We see them everywhere in December, twinkling with lights and full of colorful ornaments, but have you ever stopped to think about how old the tradition of the Christmas tree really is, and how it came to be? From 1837 to 1901, Victoria was Queen of England, and she was so popular that we now refer to that era as Victorian times. Many people wanted to emulate Queen Victoria, and she was definitely the trendsetter for the day. Her styles were greatly regarded, as were her ideas for decorating.
The Beginnings of the Christmas tree
Queen Victoria’s husband, Albert, was a Prince of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a part of Germany. This is important in the story of the Christmas tree, because presenting an evergreen at the Winter Solstice was a German tradition from medieval times. The green of the tree signified to those early people that spring would eventually come, and everything would be green again. German Christians in the 16th Century (about 300 years before Queen Victoria) started decorating the tree for the celebration of Christmas.
In 1848 a newspaper in London, called the Illustrated London News printed an illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and the royal family decorating a tree at their home in Windsor Castle. While you can’t say that the picture went viral, it did start a trend, and by 1850 it was published in Godey’s Lady’s Book, a magazine that was based in Philadelphia and very popular in America.
Decorating the Tree
Early mid-century Victorian trees were decorated with cookies, candies, and even small gifts. Crafty Victorians quickly expanded the décor.
By the year 1870, German artisans were marketing pressed paper and molded glass ornaments and by 1888, people were starting to experiment with electric lights on trees as a replacement for the candles of previous times. By 1900, there were trees in 1 of 5 American homes, with the first White House tree being decorated by Mrs. Harrison in 1889.
A farm family’s tree in 1900 may have had a few of these purchased ornaments, but was often still mostly decorated with handmade items, such as cut out cards with ribbons attached, pieces of fruit, or popcorn balls. It may have had simple decorations, like popcorn or raisins strung with nuts, cranberries, or other bits of fruit. Since most farm homes did not have electricity at the turn of the century, a farm family’s Christmas tree would still have had candles for light, something that would have been dangerous because of fire. The candles would most likely have been lit briefly on Christmas, when the tree was still fresh.
By 1901, there were already recommendations on how to add more glisten and sparkle to the tree. An entry in the kids’ column of the New York Magazine, The Delineator, (1901) shared some new methods for trimming the tree, by recycling a household object, tin foil. It mentioned that tin foil was, “the common kind of foil to be found at the florist’s. It also comes around cakes of chocolate, rolls of cream cheese, large packages of tea, and inside the paper around tobacco.” In our kitchens today, aluminum foil is much more common, and you can use it to make the same sorts of decorations found in homes in 1901. The article talks about this decoration which, “catches the light and glistens beautifully.” Try it out yourself, following the instructions below. It involves cutting a folded piece of foil into shapes with scissors — but be sure to be careful, foil tears and bends easily. This is a great tree trimming activity to do with kids! We used aluminum foil for the examples below, but we cut them in half to begin; then followed the diagrams. The instructions state,
“You can make the trimming any length desired by pasting strips of the tinfoil together, but before joining the pieces, fold one at a time and cut slashes on each side nearly across to the opposite edge as in Fig. 1. (folded view). Unfolded the strip resembles Fig. 2;”
“Pulled (open at) each end, it opens and lengthens out into Fig 3.”
Our version ended up looking like this!
“Another effective trimming made of tinfoil is in the form of fringe ruching. Use three layers of the foil and cut them into fringe as in Fig 4, then take a strong, coarse string and twist the tinfoil fringe around and around it forming a rope of silvery fringe as in Fig 5.”
Our version of the fringed garland looked like this.
If you would like to read the whole article from the 1901 magazine, you can find it here.
It was so much fun to make garland for the tree at the 1900 Farm this year, we hope you try and make some to put on your tree at home. While you are decorating, remember Queen Victoria, and how the Christmas tree tradition came to be. Have a merry holiday season!
For a better look at 1870s Christmas trees, join us this Saturday, December 5 from 3pm to 7pm for a holiday open house filled with Christmas cheer! Bundle up for a horse-drawn wagon ride to visit the festive Flynn Mansion. Enjoy an old fashioned holiday social with dance music by the Barn Owl Band in the Church of the Land. Kids will enjoy printing their own holiday greeting cards, decorating cookies, making crafts, and visiting Santa Claus! Adults can shop for unique gifts in the MarketPlace Museum Store. Advanced tickets are available at www.LHF.org/Christmas.