The Victorian Christmas Tree

The Victorian Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree, Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1850

The ‘door was thrown open leading into the great exhibition-room. Here was a magnificent Christmas-tree hung all over with colored wax tapers; here were tables covered with white cloths, and glittering from head to foot with the most bewitching doll-babies, work-boxes, card-cases, silk dresses, rattles, penny whistles, shawls, sashes, drawing-implements, and I don’t know what all, for big and little, with a name written upon each, and ever so many funny inscriptions to make it all the more merry.’ (An American Family In Germany, 1866, p. 183)



History Of The Christmas Tree

Victorian Christmas Tree
Victorian Christmas tree (An American Family In Germany, 1866, p. 184)

‘The Christmas tree is genuinely German in its origin. Thence it happens that it is found among the Germans alone, and that, like a stranger, it has wandered from Germany to all other lands. German poetry, German feeling, and German piety have planted the Christmas tree, have cultivated it and decorated it with its peculiar splendor.

The English have no burning, radiant Christmas tree. Scarcely a remnant of their old Saxon origin remains in their habit of adorning rooms, shops, and sacred places with branches of holly, in absence of the German fir tree. The holly is also popularly called Christ-thorn, because, according to tradition, the crown for the “Sacred Head now wounded” was woven of its branches. It is quite characteristic that, in England, where every thing is made of iron, efforts have lately been made to imitate the German fir tree in cast iron, and that gas is made to flow through the hollow branches of the “iron wood,” which serves to illuminate the metal tree. This genuinely English imitation of German custom, is called “Improved German Christmas Trees.”

Victorian Christmas Tree - Godey's Lady's Book 1860s Fashionplate
Christmas tree (Godey’s Lady’s Book, 1861, p. 457)

The French became acquainted with the Christmas tree only in this century. They say that the Duchess of Orleans introduced it at Court, and so into the circles of the highest society, during the reign of the “citizen king,” Louis Phillipe. The custom of distributing gifts at this festival, is still unknown in France. It is customary to give and receive presents at New Year, just as among the Jewish families among us. The Slavic nations received the Christmas tree also from the Germans. In foreign countries it gleams in the palaces of the rich alone, who have learned to love it, by seeing in German families or on journeys abroad.

But, in our fatherland, it beams from house to house, even in the lowliest cottages of the poor, and precisely here it has its most blessed home. German sailors, German emigrants, German missionaries have spread the German Christmas tree over all the earth. Beneath the equator, amid polar ice, in America, Africa, Australia, on the high seas, in the lonely block-house of the western pioneer, at the missionary station, in the brilliant saloon of the German merchant in the seaboard city, in the peaceful shop of the artisan, in the stirring camp of the soldier, in the Old and in the New world – the Christmas tree is erected, lighted, and adorned.’ (The Guardian, 1865, p. 22)



Victorian Christmas Tree Decorations

Victorian Christmas Tree
The Christmas Tree, Harper’s Bazaar, 1870

The Victorian Christmas tree was decorated with ‘gilded and shining fruits’: ‘apples, nuts, and all sorts of sweetmeats between burning wax-tapers.’ (The Guardian, 1865, p. 55/ p. 333)

‘The ‘Christmas tree, lighted up with tapers, and hung round with gilded walnuts and flowers.’ (Letters from Hofwyl, 1842, p. 35)

‘In Germany, the birthplace of the Christmas-tree, flowers and tapers are its chief adornment. The lighted tree stands in the middle of the family sitting-room, and round it on small tables lie the Christmas gifts, one for each person. But in England the trees generally bear more substantial fruit. Bon-bons, toys, dolls, baskets of sweets, are all appropriate, so long as each article shows up brightly or glitters against the dark background of the boughs. […] ribbon bows, strings of bright beads, loose braided chains of gilt or silver paper, will light up the boughs.

To fix the tiny tapers on the tree is always a difficult task. The best way is to push large strong pins through the twigs, with the point upwards, and impale the candles on these.’ (The Book Of The Home, 1900, p. 313f.)

‘In every case the Christmas tree is illuminated. If it is a big tree it is hung with hundreds of Chinese lanterns and candles, which throw a brilliant light over the imposing array of presents hanging from the branches which bend under the load of good things. The smalles Christmas trees are illuminated by minute candles scarcely bigger than matches.’ (San Francisco Call, 1905)

‘Then the ladies called us into another room and there was the Christmas tree! O mother! you never saw any thing so lovely! There were dozens of little candles upon it all alight. And it was covered with pretty things, gilded walnuts, and oranges, and apples, and sweets. Then there were flags, and banners of all colours.’ (Philips’ Series Of Reading Books For Public Elementary Schools, 1874, p. 57)

‘That night they trimmed the Christmas tree with such pathetic odds and ends of colored paper rosettes, gilded walnuts, popcorn strings, and wax-choked, tin candle-holders […] The lamentation over a broken crystal icicle included even the mother. “Father and I bought that the winter Letty was the baby,” she said, holding the broken glass in her big, work-hardened hand.’ (Good Housekeepin, 1919, p. 144)

‘The large tree stood on a low table, and reached nearly up to the ceiling. There were only lights, colored ribbons, and gilded walnuts hung upon it […] The tree […] was a joint contribution of the several families; all had sent in tapers and nuts, and this it was that made it so full of bright things and necessitated its being so tall. On the middle table, under the tree itself, were dishes for the Köhler household, each one having a liberal allowance of apples, nuts, and gingerbread. Besides these, there were parcels, securely tied, laid by the dishes, and labelled with the names of their unconcious owners.’ (Catholic World, 1876, p. 488)

A ‘merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects.

There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches […] dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, ward- robes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping;

there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men – and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes ; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices ; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders;

real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, “There was everything, and more”.’ (Households Words, 1850s, p. 103f.)

‘And then, what groves of Christmas Trees there were, all fluttering with gay ribbons! and what heaps and heaps of gilded walnuts! and what heaps of gay dolls, with large tinsel wings to represent the Christ-child! what hideous little idols! But all was bright, and glittering, and cheery; and the keen frosty night-air added quite a zest to the whole thing. Such was the Christmas Fair.’ (An Art-Student In Munich, 1853, p. 181)



Victorian Christmas Tree Alternatives

Buying A Christmas Tree In The Victorian Era
Selling Christmas greens – a scene in Richmond, Virginia, 1875

‘If a Christmas-tree is not procurable, a pretty substitute may be made in the following way. Take strong wire, and with it form three hoops, one smaller than the other two. Put the latter inside one of the others, and suspend the third from them. Cover these hoops with evergreen, and then hang the toys and ornaments upon them. The whole thing can be suspended from a hook or from the chandelier. If from the latter, surround the gas-globes with green, and hang Chinese lanterns on the branches of the chandelier.’ (The Book Of The Home, 1900, p. 314)

‘A small Nuremberg Christmas-tree […] is a household possession. Its branches are made of wire covered with green, and it stands in a wooden pot. For sick children in a nursery, or for old spinsters without children, one of these trees is a delight. I have a friend who for years has carried one about. Once it went across the ocean to be lighted in the Bay of Gibraltar at Christmas. She brings it out year after year, bending its branches into shape, lighting its twenty tiny candles, and gathering young and old about it.

The little tree measures from the bottom of its wooden pot to the top of its highest candle only three feet, and was the gift of a friend, who trimmed it with every kind of tiny toy, with miniature dolls, a Kriss Kringle, and its twenty candles. When lighted it is a blaze of cheerful glory, and it has now gathered to itself the association and traditions of many years, which no real tree, faded with a season’s service, could have boasted. Of course, on general principles, live things are best, and when a forest tree is possible it ought to be had. On the other hand, there are people who prefer the tiny trees, and again there are others who, unless they had the little Nuremberg toy, would never know the joy of Christmas.’ (Homes And Their Decoration, 1903)



Choosing The Victorian Christmas Tree

‘Towards the end of December in most florists’ shops are to be seen the short, sturdy firs, which are the popular shrubs for the purpose. A small one costs about four shillings.’ (The Book Of The Home, 1900, p. 313)

1910s Load Of Christmas Trees New York
Load of Christmas trees, New York, 1910-5

In Germany, ‘during the week preceding Christmas the market places and squares of every town in the Fatherland are stacked with heaps of fir trees of all sizes, which in due course are to be used for Christmas. […] Wealthy Germans have a Christmas tree which extends from the floor to the ceiling of a lofty chamber and fills with its huge branches the greater part of a large room […] In poor houses the Christmas tree is nothing more than a twig of a fir tree stuck in a pot and placed in the center of the table.’ (San Francisco Call, 1905)

‘Of the thousands of trees that are sold in Philadelphia, most are Black Spruce from the mountains of north-east Pennsylvania. There are a few Pinus rigida, or Pitch Pine, with an occasional Red Cedar from New Jersey. From the refuse of country nurseries there are a few Norway Spruce, White Pine, and Balsam Fir. The latter wholesaled at from $20 to $25 per 100. They ran from 7 to 10 feet high. The native trees brought about $40, and the very large ones about $70. The retail prices are about double, so as to compensate the risk of “stock left on hand”.’ (The Gardener’s Monthly, 1887)

The History Of The Christmas Tree
Taking home the Christmas tree (Marin Journal, 1904)

‘There is only one true Christmas tree – the balsam fir. The hemlock proper, has branches too drooping and flexible to hold a great weight of Christmas gifts, and the spruce, while otherwise suitable, lacks the spicy odor of the balsam. […] The Christmas tree cutters begin work early, usually about the middle of October. While some of the men are cutting others follow them and drag the trees to the nearest open space, where they are bunched and tied so that they will not come apart in shipping. At the nearest depot they are loaded on cars, 2.500 trees to the car. The men receive $1.50 a day and board. It takes seven men working five weeks to get out three carloads. The Christmas tree output depends a good deal on the weather. With an open fall, when the trees are easy to get at the crop will be much larger than when the snow falls early and heavily. If the snow melts and then freezes on the branches it makes them brittle, and they break in transit.’ (Marin Journal, 1904)



Edwardian Electric Christmas Tree Lights

‘The greater safety attending the lighting of Christmas trees by electricity makes this method far preferable to that of the familiar candles, with the possibility of igniting the inflammable trees and decorations. By following the directions here given any one possessing ordinary skill can make and arrange the necessary fixtures to produce a very pleasing effect, and at a most reasonable expense.

1900s Christmas Tree
Christmas tree, 1907

The first consideration is the source of current; whether from the lighting circuit in a building lighted by electricity or, where such current is not available, by battery. The former will first be described, but before doing so it is well to mention that in some places the restrictions imposed by insurance authorities are very stringent and should be ascertained before commencing work, that the regulations may be properly complied with. Where battery current is used this trouble is avoided, as the current is of such low potential that no trouble would follow should short circuits occur, other than a quick exhausting of the battery and a failure to keep the lamps up the proper brilliancy.

Assuming that the current is to be taken from the wires of a regular incandescent lighting circuit, the voltage of which is between 108 and 112 volts, the first requisites are : Plugs for the sockets in which the lamps are affixed; enough two cord flexible wire to reach from the socket to the base of the tree; 100 feet or more of annunciation wire, divided equally between two colors to facilitate wiring ; the necessary number of 14 volt series miniature bulbs of 3 C. P. and an equal number of porcelain sockets.

An examination of the tree having been made and the location and number of the lamps decided upon, a wiring diagram should be drawn showing the wires, lamps and connections, as it will probably be necessary to run the connecting wires from one branch to another to make up the complete circuits of eight lamps each.

History Of Electric Christmas Tree Lights - Edwardian Electric Christmas Tree Lighting
Edwardian Electric Christmas Tree Lights (Amateur Work Magazine, 1905)

It will be noted that eight 14 volt lamps, “connected in series” make a total voltage of 112 volts, a slightly less voltage of the main circuit having but little effect on the several lamps. For each eight lamps on the tree, therefore, a separate plug and connecting wires will be required, unless one is sufficiently skilled in wiring to make a double connection and circuit through one plug, in which case other lamp on the same line circuit should not be turned on, to avoid overloading the line. All joints should be soldered and well insulated with electricians tape, except at the sockets, where a complete turn of the wire around the screw will answer, but at these points care should be exercised that the ends of wires are separated sufficiently to avoid short circuits.

The lamps should be located in open spaces to secure the maximum effect and be visible to as large a portion of the room as possible, the general arrangement being that of a pyramid. A defective lamp will prevent the lighting of all and will have to be located and replaced with a good one when all will be illuminated. The number of lamps required will vary with the size of the tree; a small one requiring at least eight, and double the number can be used to advantage, and a large one is only limited by the time and money which may be available for the purpose.

History Of The Christmas Tree
Christmas tree, 1910s

Colored bulbs add much to the effect; three red and three green for each ten white ones being a good proportion, the colored giving less light than the white ones. Directions for coloring bulbs were given in the January, 1903, number of this magazine, so will not be repeated here.

Where a commercial lighting circuit is not available and resort must be had to a battery current, the type of battery most suitable and easily constructed is that known as the bichromate plunge battery. […] On this account it will be advisable to have the battery located under the tree, concealing it with paper or other decorations. The necessary supplies for all the fixtures, including the battery can be ordered through any large electrical supply house, though it is probable that the battery parts will require a little time for filling the order and should, therefore, be ordered sufficiently in advance of the time wanted to avoid disappointment.’ (Amateur Work Magazine, 1905)

1910s Christmas Tree
Christmas tree, 1910s

14 thoughts on “The Victorian Christmas Tree

    1. We always have candles, even with kids and a dog. 🙂 It’s not dangerous if the tree is fresh and one doesn’t leave the room while the candles are burning. 😉 Merry Christmas!

  1. What a site it would have been to see a tree lit with real candles! Such fun history!! Thanks for sharing with SYC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *