Glenn Uminowicz: December 2005
The first two lines of the third verse of the traditional German carol O Christmas Tree certainly ring true. Over time, its boughs have taught lessons about how the holidays are celebrated both in America and on the Eastern Shore.
Like so many Christmas traditions, we inherited the idea of decorating a tree from the Victorians. The custom migrated to America from Germany via Queen Victoria’s Britain. German immigrants to this country brought the practice of decorating a tree with them as early as the 18th century. The woman often credited with truly popularizing the idea in 1850 was Sara Josepha Hale, the editor of the widely read Godey’s Lady’s Book.
Hale published a revised version of an engraving that had appeared in 1848 in the London Illustrated News. The original image pictured Queen Victoria and Prince Albert standing near their decorated tabletop tree. In the Godey’s version, the Queen and Prince were shorn of their royal trappings and the scene was recast in an American middle-class parlor. The Christmas tree not only received a royal blessing; it conformed to accepted standards of Victorian propriety as well.
In the mid-19th century, Hale’s endorsement of the Christmas tree did not go unchallenged. Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year held a special meaning for people in the winter. In part because decorated trees had ancient pagan associations, they were not universally accepted in either the United States or Britain. In 1883, for example, a New York Times editorial writer denounced the Christmas tree as a “rootless, lifeless corpse” unworthy of being associated with the day of Christ’s birth.
In America, however, the long-term trend favored the acceptance of the decorated evergreen. In 1888, an editorial writer for an Easton newspaper observed, “We are indebted to the Germans for the ‘Christmas-tree,’ which was but the outcome of the ancient Yggdrasil tree or ever-blooming ash. In the ancient heathen mysteries of that people, the Yggdrasil tree was represented as springing up and bearing all manner of fruits and blessings for all mankind.” The ancients celebrated the winter solstice with “revels and drunkenness and by protracted feastings.” Like Hale, however, the Easton newspaper editor felt that a Christianized version of the Christmas tree proved a holiday tradition appropriate for Americans.
By the late 19th-century, notices concerning Christmas trees regularly appeared in Eastern Shore newspapers. In 1890, for example, the Baptist Church in Cordova provided a handsome tree for the Sunday school class on Christmas Eve. A reporter noted, “The church was filled with happy children, parents and friends. The distribution of presents was interspersed with short speeches and singing.”
The Christmas Eve activities in Cordova served as an example of how the Christmas tree tradition gained acceptance in the United States. In 1900, estimates are that as few as one in four American families had a decorated tree in their homes. Most people first encountered evergreens as holiday decorations in public places, such as a church, country school or grange hall. Activities associated with a tree most often involved children like the Cordova Sunday school scholars.
In the 19th century, trees were decorated with small gifts and edibles such as cookies or small containers of candy. In the course of a holiday evening, a tree was literally stripped to its bare branches as the presents were distributed.
From the churches, the practice of decorating with evergreens moved into the home. In 1905, an Easton newspaper reporter noted, “Christmas is nearly here. Evergreens, mistletoe, etc., are sought after by the young ladies, while the children are anxiously looking for a ‘fine’ Christmas tree.” In terms of its decorations, the home of Capt. John W. Martin stood among the most outstanding in town. The reporter observed, “The house was most beautifully trimmed in Christmas evergreen, the balustrade being decorated with freshly cut pine, so that the odor of a southern fir forest permeated the entire house.”
Many Victorian Christmas reminiscences mention the smells associated with the holiday. Especially in rural areas like the Eastern Shore, trees and greens were cut close to Christmas day. These fragrant, freshly cut greens did fill houses with the odor of pine. Some Victorians fondly remembered the scent of pine mixed with the odor of burning candles on the tree.
Because trees were cut much closer to Christmas Day, there were remarkably few Christmas tree fires in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In fact, it might be argued that the danger of a blaze was greater when electric lights were first introduced than in the era of candle-lit trees. Candles burned for only brief periods of time such as when the parlor doors swung open for the family on Christmas Eve. Someone was always assigned to stand at the ready with a bucket of sand or water if disaster occurred.
The absence of reports of tree fires is all the more remarkable given how trees were decorated in the Victorian era. Blown-glass ornaments were expensive and people bought just one or two each year. Trees were decorated mostly with homemade, handmade decorations. Paper chains and strings of popcorn served as garlands. Throughout the year, mothers collected “scraps”—bits of ribbon, cloth and chromolithographed magazine illustrations. During the holidays, children used the scraps to make paper decorations in the shape of sleighs, teapots, shoes, wagons, horses, crosses, houses and other forms. Field-grown trees with large gaps between the branches accommodated paper decorations one foot or more in length. Needless to say, great care was taken not to place a candle directly under a paper horse and wagon.
The use of store-bought ornaments began in the last quarter of the 19th century. In 1880, dime store millionaire F.W. Woolworth began offering blown-glass decorations. Initially, he did not hold out much hope that they would sell, since no one would know what they were for. Woolworth remembered, “With a great deal of indifference, I put them on my counters. In two days they were all gone.” Woolworth eventually sold millions of dollars of blown-glass decorations imported from Germany.
The introduction of store-bought ornaments eventually altered American attitudes about the Christmas tree. Noting the presents that hung on Victorian trees, historian Karal Ann Marling describes them as a “holiday spectacle of merchandise” akin to department store display windows. The bounty on a tree served as a reflection of the economic status of the family that decorated it. Conversely, the tree also symbolized largesse, as it was stripped of presents distributed to family members and friends. Marling concludes, “The Christmas tree is both an object of wonderment and a joyous ceremony of sanctified greed.”
Today, the holiday spectacle of merchandise rests in brightly wrapped boxes beneath the tree. Now adorned with a profusion of store-bought ornaments, the modern Christmas tree offers a rare opportunity to create an aesthetic object with family and friends. That opportunity is reflected in the annual search many families undertake to locate the “perfect tree” and in the profusion of decorating advice to be had on magazine racks. The term “conspicuous consumption” was coined in the Victorian era and Christmas trees reflected the concept. In the 21st century, our choice of decorations is more likely influenced by arbiters of public taste like Martha Stewart. O Christmas tree, O Christmas tree, your boughs do teach a lesson.