Silver was the original material used to make tinsel, the metallic ribbons that decorate Christmas trees.
After the lights, the glass balls, the homemade kids’ ornaments, the glass Santas, and the essential star, dove, or trumpeting angel are placed on the tree comes the finishing touch of tinsel. The silvery strands of metallic glitter catch and reflect the illumination of the Christmas lights adding an extra sparkle.
For many, tinseling a tree is an art itself. In one house, perfectionists separate and place individual strands on each and every branch, making sure the tree is uniformly covered tip to bough. In a home featuring a balcony, children of all sizes release tinsel from the second floor, letting it drift down like silver snow to land randomly on the tree’s branches. In yet another house, the free-spirited residents toss a few lightweight silvery strands into the air and blow it toward the upper branches of the tree as an alternative to getting out a ladder. This last method has a tendency to adorn the decorators as much as the tree itself.
Tinsel was first used on Christmas trees in the early 1600s when the decoration was made of silver, and a machine was specially constructed to extrude the flat metallic ribbons. Although silver is a very durable metal, it has a well-known tendency to tarnish, and the process was accelerated by the burning candles that also decorated Christmas trees in that time. Lead and tin were explored as substitutes, but the high density of lead in particular, tended to cause the delicate ribbons to break under their own weight. Iron pyrite, also known as fool’s gold, was eventually established to be a reasonable option, although those ribbons also tended to be fragile, and even though the tinsel was not made of real gold, the decoration was still expensive enough that only wealthy people could afford to decorate a whole tree.
Eventually, by the early 20th century, lightweight affordable tinsel was developed using paper coated with a thin layer of aluminum. Because this material tended to be flammable and because early electric Christmas lights produced significant amounts of heat, it was especially important not to leave the lights burning no one was around. Today, tinsel is made from extruded polyvinyl chloride, and combined with the cooler temperature of modern Christmas tree lights the fire hazard is substantially reduced.
More information about tinsel may be found at http://www.christmascarnivals.com/christmas-history/christmas-history-tinsel.html