The tiny houses that are lighting up our Christmas windows

Christmas traditions may feel timeless, yet our choice of decorations can reveal a lot about our cultural preoccupations. In recent years, tinsel trees topped with plastic angels fell out of favour and were replaced with real pines, holly wreaths and baubles made of glass or wool. And this year, the favoured adornment for many British mantelpieces is set to be a group of twinkly Christmas houses and windowsills.

The miniature ornamental buildings – usually featuring a candle or an LED light shining from within – are now available for every budget and aesthetic whim. A simple set of cardboard houses from Flying Tiger Copenhagen costs under a fiver, while a Georgian townhouse in hand-painted Wedgwood pottery is £120.

Sales of John Lewis’s white battery-lit ceramic house increased by 80% in the past week, and sales are up 34% on this time last year. On Etsy, the craft and handmade goods marketplace, searches for Christmas houses are up 14%. Laura Ashley’s LED-lit ceramic Christmas house just sold out in six weeks, with the simple white ornament accounting for 37% of the brand’s total sales last week.

“People want to create a cosy glow as they arrive home,” says Laura Ashley’s head of design, Helen Armitage. “Dressing windowsills with decorative items, like light-up houses, makes a home feel inviting, especially over the festive period.”

Christmas house decorations are thought to have originated in the Moravian church, one of the oldest Protestant denominations, founded in central Europe back in the 15th century. The little wooden villages would be placed under pine trees encircling nativity scenes. The tradition spread to the US when church members emigrated in the 18th century, and flourishes there to this day.

It represents an interesting shift in Christmas celebrations. The average UK windowsill is today more likely to be adorned with a candlelit cottage than a nativity scene.

Fatih Deveci, founder of Norrska, a Manchester-based design studio that makes exquisite Christmas houses from paper, thinks such decorations appeal to a broad audience. “The Christmas spirit has a remarkable ability to unite people of different beliefs. This, perhaps, is why people with varying religious affiliations – or with none at all – are showing a heightened interest in secular Christmas decorations.”

Many of the designs currently selling well are shaped like houses from typical Scandinavia, where these little models are sold by design brands such as Broste Copenhagen and Ferm Living. Interest in Scandi style is a nod to the enduring legacy of the trend for hygge – the Danish sense of cosiness and comfort, often complemented by candlelight – which is something that many people crave, especially at Christmas.

Danielle Patten, director of creative programmes and collections at the Museum of the Home in London, says: “Most of us live in urban areas, so we feel disconnected from traditional visions of Christmas. These vignettes are a light touch, an affordable way of realising that idealised festive aesthetic.”

In recent years, Christmas decorations have been dominated by quirky ornaments referencing pop culture, such as baubles shaped like pug dogs, David Bowie or avocados. Simple houses emitting the warm glow of candlelight are a change of pace.

Patten says desire for the comforting and traditional often coincides with periods of social and economic upheaval. “This happened in the 1800s as a result of industrialisation and urbanisation. There was a revival of traditional Christmas customs … seen as a link to the ancient past and a constant that people could cling to in the changing world.”

The Museum of the Home holds an annual winter yard sale, where visitors can buy decorations from local makers. Patten says the popularity of ornaments is also influenced by the practical restrictions of the home being decorated. “Average home size is shrinking, especially for younger people and first-time buyers, so miniature houses are an easy way to look festive without having to rearrange all your furniture. This follows a trend in interest in miniatures which has been rising steadily for the past decade.”

Deveci hopes that setting out the Christmas houses will become as much a tradition as decorating the tree: “What makes Christmas villages truly special is their ability to transport people to an imaginary world. I hope our Christmas villages facilitate a sense of togetherness, resulting in beautiful memories shared by all.”