Victoria & Albert Decorate the Christmas Tree
Illustration from Godey's Lady's Book, December 1860.
"The fir tree was put into a great tub filled with sand... The servants, and the young ladies also decked it out. On one branch they hung little nets, cut out of colored paper; every net was filled with sweetmeats; golden apples and walnuts hung down as if they grew there, and more than a hundred little candles, red, white and blue, were fastened to the different boughs. Dolls that looked exactly like real people-- the Tree had never seen such before-- swung among the foliage, and high on the summit of the Tree was fixed a tinsel star. It was splendid, particularly splendid. "This evening," said all, "this evening it will shine."
The first Christmas tree was introduced into England in the early 19th century. In 1841 the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated a large Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, reminiscent of his childhood celebrations in Germany (the Christmas tree had been a deep-rooted German tradition since the 18th century).
The Prince, writing to his father, said: “This is the dear Christmas eve on which I have so often listened with impatience for your step, which was to convey us into the gift-room. Today I have two children of my own to make gifts to, who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas-tree and its radiant candles.”
That same Christmas, Queen Victoria wrote in her journal, “To think that we have two children now, and one who enjoys the sight already (the Christmas-tree); it is like a dream.”
Many Christmas customs were transplanted from country to country in the nineteenth century. The Christmas stocking was from Belgium or France; while the “Merry Christmas and Happy New Year” was the old English greeting shouted from window to street and from street back to window. Natives of Jamaica brought Christmas masks and mummers, while Santa Claus (St. Nicholas) came from Holland. The most exceptional tradition, the richly decorated and splendidly illuminated old-fashioned Christmas tree, was from Germany.
Soon after, it became a Victorian Christmas tradition in England to set up a large tree at Christmas and decorate it with lighted candles, candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and by paper chains. German settlers had brought this tradition to North America as early as the 17th century and decorated Christmas trees were also the height of fashion in America by the 19th century.
Most families bought and carried home their tree many days before the eventful night. The trees,
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 homes of
the wealthy. They ranged in price from a few cents to more than half
a dollar. A tree of moderate size was conveniently placed in a
small tub and filled in with
stones, coal or anything to keep it secure and steady. The
smaller Christmas trees were generally fastened onto a flat
board, surrounded with crude fence-rails and carpeted with moss
for grass. A minature landscape or Christmas putz made out of paper at the
foot of the 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.
The goose feather tree became the first artificial Christmas tree. Metal wire or sticks were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. While it was the German immigrants that introduced the feather Christmas tree into the U.S., the practice of using artificial trees really did not take off in America until Sears Roebuck first advertised artificial trees for sale in their 1913 catalogs. The feather Christmas tree is now a popular decorating choice for people with period homes.
Most old-fashioned Christmas trees were decorated with hand-made holiday ornaments and decorations. Homemade paper cornucopias, filled with sweets, fruit, nuts and popcorn garland hung on many trees. Raisen and nut garland, gilded English walnuts, and glazed orange baskets were fun Christmas tree decorations for families to make. Glass Christmas tree balls, hand crafted in Lauscha, made their first appearance on American trees in the 1860s, primarily in the homes of German immigrants.
Paper designs of Christmas ornaments were printed in ladies' magazines, and would provide hours of fun the days before the holiday. Other early ornaments were made of lead and formed into flat geometric shapes, such as stars and crosses. "Store bought" Christmas tree ornaments were introduced around 1870 and quickly began to replace the homemade (usually edible) decorations. Most were crafted in Germany, from Dresden and tiny villages in the Thuringian Mountains. From the 1870s to 1890s, many Victorian Christmas trees were trimmed with ornaments formed with wax in the shape of angels and children. Also cotton-wool ornaments were used, crafted with embossed paper faces, trimmed with buttons, powered glass and gold paper wings.
If there is one thing inseparable from a traditional Victorian Christmas, it is — the Christmas cracker. The original crackers were love tokens; neither more nor less. They were simply bits of twisted and fringed colored tissue paper, with a sweet and a little verse inside; and they were called "Kisses." In the early days each confectioner bought his own materials and made his own crackers. Tom Smith & Co. was the first company to start manufacturing crackers in England and the major mass producer of the Christmas cracker in late Victorian England. In 1891, they manufactured nearly eleven million in a single season. The Victorian Christmas cracker in its finer form of crimson and gold and cream and silver is an English holiday tradition that has presented many moments of merriment for generations.