Celebrating Christmas Baubles
A Sparkling History
Christmas decorations have an ancient history. Long before the arrival of Christianity, people in the northern hemisphere marked the return of the sun on the winter solstice by adorning their temples and homes with evergreen boughs.
It is thought that the tradition of decorating fir trees dates back to 16th century when some Christians began to celebrate ‘Adam and Eve’ day in mid-winter. Open air plays telling the story of creation were a popular feature of these celebrations, but they were soon banned by the clergy who regarded the plays as heathen practices. As a result, the celebrations moved inside and focused around ‘paradise trees’ - fir trees hung with fruits symbolising the Garden of Eden. These trees were often accompanied by pyramids made from branches held together with rope, onto which some families attached candles in an early precursor to the fairy light.
The Christmas we know today is a product of the 19th century. The first written record of glass baubles dates back to 1848 when artisans in the German town of Lauscha began to produce them in small workshops attached to their homes. Whole families were involved in the work. The men were responsible for blowing the glass, heating the tubing over a Bunsen burner into round or oval shapes, while the women and children did the embellishments. This was a lengthy process. The first stage was to apply a silver nitrate solution to the insides of the ornaments so they would reflect light. The ornaments were then hung from rows of nails attached to boards on the ceiling and left to dry overnight. The next day, each bauble was dipped in brightly coloured lacquer and decorated with paint, ribbons, spun glass, or feathers. Finally, the glass stem was cut and a metal hanger attached.
At first simply an obscure local tradition, these beautiful baubles soon became popular, spreading across Germany and then into neighbouring Poland and Czechoslovakia. Glassmaking is an ancient Polish craft – there are archaeological and written records of glass objects as far back the 10th century – so when these German-made glass baubles began appearing in the homes of affluent Poles in the mid-1800s, native glass makers took note. A new tradition was born.
A Polish Tradition
The Polish glass industry surged as demand for these beautiful blown glass baubles grew. But with the outbreak of war, everything changed. Some glass workshops began producing again as early as 1945, but Communist rule meant they were subject to strict economic and religious regulations, and it wasn’t until the 1989 revolutions and the end of Polish Communism that both production and demand really picked up.
Today, there are an estimated 320 producers of Christmas decorations in Poland, many of them specialising in hand-painted glass baubles, and the country is the third-largest exporter of Christmas decorations in the world. (China is first, followed by the Netherlands.) The biggest manufacturer, Vitbis, reputedly makes around 100,000 baubles a day. Polish baubles – known as ‘bombka’, or ‘banka’ – are highly prized and can be found decking the trees of political leaders and A-list celebrities around the globe. One company, Słodyczka, has sold its hand-blown ornaments to the White House, Elizabeth Taylor, Elton John, and Oprah Winfrey.
Polish glass baubles are generally manufactured in the southern part of the country and Krakow itself is a bauble-lovers dream. The Sukiennice building (Cloth Hall) in the Old Town Market Place is one of the best spots to buy traditional apple-sized spheres painted in glossy red, blue, or gold and decorated with geometric patterns, while the bauble shops of the Old Town district offer a dizzying array of shapes, patterns, and sizes. There are even stores such as Calik on Rynek Glowny, which will create bespoke baubles, just for you.
Discover our Festive Holiday to Krakow, and other magical Winter Wonderlands, here