Homeowners’ Guide to Christmas Ornaments

Updated: Dec. 19, 2023

Trim the tree and deck the halls with our Christmas ornament guide, including the history, types and infinite variety of Christmas ornaments.

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No Christmas tree is complete without Christmas ornaments, whether they’re treasured family keepsakes, simple colored balls or color-coordinated sets fit for the cover of a magazine. Since Christmas trees first appeared in Northern Europe in the 1500s, ornaments have been a big, beautiful part of the story.

Why Are There Ornaments on Christmas Trees?

While the Christmas trees we now associate with the holiday originated in 16th-century Germany, the tradition of decorating trees or evergreen boughs goes back much further, possibly to the ancient Romans and Egyptians.

Other early societies worshiped trees, and the “tree of paradise” — decorated to represent the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden — was a common theme in early Medieval folk culture. Later, the triangular-shaped trees became a symbol of the Christian trinity, and of new life as associated with the birth, death and resurrection of Christ.

The earliest European Christmas trees were decorated with colorful fruit, sweets and baked goods. Hand-blown glass ornaments soon followed, and their shapes eventually took on Christian symbolism. In the 1880s, entrepreneur F.W. Woolworth had the genius idea to import the first glass Christmas ornaments from Germany to the U.S. The success of that venture helped him launch his fabled chain of five-and-dime stores.

Woolworth’s may have sold those early ornaments for a few pennies apiece, but times sure have changed. In 2013, a British jeweler made the world’s most expensive Christmas ornament. Encrusted with diamonds and rubies, it was valued at $136,000!

While people still decorate their trees with stars, angels and other Christian symbols, just as many ornaments are purely decorative. Whatever their meaning, modern ornaments are add beauty, bring joy and give a personalized touch to every tree. Wondering when to start decorating? Here find out when to put up Christmas decorations.

Types of Christmas Ornaments

The most common materials for modern Christmas ornaments are glass, metal, plastic and wood. Ornaments come in a nearly infinite number of shapes, but here are some of the most common ones:

  • Ball ornaments. The popular standard Christmas ball ornament can be made of metal, glass or plastic. It may be solid- or multi-colored, hand-painted or even made of hand-blown glass. They may be the original Christmas ornament shape, thought to mimic that of apples. Ball ornament sets can create base decoration for your tree, which you can then personalize with more ornaments. We also love this festive 12 Days of Christmas set available from Amazon.
  • Shaped ornaments. Often made of glass, plastic or lightweight metal, these shiny, clear or colorful ornaments may be shaped like bells, teardrops, or icicles and snowflakes. But it doesn’t end with basic shapes. Cast metal, glass or plastic ornaments can represent virtually any object, including snowmen, Santa, animals, fruit and vegetables or famous monuments.
  • DIY ornaments. Christmas ornaments are often handmade by school kids, and get handed down through generations. Ornaments made of wood, especially hand-painted ones, can add a rustic touch to the tree. Wood is a forgiving ornament material because it won’t break if dropped or packed carelessly. It’s also a good option for homemade ornaments, like ones made from these pre-drilled wood natural wood slices. Check out these other easy ideas on how to make ornaments.
  • Keepsake ornaments. Many families make it a tradition to buy one new, distinctive ornament every year. These ornaments then evoke special memories, especially as the kids get older. Hallmark issues a new collection of Keepsake Ornaments every year and some have become collectors’ items. Family keepsake ornaments might be handmade, evoke memories of a special vacation, or be real splurges, like these ornaments studded with Swarovski crystals.
  • Novelty ornaments. In addition, there are ornaments made like mini-stuffed animals and ornaments that light up or play music.

Christmas Ornament Themes

Some households like to decorate their Christmas trees with a color theme. That may be traditional green and red, or maybe something more unusual, like purple or even black — hmm, maybe interesting on a white tree?

There are options for combining faiths and holidays, such as Kwanzaa-themed ornaments in Hanukkah colors. Then there are ornaments that seemingly have little to do with Christmas, such as ornaments for Peanuts, Star Wars and even Fortnite-themed trees!

Where To Buy Ornaments

Mass-produced Christmas ornaments are available at retailers across the U.S. Home improvement centers, department stores, drug stores, discount stores and supermarkets typically devote several shelves or aisles to ornaments, trees, lights and other decorations.

Specialty ornaments can be found at smaller gift shops, while one-of-a-kind handmade ornaments are popular items at seasonal markets and street fairs. If you happen to be in Europe around the Christmas holidays, you’ll find delicate glass ornaments available for sale at traditional, old-world Christmas markets. In Frankenmuth, Mich., Bronner’s Christmas Wonderland is open year-round and bills itself as the world’s largest Christmas store.

It may be harder to get out and shop this year, but there are plenty of online options for ornaments. Those include the crafty retailers at Etsy, specialty Christmas sites like ExclusivelyChristmas or established home retailers like Crate & Barrel.

How To Make Ornaments

Handmade Christmas ornaments are among the most special family keepsakes, especially those made by school-age children. Across the U.S., Michaels stores sell DIY Christmas ornament kits, many suited to young crafters. Grown-up DIYers might try more elaborate kits.

Crocheted or knit ornaments are also a popular DIY option. Or if you’ve got scissors, felt, a hot glue gun and a good sense of creativity, you can invent your own designs. Then don’t forget the original DIY tree decorations — popcorn and cranberry strings. While they’re not edible once they’re on the tree, they’re lots of fun to make.

Where and How To Hang Ornaments

  • Order, order: Hang Christmas ornaments on the tree after you’ve strung and lit the lights, so you can gauge spacing and effect.
  • Numbers game: One rule of thumb is to hang 10 to 12 ornaments for every foot of tree height. Use fewer for a minimalist look and more for happy overload. Regardless, space them around so that the tree looks balanced.
  • Hang time: Start with randomly hanging ornaments, filling in gaps and adjusting as needed. You don’t want ornaments of all the same size or color clustered together.
  • Weight here: If you’ve got a live tree, hang heavier ornaments on lower, thicker branches or slightly closer to the trunk of the tree. That way the branches can give them more support.
  • Hooked up: Do yourself a favor and keep a package of new ornament hooks handy when you trim the tree. Discard old, twisted, unsightly hooks, or the trash bag ties that are subbing as ornament hangers. We like these green metal hangers because they come in two sizes and blend in with the color of the tree. These more elaborate hook hangers add a pop of color and make it harder for ornaments to fall off.

Ornament Safety

  • Go high: Put precious and fragile ornaments near the top of the tree, out of reach of little paws and hands.
  • Snack attack: If you use edible items such as popcorn or candy canes, make sure they’re out of reach of pets. (Although if your cat is a tree-climber, you’ll probably want to skip edible decorations altogether.) Keep in mind, too, that mistletoe and holly are toxic to pets and kids alike, and tinsel can do serious damage to a cat’s digestive tract.
  • Hands off: Teach little kids a “look but don’t touch” rule around the tree, for their safety as well as the tree’s. For toddlers, you may even consider a baby gate around the tree. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) advises that in houses with small children, it’s best to avoid ornaments that look like candy or other food.
  • Sweep up: Check under the tree often for ornaments that might have broken or fallen when the tree got bumped. Sweep for debris and any broken pieces, and restore any fallen ornaments before the dog gets them — or does that only happen in my house?
  • Table it: If you have a medium-height tree, display it on a table to keep pets and toddlers out of reach of the tree.
  • Hang it up: For a real twist on tree trimming, try hanging an upside-down Christmas tree. The tree is suspended from the ceiling, keeping it safe and secure and leaving more room underneath for all those presents! It’s an ancient custom, but one that’s caught on as a novel, space-saving new trend.
  • Safety first: For more on keeping your home and loved ones safe during the holidays, check the CPSC’s Holiday Decoration Safety Tips.

Up next, check out these tips on how to store Christmas ornaments.