Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Christmas Tree's Story in Britain and America #AdventCalendar2013 #Christmas

In conjunction with Ana's Advent Calendar 2013
I'm doing a post here on the Christmas tree's evolution in
Britain and America

(Note: a comment on my Advent Calendar post on Ana's blog could win you a prize of one of my eBooks.  A comment here will win you my eternal gratitude, but no prize, I'm sorry to say.)

The Christmas Tree in Britain

The Christmas tree first came to England with the Georgian Kings who came from Hanover, Germany. It is a common misconception that Prince Albert brought the Germanic custom of the Christmas tree to England. In fact, the tree was introduced in the eighteenth-century by Charlotte, wife of George III, who was reported in the 1780s and 1790s to have decorated and lit a fir tree in the house. At this time also, German Merchants living in England decorated their homes with Christmas trees.

George III, Queen Charlotte and their six children
George III's German-born queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, introduced her Christmas tree at a party she gave for children in 1800.  She had also arranged a ‘pyramid of toys upon the table’ to hand out as gifts.  Dr. John Watkins, the Queen’s biographer, wrote the following description:

"In the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins in papers, fruits and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked around and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore together with a toy and then all returned home, quite delighted. – Windsor Castle and the Christmas Tree."

Another contemporary writer penned this observation:

"A fir tree, about as high again as any of us, lighted all over with small tapers, several little wax dolls among the branches in different places, and strings of almonds and raisins alternately tied from one to the other, with skipping ropes for the boys, and each bigger girl had muslin for a frock, a muslin handkerchief, and a fan, and a sash, all prettily done up in a handkerchief, and a pretty necklace and earrings besides.

Despite the complimentary observations of the visitors, the custom of decorating a Christmas tree did not spread much beyond the royal family.  Unfortunately, the British public were not fond of their German Monarchy, so they chose not to copy their fashions, which is why the Christmas tree did not catch on in Britain at that time. A few families chose to have Christmas trees, of course, though their reasons for doing so were probably more related to the influence of their German neighbors than from copying the styles of the Royal Court.

A Regency-style tree in Colonial Williamsburg dedicated to the Prince of Wales
The primary decorations of the time were Tinsels, silver wire ornaments, candles and small beads. All these had been manufactured in Germany and East Europe since the 17th century. The custom was to have several small trees on tables, one for each member of the family, with that persons gifts stacked on the table under the tree.

Sample of small trees on tables being set up at Windsor Castle
In The Early Reign of Victoria

Queen Victoria as a child was familiar with the custom and a tree was placed in her room every Christmas. In her journal for Christmas Eve 1832, the delighted 13-year-old princess wrote, "After dinner... we then went into the drawing-room near the dining-room... There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights and sugar ornaments. All the presents being placed round the trees..."

In 1848, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were illustrated in the Illustrated London News. They were standing with their children around a Christmas Tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at Court immediately became fashionable - not only in Britain, but with the fashion-conscious East Coast American Society, too. The English Christmas Tree had arrived!

Victorian Hand-made Ornaments
Decorations were still of a 'home-made' variety. Young Ladies spent hours at Christmas Crafts, quilting snowflakes and stars, sewing little pouches for secret gifts and paper baskets with sugared almonds in them. Small bead decorations, fine drawn out silver tinsel came from Germany together with beautiful Angels to sit at the top of the tree. Candles were often placed into wooden hoops for safety.

The Mid-Victorian Tree

In 1850's Lauscha began to produce fancy shaped glass bead garlands for the trees, and short garlands made from necklace 'bugles' and beads. These were readily available in Germany but not produced in sufficient quantities to export to Britain. The Rauschgoldengel was a common sight. Literally, 'Tingled-angel', bought from the Thuringian Christmas markets, and dressed in pure gilded tin.

The 1860's English Tree had become more innovative than the delicate trees of earlier decades. Small toys were popularly hung on the branches, but still most gifts were placed on the table under the tree.

Fancy Glass Ornament
By the 1870's, Glass ornaments were being imported into Britain from Lauscha, in Thuringia. It became a status symbol to have glass ornaments on the tree, the more one had, the better ones status! Still many retained and displayed their home-made articles. The Empire was growing, and the popular tree topper was the Nation's Flag.  Some trees even displayed flags of the Empire and allied countries, making them very patriotic.

High Victorian Trees

The 1880's Christmas Trees became a glorious hodgepodge of everything one could cram on it; or by complete contrast were decorated in a delicately balanced manner, with coordinated colors, shapes and style

Floor standing trees became more popular. The limited availability of decorations in earlier decades had kept trees confined to table tops. Now with decorations as well as crafts more popular than ever, there was no excuse. Still a status symbol, the larger the tree - the more affluent the family which sported it.

Sample High Victorian Tree
The High Victorian tree of the 1890's was a child's joy to behold! As tall as the room, and crammed with glitter and tinsel and toys galore. Even the 'middleclasses' managed to over-decorate their trees. It was a case of 'anything goes'. Everything that could possibly go on a tree went onto it.  (An apt description of our tree, too, I think).

Themed Victorian Christmas Tree
By 1900 themed trees were popular. A color theme set in ribbons or balls, a topical idea such as an Oriental Tree, or an Egyptian Tree. They were to be the last of the great Christmas Trees for some time. With the death of Victoria in 1903, the Nation went into mourning and fine trees were not really in evidence until the nostalgia of the Dickensian fashion of the 1930's.

The British tree in the 20th century

Family Table Top Tree
After Queen Victoria died, the country slipped into mourning, and the tree somehow died with her in many homes. While some families and community groups still had large tinsel strewn trees, many opted for the more convenient table top tree. These were available in a variety of sizes, and the artificial tree, particularly the Goose Feather Tree, became popular. These were originally invented in the 1880's in Germany, to combat some of the damage being done to Fir trees in the name of Christmas.

The Christmas Tree in America

Just as the first trees introduced into Britain did not immediately take off, the early trees introduced into America by the Hessian soldiers were not recorded in any particular quantity. The Pennsylvanian German settlements had community trees as early as 1747.

Celebrate Christmas, and you'll pay a five shilling fine!
It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

A Colonial Style Tree
Americans did not even begin to conceive of Christmas as a national holiday until the middle of the Nineteenth century. In colonial times, Americans of different sects and different national origins kept the holiday (or did not) in ways they carried over from the Old World. Puritans, for instance, attempted to ignore Christmas because the Bible was silent on the topic. Virginia planters took the occasion to feast, dance, gamble, hunt and visit, perpetuating what they believed to be the old Christmas customs in English manors. Even as late as the early nineteenth century, many Americans hardly took notice of the holiday at all.

A Hodgepodge of Traditions

As large as America is, the holiday tended to have 'pockets' of customs relating to the immigrants who had settled in a particular area, and it was not until the telegraph and telephone opened up communication in the 19th century, that such customs began to spread. Thus references to decorated trees in America before about the middle of the 19th century are very rare.  

Like the holiday, Christmas Trees themselves were introduced into several pockets - the German Hessian Soldiers took their tree customs from the 18th century. In Texas, Cattle Barons from Britain took their customs from the 19th century, and the East Coast Society copied the English Court tree customs.

Punched Tin Ornaments
In 19th Century, American settlers from all over Europe displayed the customs of their origins. Decorations were not easy to find in the shanty towns of the West, so settlers there began to make their own decorations. Tin was pierced to create lights and lanterns to hold candles which could shine through the holes. Decorations of all kinds were cutout, stitched and glued. The General Stores were hunting grounds for old magazines with pictures, rolls of Cotton Batting (Cotton Wool), and tinsel, which was occasionally sent from Germany or brought in from the Eastern States. The Paper 'Putz' or Christmas Crib was a popular feature under the tree, especially in the Moravian Dutch communities which settled in Pennsylvania.

The mid-Nineteenth Century

By the mid-nineteenth century, however, communication and transportation revolutions made once isolated parts of the country acutely aware of each other. Immigration vastly widened the ethnic and religious pluralism that had been a part of American settlement from its beginning. Science challenged religion. New wealth and larger markets superseded old. Population swelled. The pace of life accelerated.

Like today, the swirl of change caused many to long for an earlier time, one in which they imagined that old and good values held sway in cohesive and peaceful communities. It also made them reconsider the notion of 'community' in larger terms, on a national scale, but modeled on the ideal of a family gathered at the hearth. At this cross-roads of progress and nostalgia, Americans found in Christmas a holiday that ministered to their needs. The many Christmases celebrated across the land began to resolve into a more singular and widely celebrated home holiday.

Sample decorations used from 1850-1859
By the 1850s, the majority of Americans had fallen in love with the German custom of Christmas Trees. The media introduced the custom even more widely, inspiring Americans throughout the nation to adopt the tradition as their own.  And, as the tree gained prominence in front parlors, it also assumed a place in commerce. During the 1850s, town squares began to bristle with trees cut for seasonable profits.

The American Civil War and later

Sample 19th Century American Tree
The Civil War intensified Christmas' appeal. Its sentimental celebration of family matched the yearnings of soldiers and those they left behind. Its message of peace and goodwill spoke to the most immediate prayers of all Americans. Yet the northern victory in 1865 determined the popularity and shape of the America's Christmas. Now unchallenged, customs and symbols of Yankee origin and preference came to stand for the American Christmas.

Seamlessly, the 'German-ness' of the tree receded, as Americans adopted it into their homes, and not just Christians. Even in the homes of 'the Hebrew brethren', 'Christmas trees bloomed', noted a Philadelphia newspaper in 18'77. '[T]he little ones of Israel were as happy over them as Christian children'. By 1900, one American in five was estimated to have a Christmas tree.

Candles and glass ornaments
At first, the decoration of these fragrant evergreens reflected the whim of folk tradition. Celebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and homemade trinkets. However, widely-read newspapers and ladies' magazines raised the standards for ornamentation. Homely affectations gave way to more uniform and sophisticated ones, the old style overtaken by the urge to make the tree a showpiece for the artistic arrangement of 'glittering baubles, the stars, angels, etc'.

Tree decoration soon became big business. As early as 1870, American businessmen began to import large quantities of ornaments from Germany to be sold on street corners and, later, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colous, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings. 'So many charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home', one advertisement declared.

Glass ornaments were imported into America around 1880, where they were sold through stores such as FW Woolworth. They were quickly followed by American patents for electric lights (1882), and metal hooks for safer hanging of decorations onto the trees (1892)
A close-up on how Britain's Royal Family inspired Americans to adopt the Christmas Tree Tradition


As the 1840s began, Christmas, like many other social customs which bonded society, needed new advocates. Two of the most powerful of these were the new monarch Queen Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert, whose influence on the celebration brought it into a much wider acceptance . Although the couple created far less then they are often credited with, their simple support and embracing of Christmas was influential and gave the holiday a tremendous boost.

Their personal delight and interest in Christmas became apparent soon after their marriage in 1840. That, combined with their emphasis on a happy domestic life and pleasure in the raising of their children, seems to spurred others to view Christmas as a particularly special annual event. The year-end holiday provided a respite from the daily grind of everyday life, and as a couple Victoria and Albert appeared to have enjoyed the times when domestic celebrations and rituals took center stage in their lives. Victoria herself described Christmases spent with Albert and her growing family as ‘a most dear happy time’.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and children by Franz Xaver Winterhalter 1846
Details of the royal family’s Christmases at Windsor Castle in the 1840s were spread widely by newspapers, periodicals and word of mouth. Victoria and Albert's activities set styles among much of the population, particularly among the growing middle classes. Given the royal stamp of approval, Christmas  was once again fashionable. In addition, the royal couple’s focus on their children at Christmas was a very important model, as Christmas until this time had largely been an adult festival. From the 1840s onward, children gradually became more central to the celebration. The popular view today that Christmas is ‘really for children’ would, however, have surprised the Victorians as even they still saw it as a festival meant equally for adults.

Children Mustn't See Until Christmas Day
Each year from 1841, the royal family decorated trees under which they would place gifts for one another.  In 1842 a newspaper advert for Christmas trees makes clear their fashionable cachet, German origins and association with children and gift-giving. An illustrated book, The Christmas Tree, describing their use and origins in detail, was on sale in December 1844. In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: "I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be".In fact, in 1847 Albert decorated the trees for the children himself.

The Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle published in The Illustrated London News, 1848, and republished in Godey's Lady's Book, Philadelphia in December 1850.
However, it was the tree of 1848 which was to have the greatest impact on the celebration of Christmas. In that year, the Illustrated London News printed a picture of the royal family, showing five children round the tree with their parents and grandmother. This image was widely published in periodicals at home and abroad. The London Times of December 27th, 1848, described it thus:

"The tree employed … is a young fir, about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. On each branch are arranged a dozen wax tapers. Pendant from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, and bonbonniers, and other placements for sweetmeats of the most varied kind, and all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty."

A color representation of the Victoria and Albert Christmas Tree
The royal couple also gave trees to schools and army barracks, and the fashion spread. From the late 1840s, a German springelbaum became a must for homes throughout the land. Gradually, through various media, word spread from the royal household that Christmas was indeed a ‘right joyous festival’, suitable for the time.

In fewer than ten years, the use of Christmas Trees in better-off homes was widespread. By 1856, a northern provincial newspaper contained an advert alluding casually to a family tree for Christmas as it reported on the accidental death of a woman in Somerset, whose dress caught fire as she lit the tapers on their Christmas tree. Even so, the custom of a tree in the British home had not yet spread down the social scale, as a report from Berlin in 1858 contrasts the situation there where "Every family has its own" with that of Britain, where Christmas trees were still the preserve of the wealthy or the "romantic."

North America

Godey's Lady's Book Reprint 1850 - no tiara or mustache
The woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, originally published in 1848, was copied in Godey's Lady's Book in 1850. Godey's copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen's tiara and Prince Albert's mustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene.

The republished Godey's image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, "the first influential American Christmas tree". Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, "In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850–60 than Godey's Lady's Book".

Victoria was very popular, not only with her subjects, but with Americans as well.  So, what was done at the British court became immediately fashionable—not only there, but also with our fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become common in America. So, America, it seems, is indebted to Britain for making the Christmas tree as popular as it is today in all walks of life.

Wishing you and yours a warm and happy holiday season!


  1. Wow, what a post! Wow. The photos are gorgeous, your research is amazing, and I feel like I have to read this a few more times to take in all the details.

    I wish we could still have real candles on trees, even if it is a fire hazard. The electric ones are nice, but there's nothing like the real ones.

    I did not realize Christmas trees were slow to gain acceptance in England, too.

    What I really liked what reading how Christmas wasn't originally a child-centered holiday. These days, once the kids get older it can be a little sad at Christmastime. Also if there aren't children in the family, that can be sad, too. I'd like to see us return to a holiday that's a bit more equally for adults and children.

    Thank you for an amazing series of posts, Kathryn. I learned a lot.

    Oh, and your new blog borders are pretty. So festive!

    1. I learned a lot researching these articles (and to think I originally thought they could be one article-sigh). If you hadn't had the Advent Calendar, Ana, I doubt I would have taken the time to do these, so thank you for adding to the spirit of the season, but don't forget to take care of yourself as well.

  2. Wow Kathryn...I have read all 4 posts you have done regarding the history of Christmas trees...so much information! I know you must have waded through tons more in order to compile these!

    I had never heard of feather trees before...those really sound interesting...wonder if there any still around...would love to see what they looked like.

    Thanks so much for sharing all the information!

    Hugs and Blessings...

    1. Hi Cat. I'm so glad you stopped by. The goosefeather tree is pictured in my article on Ana's blog. It's the small tree standing front of a mirror with a white angel on top. Since you asked, I had to research whether or not you can still buy them, and you can. I believe Amazon carries them and The Vermont Store has one for about sixty dollars, which is expensive since they're only about 26" tall. If anyone is interested, here is the link: http://www.vermontcountrystore.com/store/jump/productDetail/Feather_Tree_and_Stand/58586?creative=34452622818&matchtype=b&network=g&device=c&adpos=g&searchid=7SPDNONB&feedid=googlenonbrand&gclid=CJ_P8_nclLsCFYNxOgodQHYAAQ

    2. Thanks Kathryn...went back and looked at the pic on Ana's blog and then checked out the one at the Vermont Country store (which is out of stock) LOL Wow looks like they even dyed the feathers...can you imagine how much work went into each tree?!?


    3. They look a little scraggly to me in the pictures, but they were and I guess still are very popular. I can imagine a lot of work goes into making them. I didn't notice the store was out of stock since I was in a bit of sticker shock at the price. Though, I'm sure to those who have a tradition with them, they are worth the price. Thanks for letting me know.

  3. Another brilliant and well-researched article! You sure have a knack, Kathryn. I love the pictures you find, and all the insights you share. Thank you for giving your time so generously to make this season that much more special.

    1. Thank you for visiting, Trish. You are a good friend, and I hope this holiday season finds you and your very significant other well and happy through the long winter nights.

  4. Kathryn, I am very impressed! I read all 4 posts and the amount of work you did is awesome!

    I was most fascinated at how the puritans found the Christmas tree so objectionable. Also was surprised that the tree was not common until after the mid 1800's. When you grow up with such tradition's some how the idea they were once new is hard to grasp!

    Thanks again,

    Blessings and Hugs,

    1. Thank you so much for reading and commenting, George. I learned so much researching these articles. Like you both the Puritan attitude and the late adoption of the Christmas tree in both American and Britain to be surprising. The Virginia colony in America had trees, but I'm a New England girl, and I thought we had them much longer than they had. Surprise, surprise. Thanks again for dropping by.

  5. All of this information is fascinating to me. I especially love reading the British and American history here. I have two more articles to read. I really appreciate all of the time and energy you put into these posts. It has really added depth to the season for me.

  6. Corinne, thanks so much for letting me know. I enjoyed doing the research, but it's so nice to hear back that others enjoy it as well. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.

  7. The photos were absolutely beautiful and I can't imagine how much time you spent researching. Thank you so much for doing so and sharing it with all of us. I really enjoyed it and I'm not sure I will ever look at a Christimas tree in quite the same way again.

    1. Thank you so much for stopping by and commenting, Leigh. As I gaze at our manufactured tree, I'm beginning to think the branches look suspiciously like bottle brushes. I wonder.... I guess, I'll never quite look at our tree the same way again, either. :-)


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