Cool Things - Christmas Tree Candle Holders
Candles in decorative holders trimmed Christmas trees in the days before electricity.
The earliest Christmas tree candles were tied to or wired around branches. Counterweighted candleholders like this one were first patented in 1867. The wire beneath the candle hooked over a tree branch and held the candle straight by means of the counterbalancing weight below. The weights were often clay and painted in festive colors; sometimes they were molded into figures or shapes. The weights could not be used on small branches because they were heavy. They also could slip off fairly easily, increasing the risk of fire.
Spring-clip candleholders (center, left) were invented in 1879 and quickly became popular. Unlike the counterweighted variety, these holders couldn't keep the candle absolutely straight, but were safer because they stayed in place on the branches. The clips frequently were decorated. Eventually their design was enhanced by the addition of an adjustable ball-and-socket joint that could be rotated to keep the candle upright.
Most early holders featured metal discs to catch wax and keep it from dripping onto other ornaments or the floor. This turn-of-the-century candle lantern (right, bottom) held dripping wax within its painted glass sides.
Kansan Harriet Adams recalled a holiday when she was just seven years old and her family was living in the north-central part of the state. The dangers of candles on a tree are evident in her description of this 1870s Christmas:
"Christmas morning we were awake early, but it was an inviolate rule that the tree could not be seen until after breakfast was eaten. So we hurried through a perfunctory meal . . . while father and mother went in . . . to light the candles. When the door was opened we marched in and clear around the tree, taking in the beauty of the candles, and the tree festooned witih strings of cranberries and popcorn and gaily colored ribbons, while we looked for the gifts hidden in the branches and protruding from our stockings. Then there was the most delightful odor of scorching cedar, and Father would keep walking around and around the tree smothering every smoking stem and keep the candles burning safely."
Many families continued to have candle-lit trees even after electric lights were available, preferring the sight of flickering candles to multi-colored bulbs. The first electrically-lit tree was in the New York City home of a colleague of Thomas Edison's in 1882 (Edison invented the light bulb). Electric Christmas tree lights quickly became the rage among wealthy Americans, but the average citizen didn't use them until the 1920s or later.
The Kansas Museum of History's collections include a variety of Christmas candle holders as well as tree ornaments.
Entry: Cool Things - Christmas Tree Candle Holders
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: November 1996
Date Modified: December 2014
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.