Some of the earliest tree-topping Christmas angels were made in 18th-century Germany. The figures were often formed of plaster on a composition armature, with bodies of sawdust and robes of brass-foil-covered paper. Some late-19th-century Nuremberg angels wear paper-and-foil crowns, while others are backed by pleated paper wings and wrapped in matching paper skirts. These pieces are very collectible today precisely because they are so fragile.
By the 20th century, construction materials such as composition, paper, and cardboard were still in common use, but fabric had replaced paper for angel skirts and other articles of clothing. Angels were attached to treetops by cardboard tubes, glass cylinders, or small springs. Some angels, like those made by Noma and other manufacturers, lit up; others caught light in starbursts made of spun glass radiating behind cotton clouds.
Below the treetop, hanging from the boughs of the tree itself, glass angel ornaments peeked through pine needles and branches of fir. Makers of embossed and hand-painted paper Dresden ornaments from the end of the 19th century also favored angels. Some were rendered as full figures; others were depicted as small flying putti. One of the most common types of Dresden angels featured just a disembodied head, with wings and a small halo framing the ornament’s childlike face.
At the turn of the 20th century, one of the most popular uses of angels was in metal chimes, which spun and rang thanks to heat generated by strategically placed candles. Between the world wars, Japan was a leading exporter of Christmas angels made of everything from celluloid to porcelain—Yona was one of the most recognized porcelain manufacturers. By the 1930s, both German and U.S. Christmas angels had graduated from celluloid to even harder forms of molded plastic—the numerous examples of German-made child angels dressed in white and beating toy drums or playing other musical instruments are especially charming.
After World War II, Christmas angels from Mexico, Central America, and South America were exported in large numbers. Many of these married traditional angel motifs with the iconography of local folk traditions—wood and earthenware were typical of the materials.
While Christmas trees were perhaps the favorite haunts of angels, the figures also found their way into other parts of the home during the holidays. German angel-shaped music boxes were quite popular, as were angel-themed ceramic bells. And many an angel graced a family’s decorative holiday platter, ensuring, perhaps, that the food presented to guests would be tasty and warming to the heart.