The glittering, metallic strips known as tinsel were the first mass produced Christmas tree decorations and originated in Germany around 1610. Germany's das lametta, comes from the diminutive form of the Italian word, lama which means blade.
While the very beginnings of tinsel are vague, it is known that the first tinsels were sheets of silver alloy hammered until paper thin and then cut into narrow strips. Soon, machines were developed by silversmiths to press the silver into the strips that would then be hung on the Christmas trees of German families. These early tinsels were reused from year to year but problems did occur. Silver tarnishes when not used or kept close to the skin so often despite careful removal and packing, the tinsel would be blackened with tarnish when unpacked for the next Christmas. It is also thought that the smoke from the Christmas tree candles left blackened areas on the silver tinsel.
*The Legend of tinsel.
There are a few legends associated with why tinsel is used to decorate the Christmas tree. Tinsel symbolizes light with its reflective surface and light in any form is considered to be strong magic against the powers of darkness. A commonly shared legend comes from Germany and centers on the Christ Child. There are several versions but the basic story is as follows.
A poor widow woman with many children had spent the evening working hard to prepare the family's Christmas tree on Christmas Eve. After she had decorated the tree to perfection, she went to bed thrilled that she'd be able to give her children a beautiful sight in the morning. As the family slept, spiders crept and crawled through the tree spinning webs through branches and decorations. When the Christ Child saw what had happened he knew the widow would be sad when she saw her present to her children covered in webs. He touched the webs and changed them to glittering silver to light the room and the poor family's Christmas morning.
*Tinsel travels to England.
Tinsel is thought to have made its first public appearance in England in 1846. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were illustrated in the Illustrated London News, standing with their children around a Christmas tree decorated with tinsels, candles, and small bead ornaments. Because of Queen Victoria's popularity, the Royal family's decorated tree became the height of fashion sweeping through both the British and East Coast American Societies.
*Evolution of tinsel.
Craftsmen eventually attempted to make tinsel out of a mixture of lead and tin, but it was impractical due to its heaviness and the tinsel would tend to break down under its own weight. Pewter was also used to some degree but silver was the main material for tinsel, a status symbol of wealth, until the early 1900's.
In the 1920's, aluminum based tinsels were developed. These new tinsels were cheaper to produce and therefore much more affordable to a larger number of the population. During the 1920's and 1930's, icicle tinsel or eis lametta, was at its most popular as Christmas dcor.
The 1950's brought tinsel made out of aluminized paper. Unfortunately this material was a fire hazard, especially when coupled with hot tree lights and dry indoor trees.
Modern tinsel is now made from PVC or polyvinyl chloride. The problem with PVC is that it is difficult to recycle and it contains a controversial amount of toxicity.
Tinsel is still a beautiful addition to a Christmas tree but there are safer and more "green" alternatives to achieving that sparkle and shine. Shiny beaded garlands in silver, gold, or metallic colors are readily available in most holiday aisles of your local store. Look for silver and metallic bows or even paper chains as tinsel substitutes as these sparkling alternatives can be easily stored and reused from year to year. If your holiday decorating tradition is not complete without tinsel on the tree, use it minimally and reuse the glittering strips next year.