s Day to raise money (for charities that worked to combat high maternal and infant mortality rates, the very type of work Jarvis’s mother did during her lifetime).

In one of her last appearances in public, Jarvis was seen going door-to-door in Philadelphia, asking for signatures on a petition to rescind Mother’s Day. In her twilight years, she became a recluse and a hoarder.

Jarvis spent her last days deeply in debt and living in the Marshall Square Sanitarium, a now-closed mental asylum in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She died on November 24, 1948. Jarvis was never told that her bill for her time at the asylum was partly paid for by a group of grateful florists.

This story originally appeared in 2012.

7 Mother's Day Sales to Take Advantage of Before the Holiday

iStock.com/CatLane
iStock.com/CatLane

Still trying to figure out what to buy your mom for Mother's Day this year? Before May 12 rolls around, check out these sales that will help you get mom the perfect gift for less. And if you've already bought your mom a gift, well, there's no harm in getting yourself one, too.

1. Sur La Table

If your mom loves to cook and host, head to Sur La Table. The kitchen store is offering 20 percent off Staub cast iron cookware until May 13. It's also got longer-running sales as well—until May 20, you can get up to 70 percent off Sur La Table private label cookware and up to 40 percent off Nordic Ware bakeware. Nothing says Mother's Day like a new set of cake pans or a cast iron cocotte. (Don't be afraid to pick up a new set of dishes for yourself, too—we're sure your mom wouldn't mind.)

Find it: Sur La Table

2. Overstock.com

In advance of Mother's Day, Overstock.com is offering discounts on watches, jewelry, footwear, and more with mom in mind. Personally, we'd like to gift our mothers one of these amazingly whimsical cat watches, but for moms with more highbrow taste, there are plenty of other elegant options on deep discount. 

Find it: Overstock.com

3. Today Is Art Day

For moms who love art, science, and history, Today Is Art Day's collectible figurines offer a way to show off her favorite icons. She can prop the likenesses of Frida Kahlo, Gustav Klimt, Marie Curie, and more on her desk, or grab the brand's art-museum-themed board game for some family fun. You can get 15 percent off your purchase using the code MOTHER until May 12.

Find it: Today Is Art Day

4. Macy's

Macy's wellness-focused Goodfull brand has a lot of mom-worthy items on sale right now, including cookware, knives, kitchen appliances (we can't resist a KitchenAid stand mixer), plate sets, bed and bath products, and more. We are especially tempted by the Aerogarden countertop herb garden kit, which features automatic LED lighting and watering reminders. It's $110 off through May 12. You can also get an extra 10 to 20 percent off select sale items with the code MOM.

Find it: Macy's

5. Coach

If your mom is a fashion maven, Coach is offering significant discounts on bags, shoes, and other fashionable goods for the holiday. (While we don't exactly recommend spending more than $100 buying your mom a luxury leather keychain in the shape of a weiner dog, we also wouldn't hate it.) Use the code MOM19 to get up to 30 percent off.

Find it: Coach

6. Amazon

Whether your mom is an Alexa acolyte or a smart home skeptic, Amazon's probably got a device on sale for her. The rarely-on-sale, wildly popular Kindle Paperwhite is $40 off right now (just $90 for the most basic version). The regular Kindle (which has a lower-resolution screen and no backlight) is also on sale starting at $70. Amazon is also offering deals on Kindle Fire tablets, Ring Alarm systems, Echo smart speakers, and more.

Find it: Amazon

7. CompetitiveCyclist.com

Whether your mom is a weekend warrior or just likes to take the occasional group ride, you can get great deals on cycling gear and equipment from CompetitiveCyclist.com. With bikes, apparel, and accessories targeted at road cyclists, mountain bikers, and triathlon athletes, there's plenty to choose from. Get mom some waterproof apparel for her spring rides, invest in some nice sunglasses for her summer workouts, or go ahead and help her upgrade to her dream bike. Use the code 21VERONA for 21 percent off full-price items from now until June 2.

Find it: CompetitiveCyclist.com

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we choose all products independently and only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER