History of Christmas Tree Angels

Christmas angels are a staple of Christmas tree decoration

Christmas tree angel
Angels have been popular Christmas tree toppers and ornaments for a long time. I Love Images/Getty Images

Christmas angels usually appear on top of Christmas trees, representing their role in the holiday celebrating the birth of Jesus.

Several angels appear in the Biblical story of the first Christmas. Gabriel, the archangel of revelation, informed the Virgin Mary that she would be the mother of Jesus. An angel visited Joseph in a dream to tell him that he would serve as Jesus' father on Earth. And angels appeared in the sky over Bethlehem to announce and celebrate Jesus' birth.

It's that last story, of the angels high above the Earth, that offers the clearest explanation for why angels would be placed at the top of the Christmas tree. 

Christmas Tree Traditions

Evergreen trees were pagan symbols of life for centuries before Christians adopted the practice to celebrate Christmas. Ancient people prayed and worshiped outside among evergreens or decorated their homes with evergreen branches during the winter months. 

After the Roman Emperor Constantine had selected December 25th as the date to celebrate Christmas in 336 AD and Pope Julius I made that the official Christmas date several years later, the holiday fell during winter for all of Europe. It made sense that Christians would adopt regional pagan rituals associated with winter to celebrate Christmas.

In the Middle Ages, Christians began decorating "Paradise Trees" that symbolized the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden. They hung fruit from tree branches to represent the Biblical story of the fall of Adam and Eve and hung wafers made from pastry on branches to represent the Christian ritual of Communion.

The first time in recorded history that a tree was decorated specifically to celebrate the Christmas holiday was in in 1510 in Latvia, when people placed roses on the branches of a fir tree. After that, the tradition quickly gained popularity, and people began to decorate Christmas trees in churches, town squares, and their homes with other natural materials such as fruit and nuts, as well as cookies baked in a variety of shapes, including angels.

Tree Topper Angels

Christians eventually took up the practice of placing angel figures on top of their Christmas trees to symbolize the significance of the angels who appeared over Bethlehem to announce Jesus' birth. If they didn't use an angel ornament as a tree topper, they usually used a star. According to the Biblical story of Christmas, a bright star appeared in the sky to guide people to Jesus' birthplace.

By placing angels on the top of their Christmas trees, some Christians were also making a statement of faith intended to scare any evil spirits away from their homes.

Streamers and Tinsel: Angel 'Hair'

Soon after Christians began decorating Christmas trees, they would sometimes pretend that angels were actually decorating the trees, as a way of making the Christmas festivities fun for children. They wrapped paper streamers around Christmas trees and told children that the streamers were like pieces of angel hair that had been caught in the branches when the angels leaned in too closely to the trees while decorating.

Later, after people figured out how to hammer out silver (and then aluminum) to produce a shiny type of streamer called tinsel, they continued to use it on their Christmas trees to represent angel hair. 

Angel Ornaments for Christmas Trees

The first angel ornaments were handmade ones, such as angel-shaped cookies baked by hand or angel ornaments fashioned out of natural materials like straw. By the 1800s, glassblowers in Germany had invented glass Christmas ornaments, and glass angels began to adorn many Christmas trees throughout the world.

After the Industrial Revolution made it possible to mass-produce Christmas ornaments, many different styles of angel ornaments were sold in large department stores. 

Angels remain popular Christmas tree decorations today. High-tech angel ornaments implanted with microchips (that enable the angels to glow from within, sing, dance, talk, and play trumpets) are now widely available.