brought from the mountain and hillsides, were of all sizes, from two feet high to a
majestic height that could graze the lofty ceilings in the decorated homes of
the wealthy. The Christmas tree ranged in price from a few cents to more than half
a dollar. Most families bought and carried home their tree
many days before Christmas eve. Very large
trees were difficult to hold in a firm position, but if securely
fastened were much more impressive after they were trimmed.
Height, with branches compact to the trunk, was an important
matter to be considered in the selection of a Christmas tree, because the
weight of the articles ornamenting it always made the branches
A Christmas tree of moderate size could be conveniently placed in a
small tub and filled in with
stones, coal or anything to keep it secure and steady. At times
colored paper was pasted over the tub, so as to hide unsightly
crevices, and then some moss
laid over all. Sometimes the tree was propped up in a
freshly painted tub filled up with dirt in which were set pots
of blooming plants and bright foliage. [IMAGE: Christmas Tree
Holder: Advertised in 1894]
smaller Christmas trees were generally fastened onto a flat
board, surrounded with crude fence-rails and carpeted with moss
for grass. Godey's Lady's Book and Magazine provided an engraving in 1876 for decorating the Christmas tree.
The illustration showed a quantity of moss placed around the
Christmas tree to
form a border for the apples, oranges, gilded nuts, and bags of
muslin and tarlatan containing sweetmeats. The books and larger
toys which could not be conveniently suspended from the branches
of the tree were laid at the base of the tree. [IMAGE: Christmas Tree
from Godey's, 1876]
set up with feather Christmas trees decorated with antique and
vintage ornaments. A Putz was a Pennsylvania-Dutch miniature
landscape, with varied figures, structures and animals that was
traditionally displayed beneath the Christmas tree. Photo
courtesy of Dresden Star Ornaments.
A little garden or farm made out of paper at the
foot of the Christmas tree furnished the children with hours of amusement.
They used mosses, minerals, shells and toy animals to make a
fine landscape -- with scraps of evergreen for trees and some
looking-glass or silver paper for a lake or river. A house on a mossy mound with a few dolls, or
woolly sheep and chickens set on the hill, were regarded as a
great achievement; as well as a fence manufactured from tiny
twigs, or a wall built out of small pieces of stone.
cow & farm girl made in Germany in the early 1900s.
Photo courtesy of Dresden Star Ornaments.
preparation, evenings before the tree arrived the diligent woman of the house was secretly
gilding and silvering nuts and ornaments, making little balloons
with fluted sides, and cutting fanciful shapes from colored papers
to adorn the Christmas tree. To increase the genuine fun for the fireside, the
children were encouraged to manufacture as much of the trimmings as possible. The easiest to
make were long paper chains that could be fastened at the top of
the tree, and allowed to drop in irregular rows.
Covered balls with
silver glitter trimmed with gold paper.
The paper chains were made by taking a long strip
of paper, two and a half inches in breadth, and doubling it
sharply down the middle; then cutting alternately from each side
of the strip, always taking care not to cut quite to the
furthest edge of the strip. When the strip was unfolded there
would be seen a delicate chain of fragile loops. The paper for
this purpose was usually the same tint on both sides.
variety of fruit was hung upon the branches -- translucent cherries,
currants, and berries of each variety with green leaves. Scarlet berries threaded upon cotton, and looped
from branch to branch, formed an effective decoration; popcorn
of white and red also looked pretty. Hard candy tied in squares
of colored tissue paper were also hung from the branches of the Christmas
cakes in fanciful and animal shapes were suspended from every
branch. Sometimes a
narrow strip of the finest cotton-wool was spread along each branch and twig to the
farthest needle-tips, to represent snow, and children
were always excited with this addition. Shreds of glittering gilt and silver foil,
which would not catch fire, was thrown over
the entire tree for a charming
the top of the Christmas tree paper flowers were arranged as their bright
colors contrasted favorably with the green branches. At times,
roses were placed here and there, in and out.
In addition stars, hearts and other shapes were
threaded on long strands and draped upon the Christmas tree. They were
made of gay colored papers. The design was first cut out of
pasteboard and then covered over with fire gilt paper, gold and
silver paper, or spangles and tinsel.
Chain of red
stars covered in glitter.
A pretty effect was produced by covering paper
with a coating of gum tragacanth or mucilage, and then sprinkled
thickly with diamond dust; this was finely powdered glass. A
single star or a chain of stars frosted in this manner over
silver paper were very effective for the top of the Christmas tree. Huge
diamonds would be represented by a drop of mucilage sprinkled
thickly with diamond dust.
Handmade Ornament: Antique scrap of girl in Victorian dress, antique paper
lace edging (for skirt ruffle), German-made spun-glass
skirt, antique Dresden paper trim, vintage Dresden paper
wings, Dresden paper medallion, antique metallic ribbon
(hanger), antique pink ribbons, early vintage French
lace trim, tiny antique lily-of-the-valley flowers. Hand
signed by Gail Giaimo. Photo courtesy of Dresden Star Ornaments.
Fairies add greatly to the beauty of the Christmas tree;
half length figures were cut out of the colored fashion plates
offered in magazines like Godey's and Peterson's.
Feet needed to be cut out and added, attached to the back of the
skirt. Great ingenuity was exercised in dressing these; tarlatan
in varied colors was used for dressing them, and then
elaborately trimmed with gold, silver lace and spangles.
Innumerable tiny ornaments and trimmings were added to the
fairies. Jewels were represented by the different shades of fire
gilt paper. A red fire gilt heart pierced by a golden arrow
studded with jewels was one design; so was a moon with a profile
Cornucopias were always pretty, especially when
filled with sweets. They were easily made out of colored or gilt
paper, lined with white paper and bordered with lace paper, or a
moss trimming of tissue paper.
Handmade cornucopias. Photo courtesy of Dresden Star Ornaments.
walnut shells suspended from colored ribbons looked pretty. The
walnuts were covered with gilt paper, or dropped in liquid gold
and placed on a board to dry. The two shells were glued together
before they were gilded, with the ribbon glued on upon one end.
Pine cones were also painted with gold or silver
metallic paint (the type used on radiators) and hung from the
branches. After the cones were painted and dried, they were tied
with bright colored narrow ribbons and attached to the Christmas tree
either in groups or separately. Chains of macaroni, painted with
the same metallic paint and mixed with colored beads, were
another decorative addition to the tree. Acorns bunched together
were also an attractive decoration.
came the tree candleholders -- the most worthy decoration -- whether they were the dozens of elegant polished sockets which supported the
pure wax tapers in the Fifth Avenue mansion, or the half dozen twisted bits of tin which the poor
woman who worked all day in the factory had carefully
saved. One magazine recommended that a "dignified tree" be
decorated with candles only, except for a few gaily wrapped
gifts among the branches. The more candles there were, the more
beautiful the effect, especially if all the candles were red.
Variations were all green candles or a tree of assorted colors.
If white candles were used, the tree was sprinkled with
large gifts that were too heavy to be hung on the tree were
usually arranged at the base of the tree, or packed in a hamper
hidden from sight by flowers or plants. When the tree was fully decorated, the children
went round and round the tree, pointing to each fruit by name, to the tri-colored paper chains and tissue
wrapped candy, to the gilded nuts and painted pine cones, to the
spirals of tinsel springing with every motion of the boughs,
and to the flickering candles in their polished holders -- and laughed delighted if a twig was scorched by a
flame and sent out its well-loved
Victorian Christmas tree, c1889
The Christmas tree decorations were kept from year to year,
from generation to generation -- each year some new and special
ornaments being added.