Celebrate our anniversary with a century of Christmas tree decorating ideas, straight from the pages of Better Homes & Gardens.
Published on November 10, 2022
Each holiday season is heralded by treasured traditions and decor that taps into cherished memories. And perhaps no item is more synonymous with the season than the Christmas tree.
While decorating homes with evergreens during winter actually dates back to the Romans, Druids, and Vikings, the Germans are credited with displaying the first Christmas tree in the 16th century. In 1846, the tree went viral (well, the mid-1800s version of viral) when Queen Victoria of England decorated a tree as a nod to her husband’s German heritage. When an illustration of the royal family standing around the tree was published in newspapers, having a Christmas tree became the hottest new interior design trend. And soon, the practice was firmly planted in the American holiday tradition.
To celebrate our 100th anniversary, we’re taking a look back at the past century of Christmas trees featured on pages of Better Homes & Gardens—from 1920s clip-on candles and strings of cranberries to today’s LED fairy lights and felted wool ball garlands.
BETTER HOMES & GARDENS PHOTO:
BETTER HOMES & GARDENS
1920s: Fresh-Cut Trees and Electric Lights
The fresh fragrances of pine, fir, and spruce are hallmark aromas of Christmas. And in the early days of Better Homes & Gardens, freshly cut Christmas trees brought those beloved scents into the home—but not weeks in advance as is now custom. In a 1926 issue, writer Marjorie C. Murphy wrote that not until Christmas morning does the tree “take its rightful place in the chimney corner, glowing with color and light.”
Murphy describes the ideal tree of the time: “It stands, if possible, near the fireplace; its branches are broad and full and generous; its tip almost touches the ceiling; it sparkles and glows with color. The delicate and fragile balls that swing from the very tips of its branches are of lovely greens, strange blues, vermilion, gold, and silver. There are chains of cranberries, chains of popcorn, kindergarten chains of bright papers, and dearest of all those glittering chains of tinsel; gracing the very top is an angel or a star.”
In our 1928 December issue, writer Frank I. Solar encouraged using electric lights on the Christmas tree instead of the long-held tradition of lit candles clipped to branches. “The flicker of the Christmas-tree candles among the green boughs of the Christmas tree is a beautiful sight, but so many lives have been lost thru [sic] fires caused by the candles igniting the trees,” he wrote.
String lights were not a brand new technology—stores had been using them in displays for years—but it wasn’t until the end of the 1920s that electric lights were affordable for the average family. Solar explained that electric lights were becoming a universal practice and it was “well to substitute other Christmas-tree ornaments for the candles.”
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BETTER HOMES & GARDENS
1930s: Depression-Era Handmade Decorations
Depression-era holidays were marked by austerity rather than excess. Christmas trees were decorated with handmade ornaments as well as food like popcorn and cranberries. In 1930, Better Homes & Gardens published a letter from a reader sharing a thrify Christmas tree decor idea. Rather than burn the envelopes that Christmas cards come in, she used the patterned envelope liners to create tree trimmings.
Although faux trees were first introduced in the ‘30s, our pages touted the benefits of a living tree, suggesting a root ball that you could later plant in the garden and even bring inside year after year. In 1934, our pages featured a “jolly green tub, 14 inches wide, for your Christmas tree.” The column described a new product, now known as a tree stand—a holiday must-have that’s still a staple today.
By 1937, the world was recovering from the Great Depression and the pages of Better Homes & Gardens encouraged festivity and originality with holiday home decor. One article featured the writer’s own Christmas tree—one that lived most of the year in the garden but was brought indoors and decorated for the holidays. A black-and-white photo of the decorated tree appeared alongside a colorful description: “Our snowbound, living Christmas tree has been laden with white and silver ornaments and a few large blue balls to create shadows. The unique reindeer, whippets, airplanes, Eskimo dolls carrying tiny Christmas candles, bells, etc, have been grouped to bring out individuality. Gifts under the tree are wrapped in sparkling blue and white Cellophane to carry out the color scheme.”
1940s: Wartime Shortages and Upcycled Ornaments
For the first half of the ’40s, the United States—like the entire globe—was focused on World War II. American troops were deployed to Europe and the Pacific and the mood at home was somber but patriotic and unified in the wartime effort.
In our 1942 December issue, Fae Huttenlocher wrote, “Happiest spot in all the world at Christmas should be the home—for those doing their big part on the home front, for those back for precious hours or days from school or camp, for those unable to ‘make it,’ but just as truly here in our hearts. Let the home fires burn higher and brighter than ever this year for those who gather round them.” She wrote that Christmas decorations should “express the warm friendliness of traditional good cheer, more precious to us than ever before.”
With manufacturing focused on war efforts, decorative goods were not readily available on store shelves. Instead, our pages inspired readers to get creative in decking their halls. A 1943 story reads: “Let’s make our homes a magnet of cheer—this year as never before. It takes so little and means so much. It’s not money expenditure that counts on this occasion; it’s good taste, imagination, and ingenuity. And you’ll not need to worry about shortages if you plan ideas like these, using things you have around the house, touching them up with Yuletide green.”
In 1945, the DIY theme continued with ideas for making homemade Christmas garlands. “Tired of tinsel? Make decorative swags by stringing pinecones. Medium-sized pinecones are prettiest when brushed with silver, green, or red gilt paint from the dime store, and fastened on paper ribbon 6 inches apart.”
We also instructed readers on upcycling ornaments from household refuse. “Shiny ornaments to reflect your Christmas tree lights can be fashioned from tin can lids. Make this tin icicle by twisting the narrow trimming from a coffee can into a corkscrew shape. Those small pieces of plastic frequently found in the tops of candy or cosmetic boxes make shimmering Christmas trees.”
1950s: Shiny Brite Ornaments and Flocked Trees
Optimism and color reigned in the post-war decade when many of the 16 million American men and women who served in the war returned home. Young newlywed couples drove suburbanization and a huge baby boom. Midcentury modern style and the bright colors (think pink, yellow, and turquoise) of on-trend interiors made their way to the Christmas tree, as well. Shiny Brite ornaments, first mass-produced in the 1940s and known for their colorful designs and shapes, hit peak popularity.
In our December 1953 issue, writer Fae Huttenlocher declared, “A white tree is best.” The snowy flocked tree was a standout at the time. We now have modern instructions for how to flock a tree, but we originally gave readers the following instructions on flocking trees. “White branches are made by applying Casein, a white powder, mixed with water. It never loses its whiteness even outdoors. For indoor use, you can dip branches in laundry starch. In either case, before the branches dry, sprinkle with artificial snow. It will glitter and adhere indefinitely.”
Soon, technology brought about a tree that sparkled, sans flocking, didn’t shed its needles, and didn’t even require watering. Introduced in 1959, the Evergleam aluminum Christmas tree was an instant hit and the pioneering company behind the sparkling trees manufactured more than one million in the decade that followed.
1960s: Customized Ornaments and the Charlie Brown Tree
The ’60s were a time of modernism and the Space Race, but also a time of social upheaval, individualism, and self-expression. Home decor was mass-produced cheaply with the idea that items would be thrown away once there were no longer en vogue. Christmas decor was no exception. With these decorate-my-way and nothing-is-forever mindsets, Better Homes & Gardens coached readers to create ornaments that would fit their personal holiday scheme without breaking the bank.
In 1964, we encouraged readers to “blanket a tree with these strictly hand-crafted-at-home ornaments.” We showed readers how to turn unadorned Christmas balls into sparkling ornaments covered in sequins, velvet ribbons, paper doilies, gold foil, rickrack, and more. The nod to a reader’s ability to choose their own colors and trims and create their own decor with just a little bit of inspiration nodded to this individualistic decade.
Now considered a classic holiday treasure, the cartoon A Charlie Brown Christmas was an unexpected hit when it aired on national television in December 1965. It also ushered in a beloved new type of Christmas tree: The diminutive, sparsely branched Charlie Brown tree bloomed in popularity and has remained a steadfast trend even today.
While some families clung to freshly-cut Christmas trees, some embraced a modern look with aluminum trees, while others had a soft spot for the Charlie Brown tree. Our pages acknowledged that each tree is a celebration of the holiday season, no matter its looks. “Everyone has his own idea of how a Christmas tree should be decorated … Some trees are hung with home-fashioned ornaments, strings of popcorn, cranberries, and lopsided paper trims cut with fumbling childish fingers. Others are glowingly color-schemed and laden with exquisite glass balls.”
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BETTER HOMES & GARDENS PHOTO:
BETTER HOMES & GARDENS
1970s: Homemade Trees and Nontraditional Decorations
The 1970s turned toward the environment and all things natural, from houseplants to wood wall paneling and countertops to a color scheme of avocado green and harvest gold. This focus applied to Christmas decorating, too. The individualism from the previous decade remained and Better Homes & Gardens spoke to personal style in 1974. “With all the different kinds of trees available today—metal, plastic, flocked, and evergreen to name a few—it may take a while to find one that suits you.”
We also recommend pairing a tree with your home’s existing decor. “After all, your Christmas pine or spruce is usually placed in a spot where everyone can see and admire. It’s fitting the evergreen should strike the right accent note with your furnishings.”
A nostalgia for sewing and handcrafts, helped along by America’s Bicentennial, pushed back against mass-produced decor. In the 1970s, we offered several trees readers could make themselves. “Why not indulge in an ever-after version—one you can unroll, unwrap, or hang up at the very beginning of the holiday season before you buy the green one?” A dramatic dried-material tree is a handsome study in browns and golds, while a see-through tree made of green string and hung from the ceiling resembles a freestanding mobile. A macrame wall tree is an example of a classic craft updated for contemporary use.
The influence of the nation’s 200th birthday and nostalgia for handmade decor was reflected strongly in our pages. In our 1977 Christmas issue, we featured a collection of stitchery projects, including “calico birds and star ornaments in tree, quilts, and pillows,” along with instructions for an appliqued tree skirt, fabric garlands, and a rose wreath.
1980s: Maximalism and Monochromatic Decor
“More is more” might just sum up the 1980s perfectly. In an about-face from the 1970s earthiness and nostalgia, decor in the ’80s turned toward maximalism, bright colors (hunter green, burgundy, peach, and mauve), and patterns (think Laura Ashley florals and Ralph Lauren stripes). Home and holiday decor were now a materialistic fashion statement.
Our December issues featured trees decked in distinct color palettes (no more everything-goes ornamentation) as Christmas trees became more of an interior design element than a nostalgic tradition. In one 1981 feature, a towering tree is dressed for the season with matching gifts tucked under its lowest branches. “A crisp red and white scheme and lots of fresh greenery suit this young family’s contemporary tastes … At this time of year, the freshly cut tree becomes the focal point for family gatherings.”
Trees at the time were more about creating a cohesive look throughout the home than displaying sentimental memories or meaningful ornaments. Christmas decor also emerged as a theme, stretching beyond just the tree or a color scheme.
1990s: Themed Trees and Shabby-Chic Style
In the ’90s, beige became the color du jour for walls and furnishings. Textured, pared-back decor replaced the big, loud fashions of the previous decade. In this final decade of the 20th century, Americans emulated Old World and European styles and became enamored with the romantic, feminine look of shabby chic by Rachel Ashwell—where perfectly lived-in slipcovers paired with the sparkle of crystal chandeliers and case goods with chippy paint.
Shabby-chic style can be seen in many of the themed trees featured within our pages in this decade. One homeowner featured in our 1994 December issue decked her Christmas tree with real waffles, red-and-white bows, and clip-on candles. Another used gingerbread cookies and cranberry balls in keeping with her year-round, shabby-chic-style interior.
While themed trees were all the rage, we also encouraged readers to embrace the mismatched look of handmade and collected ornaments (even if that meant decorating a second tree). In 1995, we romanticized the Christmas tree decorating process with a shift away from a perfectly curated look. Instead, we encouraged our readers to create a focal point for their home with a collection of sentimental, meaningful ornaments—regardless of if they matched or not. “Think of your tree as a painter’s canvas, your ornaments as the oils. Then set the tone for the holidays as your decorated evergreen unfolds. For a masterpiece that’s washed in memories, add a kaleidoscope of favorite ornaments—the ones you’ve lovingly gathered over the years.”
At the end of the decade, a new column appeared on the pages of the magazine. For the first time, our BHG.com column directed readers to our recently launched website for a Christmas tree buying guide—something we still maintain to help modern-day readers choose the best live Christmas tree or pick the best artificial tree for their home.
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BETTER HOMES & GARDENS
2000s: Tree Decorating 101
The new century kicked off with a now oft-repeated, beloved-by-readers, must-have tutorial: Tree Decorating 101. In four pages, we offered shortcuts, tricks, and techniques used by our editors to achieve a magazine-worthy Christmas tree. Our step-by-step instructions walked readers through wrapping lights, draping garlands, and hanging ornaments strategically. Although not elaborate, these do-it-yourself guides showed readers how to recreate the looks displayed on our pages.
The dawn of a new century also marked the rise of the Internet age, and Americans embraced simplicity in holiday decor, with several reference to “simply decorated” trees featured in the pages of Better Homes & Gardens. This included traditional color schemes (“Green, red, and silver ornaments sparkle next to big, old-fashioned clear lights.”) and unfussy ornaments with “a cozy, country look.” In 2006, “the style is clean and simple—even at Christmas. The tree enchants with just a few types of trim.” In yet another home, a family tree is “simply decorated with a few strands of lights, colored balls, crystals, and snowflakes.”
One home, featured in 2009, seemed to herald the coming farmhouse decorating trend with its Christmas tree displayed in an old tub given to the homeowner by a farmer.
DAVID A. LAND PHOTO:
DAVID A. LAND
2010s: Jewel Tones and Instagram Looks
The 2010s brought about new ways to share interior design ideas: social media and blogs.
In December 2010, we featured a blogger’s holiday home whose distinctive tree’s creative shape, (“sticks collected from the yard ‘literally just shoved into the tree,”) became a trend of its own. Soon, those branches morphed into a resurgence of the Charlie Brown Christmas tree. While not an exact replica of the 1965 cartoon, the tree inspired a more sparse design than the traditional holiday evergreen. Instead, the updated shape—which now appears on trees of all heights—incorporates space between branches and limbs of various lengths for a more natural look.
In December 2013, we even gave this holiday tree tip: “Thin out branches before decorating the tree. Ornaments and garland will drape beautifully.” The growing popularity of the modern farmhouse aesthetic continued into the holidays with these more natural trees. Additionally, woodland creatures (squirrels, birds, hedgehogs, and more) and accessories such as pinecones, wood cutouts, and items plucked from the backyard became popular. In 2018, a “woodsy backdrop and white, black, and Army green palette” along with a faux sheepskin rug that served as a “plush tree skirt” embraced the look on the pages of the magazine.
In the mid-2010s, jewel tones also took off. In 2015, we featured a North Carolina home with “eye-popping decorations” and a tree described as “bright and bold.” The homeowner said her approach to decor was simple: “Everything I do is colorful.”
In 2017, one Christmas tree palette glittered like gemstones with hues of Amethyst, ruby, rose quartz, sapphire, and emerald. “A neutral backdrop [of white walls] means the scheme doesn’t overwhelm. Strategic hits of black, metallics, and green in [the home’s] everyday decor are grounding enough to make rainbow hues feel mature and sophisticated.”
One final blogger-driven trend: trees throughout the house, including a kids’ tree. These Christmas trees—from mini to full-sized—gave children an opportunity to decorate their own way and a place to display elementary art-class creations.
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2020s: Maximalism and Grandmillenial Style
Today’s Christmas tree trends take a page from the past, with the Charlie Brown tree silhouette and modern farmhouse aesthetic still popular. Flocked trees and jewel-tone decorations reminiscent of Christmases past also continue.
During the holiday seasons marked by pandemic isolation and loneliness, homeowners embraced maximalism. Leaning into the holiday season felt different, new, and celebratory from the endless days of sameness. In that vein, some homeowners incorporated a rich palette of plaids, others a collection of tied-on ribbons, and still others “theatrical roots and vintage finds to create a richly layered wonderland.”
Grandmillenial style, a throwback aesthetic that nods to design elements of the past, is rekindling many beloved Christmas tree decorations of yesteryear, including Shiny Brites, flocked trees, and plenty of pink.