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

‘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. […]

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

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)

Christmas Tree History
Late Victorian Christmas Tree

‘Wherever you trace the origin of the Christmas-tree outside Germany, you will find that it has been introduced from the Fatherland. Up to the year 1840 Great Britain did not know it. It was the Prince Consort Albert of Sachsen-coburg who brought it to the Court of St. James. […] In France […] In 1830, the Duches Helena of Orleans imported it from Germany. […] Everywhere where the Christmas-tree custom has been adopted we find that German emigrants, German sailors from merchant vessels, or German men-of-war, have first introduced it. It has taken the deepest root in the United States, where there is so much of the German element. There, nobody looks upon it any more as something especially German; families of all nationalities have adopted the fairy-tree. […]

The oldest record we have of a Christmas-tree dates from 1604, in Strasburg, in Alsace. […] At Christmas, a fir-tree is put into the room, on which are hung roses made of colored paper, apples, wafers, tinsel, sweetmeats, etc. […] So in 1604 the Christmas-tree (but without candles) was already quite common in Strasburg.’ In the 1640s, the Christmas tree ‘is hung with dolls and sweetmeats, and afterwards shaken and plundered. […]

In 1737 […] she placed as many small trees in her rooms as there were persons to whom she wanted to make presents. […] Here we find the first mention of candles on the Christmas-tree. […] in 1793 […] the illuminated tree of life [was decorated] with the gilded nuts and the little lamps, the figure of the child Jesus, dolls, and plates with apples and sweetmeats. […] in 1765 […] The tree was there decorated with bonbons, and underneath were placed the manger with the child Jesus, made of sugar, and the Virgin Mary, also Joseph, and the ox and the ass. In front of it there stood a little table with brown gingerbread for the children. […]

Victorian Christmas Tree Antique Photo Mother Daughter
Edwardian Christmas Tree

In 1799 no Christmas-trees were to be found at the Christmas-fair in Leipsic, although the custom is mentioned as far back as 1767. In 1807 Christmas-trees were to be had in Dresden at the time of the winter solstice, ornamented with gold tinsel, colored bits of paper, gilded nuts, and candles. In Hamburg Christmas-trees were well known as early as 1796 […] In Berlin it can be traced to 1780, but the pine or Scotch fir was used there, not the bright green fir common now. It was only by degrees that the fir imported from the Hartz supplemented the pine, and now we only find that gloomy tree in use in poor eastern districts of Berlin. At the beginning of the present [19th] century, the elite of Berlin did not practice the custom, as it was not fashionable among the French emigrants, and was looked upon as vulgar. Instead of that, according to Schleiermacher’s Weihnachtsfeier (Christmas Celebration), they used to decorate the table on which the presents were laid with myrtle, amarynth, and ivy. About the year 1816, however, we find that the Christmas-tree was adopted in all the homes […]

we have the Christmas-tree with its golden apples as the principal feature of the festival. After the beginning of the [19th] century, Prussians brought it to all parts of Germany […] In Munich it was only introduced in 1830 by the Queen Caroline, the wife of Louis I of Bavaria. After that all the principal places in Germany accepted it. […] an etching by Joseph Keller, entitled “Christbescherens, oder der fröhliche Morgen” (Christmas Gifts, or the Happy Morning), which must have been executed about the year 1790 at Nüremberg […] shows us, in the corner of a room, a tree in the full splendour of its foliage, hung with ornaments just like those used to-day, and decorated with candles’ (Folklore, 1892).

Victorian Christmas Tree Decorations

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)

Christmas Tree Origin
Christmas Tree, 1910s

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

Related: Victorian Gilded Walnuts – Tutorial

‘It was the Christmas of ’67, and the country was still suffering the immediate effects of a long warfare. […] But there were countless little children for whom war had no meaning, and these little ones had to have Christmas joy […] A bit of stunted evergreen, trimmed with popcorn strung on a thread, a few red cranberries similarly fixed, a few bits of tallow candles and some old newspapers cut into narrow strips and curled by being quickly drawn over the edge of a knife. […]

the good mother secured a bit of old-fashioned New Orleans sugar, and out of it she manufactured some candy and moulded it into fantastic shapes. […] There must have been a couple of pounds of it upon this particular Christmas tree. […] Of course there was a jumping-jack on that Christmas tree. It was a home-made toy […] clothed in a suit of red paint. No, it wasn’t red paint, it was elderberry juice, or pokeberry juice […] A few apples, some hickory nuts, some doughnuts and a ball made by ravelling out a yarn stocking’ (The Commoner, 1904).

Related: How To Make A Victorian Rag Ball

‘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.)

Christmas Tree US History Facts
The Christmas Tree, Harper’s Bazaar, 1870

‘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)

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

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.)

Related: Victorian & Edwardian Christmas Gifts

‘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)

Christmas Tree History Origin Germany
German Christmas Tree, 1888

‘Recently, there has been a very strong trend towards returning to the old-fashioned style of Christmas tree decoration. […] Among the home and tree decorations you can make are silvery and colorful angels, fragile lanterns and bells, delicate baskets and lacy paper nets for cookies and candies. Brilliant festoons and shining stars, gilded walnuts, frosted spice drops, giddy cookies, gay cornucopias, snowflakes and icicles, all contribute their charm to the blazing beauty of the Christmas tree […] Many a tree owes a good part of its charm and beauty to the cookies hung upon it.’ (Make It And Make It Pay, 1949)

‘Every time I see a Christmas tree studded with electric lights, garlands of tinsel gold festooning every branch, and hung with the hundred costly knicknacks the storekeepers invent year by year “to make trade,” until the tree itself disappears entirely under its burden, I have a feeling that fraud has been practiced on the kindly spirit of Yale. Wax candles are the only real thing for a Christmas tree, candles of wax that mingle their perfume with that of the burning fir, not the by-product of some coal-oil or other abomination. […] Also, red apples, oranges and old-fashioned cornucopias made of colored paper, and made at home, look hundred times better and fitter in the green; and so do drums and toy trumpets and wald-horns, and a rocking horse reined up in front that need not have cost $40’ (The L’Anse Sentinel, 1909).

‘We are all familiar with the conventional Christmas tree, the evergreens covered with toys, and splendent with wax candles, icicles of glass, and balls of glittering metal. Such are hallowed by our memories of childhood’ (Conneticut Western News, 1873).

‘Let the centerpiece of the Christmas dinner table be a small fir tree surmounted by a Christmas star, and brilliantly illuminated with red wax tapers. It should be laden with simple gifts for all present and draped with gilt tinsel.’ (The Times Dispatch, 1904)

‘In regard to a tree – many are not within reach of pine trees, and I have heard of the sage brush being used for a Christmas tree. […] tie cotton on the branches to resemble snow. Such a tree, hung with bright apples and oranges, popcorn and cranberries and other simple decorations will delight the children immensely.’ (The Gem State Rural, 1910)

‘The Christmas tree of 1904 will be a marvel of artistic effects and mechanical perfection. The new ornaments are ablaze with color, or they gleam with spangled and tinseled effects’. But Christmas decorations can also be made at home: From ‘sheet wadding snowballs may be formed and fastened to the tree by a thin wire. Cornucopias, rounded from silver paper, are effective ornaments and are a good substitute for candy boxes.

Long crystal prisms which dangle from old-fashioned lamp globes or candlesticks, if removed and hung, one on the tip of each branch, give the effect of icicles in the sunlight, on a morning after Jack Frost has visited the trees in the midst of a rain storm. In connection with these homemade decorations, the Christmas tree will glisten and sparkle if tinseled ornaments are interspersed. Beets and carrots splendidly reproduced in paper mache have sprouts of tinsel leaves. Glass balls showing brilliant green, red or blue hues glisten from a filling of tinsel, and are set in a circle of tinsel leaves. Clusters of holly or mistletoe are encased in bunches of tinsel, while stars, dwarf trees and sprays of asparagus vine are built entirely from tinsel.’ (The Savannah Morning News, 1904)

Victorian Christmas Tree History
Christmas Tree, 1910s

‘The Christmas tree was decked with tinsel ornaments and tiny tapers.’ (The Sunday At Home, 1882) ‘Christmas-tree ornaments in lengths suitable for tying into garlands or festoons. Each piece is made of round metal wires wound with cotton thread and thickly set with short pieces of tinsel of various colors with points projecting outward. […] tinsel wire, lame, or lahn, […] known as “angel’s hair,” “shavings for Christmas trees,” “lametta,” etc., […] consisted simply of bunches of tinsel.’ (Treasury Decisions Under the Customs, Internal Revenue, Industrial Alcohol, Narcotic and Other Laws, 1899) The ‘price of copper, which is the base of tinsel, is advancing […] The same is true of tinsel cords, and added to the advance in copper is the difficulty of getting dyestuffs for dyeing cotton used in tinsel cords. The Christmas colors seem especially hard to get.’ (Geyer’s Stationer, 1877)

‘The tree was hung with rosy-cheeked apples, oranges, bananas, bunches of grapes and strings of popcorn. There were bright tinsel ornaments too, and a goodly array of gaily dressed paper dolls’ (Christmas with Grandma Elsie, 1886).

‘There were tree ornaments of tinsel, bunches of colored glass balls, bright reflectors, fancy candles, strings of popcorn, a tiny snow-man made of cotton, and wonderfully like Santa Claus with a pack on his back and a tree in his arms. Then there were a gay picture-book, a wooden horse and wagon, all harnessed and true to life; a lovable woolly lamb that said”baa” most naturally when you turned its head, and a jumping-jack of marvelous agility.’ (Home And Country, 1893)

‘High up on the topmost twig of the tree hovers a gauzy angel; a mist of gold and silver covers the green branches; balls of gold and scarlet, gilded nuts, shining cages and pockets filled with sweetmeats, are the fruit of the enchanted fir-tree; jeweled crosses and stars glitter everywhere, like orders on the breast of a prince, and colored tapers, burning brightly, transform the whole into a pyramid of light. The foot of the tree is sunk in a bank of mosses and flowers and many gifts lie about in parcels or adorn the tables.’ (The Current, 1884)

Victorian Christmas Tree Tinsel
Christmas Tree, 1910s

‘Christmas-tree ornaments, made of gilt paper, representing animals, pipes, fishes, etc.’ (Treasury Decisions Under Customs and Other Laws, 1908)

‘Christmas-tree ornaments in gelatine, [and] decorative sugars’ (The British Trade Journal and Export World, 1884). Christmas ornaments ‘made of wire and different colours of sealing-wax. Nuts, with gilt paper pasted over them, are showy; as also little lace bags of sugar plums.’ (The Guernsey Magazine, 1872)

‘Fancy candies which are to be strung upon thread […] also glass brilliants of all colors […] and, besides, large walnuts which are to be coated over with gold and silver tinseled paper alike for bedecking the tree. […] Gold, silver and all manner fancy colored paper […] must be cut into long feathery strips, and is to encircle the tree […] also some must be made into “cornucopiae,” and these filled with an assortment of candy, nuts, cakes, &c.’ (Beloit College Monthly, 1868)

‘The prettiest heading to the top bough is a small wax doll, dressed as a Cupid or a fairy, in gauzy white garments, and a crown of tinsel stars upon its head. It should hold a wand in one hand and a lighted taper in the other. An inch or two beneath it, a circle of bright flags should be wired to the stem of the tree […] they are made of thick paper, with a wire run through them for a pole, and are coloured to represent the flags of all nations. […] A gold star or crescent, or a sheaf of gilded spears, are sometimes put upon the top of a tree […] A large quantity of tin sockets, with small tin reflectors attached to them, should be provided, and bound on to the tree with wire, in such positions that the lighted candles placed in the sockets do not come under any boughs, or near to any presents.

Coloured wax candles should be put into these sockets; they should not be the smallest size sold […] Upon some of the upper boughs larger coloured candles can be attached by cutting a tiny piece out of the bough, and pressing the candle into this cavity, and keeping it in its place by wiring it. Benzoline sponge lamps can be used with safety, as they go out as soon as the spirit in them is exhausted. Gelatine lamps, like tiny nightlights, have a pretty effect, and are not expensive; and sockets for candles without reflectors also will come in handy. […] Small Chinese lanterns, both round and long, look very well, but they are dangerous to use, as their paper catches fire, and falls down upon the other articles. Long sticks with wet sponges tied to one end should be kept in readiness, to put out with promptness any indications of a conflagration.

Christmas Tree Decorations In The Victorian Era
Christmas Tree, 1908

In order to brighten the tree as much as possible, long strings of coloured glass balls should be bought and suspended in loops in and out the branches; these will reflect the wax lights. Sing’s glass balls of a much larger size, and coloured wax ditto, should be hung by green thread to the outer branches; oblong drops of glass like those need in lustres and chandeliers will also help to make the tree bright by reflecting the light from the candles. Strings of imitation holly berries, and bunches of real berries with all their leaves removed make bright decorations. Imitation oranges and apples have a lighter effect upon the tree than real ones, and little tinsel star made of gold and silver coloured paper will come in usefully. […] Glass birds and butterflies and all kinds of sugar ornaments look light and pretty. Clusters of sugar cherries or plums are very effective, as are crackers of all descriptions. […]

For big girls, […] pincushions, purses, fans, […] [For] big boys […] knives, pens […] will not look bad upon the tree. For smaller children […] wax dolls, dressed in white […] can be suspended to the tree, with elastic tied round their waists […] toy animals […] canary birds whose heads come off, and whose bodies are filled with sweets […]

Besides these there are things of home manufacture – large walnuts tied together with ribbon, […] knitted balls […] and many other inexpensive trifles. Besides all these larger presents, it is usual to give every guest one article containing sweets, and the greater variety of the shapes of these, the prettier the effect upon the tree.

Tiny wicker baskets, of various sizes and shapes […] should be filled with sweets, and their tops covered over with white net, which is fastened down with China ribbon to keep the sweets from falling out. Coloured paper cornucopias, ornamented with gold tassels, can be filled with sweets, so can bags of various coloured tarlatans, whose ends are tied together with coloured ribbons. Nests of boxes, with pretty pictures […] muffs made of cardboard, with gathered silk ends, and filled with sugarplums; and plaster figures of birds, animals, and men whose heads take off and disclose receptacles for sweets are also capital. Sugar rings, sugar pipes, and other sugar trifles can be suspended from the tree without difficulty by means of strong green thread’ (Bazaar Exchange and Mart, and Journal of the Household, 1875).

Decorating The Victorian Christmas Tree
Decorating The Christmas Tree On Christmas Eve (New-York Tribune, 1906)

‘Many beautiful ornaments of glass or metal are to be bought at toy-shops for tree decoration; others may be made at home. Almost anything bright colored or shining looks well on a Christmas tree. Pasteboard cut into odd shapes and covered with gilt or colored paper, bits of new tin or looking glass, or small fruits, may be used with effect. Pop corn strung on thread and intertwined among the branches looks well. Fruit or nuts may be painted with gold paint, or covered with gilt paper, and hung to the tree with colored ribbon.

Trees are usually lighted with colored tapers, about three inches long, fastened to the branches with holders. The best holders are fitted to a wire, which has at the lower end a colored ball the weight which keeps the candle upright. Others are fastened to the branch with sharp ends […] A tree may be lighted with gas by having a gas-fitter run pipes up the back of the trunk and along the branches, but nothing equals the effect of tapers. […] The presents may be hung on the tree, or placed on the box or floor beneath. Presents on the tree are fastened to the branches by strings or ribbons’ (The Young Folk’s Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports, 1890).

‘For Christmas-trees much is done with gold paint. Before the liquid gold was provided, the article, say a walnut, was washed over with white of egg, then rolled in leaf-gold and allowed to dry. This cost more than the ornament was worth, but one bottle of Judson’s gold paint will go a long way in gilding walnuts, acorns, little baskets for sweetmeats, and the many miscellaneous trifles which brighten up the sombre fir branches. A light tack must be driven into the walnut for a handle during the gilding process, and it serves to tie the suspending string to afterwards. […] Acorns gilded are really very pretty laid in a bed of moss with a little grass and some everlastings.’ (Household Words, 1883) ‘Oak-leaves and acorns may be bronzed or gilded with charming effect; as also the smaller pine cones’ (Cottage Hearth, 1886).

‘The evergreen fir-tree standing upon the lonely mountain-side, bearing upon its branches white powderings of snow and pendent frost-crystals that sparkle and glitter in the cold winter moonlight, is a splendid sight, even in its stately loneliness; but in the parlor, loaded with brilliant candles, bonbons, and toys, it is yet more attractive, especially to the youngsters. […]

Victorian Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree, 1904

strings of pop-corn, gilded nuts and apples, and bright yellow oranges are suspended from the tree, and also quantities of the sparkling lamietta, the narrow strips of tinsel that are sold in packages for the purpose. Beautiful colored glass balls and other glittering devices may be purchased to decorate the Christmas tree, but there are, besides, many pretty novelties which can be made at home’ (Demorest’s Family Magazine, 1891).

‘Anything that the children can do personally toward decorating the Christmas tree adds just as much to their pleasure, and the variety of pretty and appropriate decorations which are within the scope of their small fingers is almost illimitable. In every kindergarten in the city little folks are busy now making artistic paper chains, vari-colored Japanese lanterns, paper balls and baskets, and scores of other pretty trinkets that can be concocted at trifling expense. […]

Nothing is more effective for a tree ornament than a Japanese lantern made out of two colors, preferably gilt and red, or gilt and blue. Such a decoration is made by folding a square piece of paper into a book, by laying the front and back edges together and then folding these again into shutters by laying the edges together. Make as many shutters as can be conveniently folded, then unfold and fold again into a book on the opposite side. Roll over the edges to the first crease and cut down each crease to the folded edges. On the other strip put paste and glue the other edge to it, making the lantern. At the top paste on the inside a handle, made of a narrow strip of paper, in a shade to match either of the colors of the lantern.

As no tree is complete without chains, several of them should be made for trimming. […] An effective chain may be made out of inch pieces of dry macaroni, alternating with large, bright red cranberries, threaded on gilt string.

Some dainty and inexpensive gifts to be hung on a tree may be made out of gray or green bristol board, cut into oblong shapes and decorated with a miniature calendar and a small photograph of an appropriate subject. A ribbon of red or white run through two holes at the top makes it easy to hang this little present to a tree.’ (Evening Star, 1906)

Victorian Frosted Christmas Tree

‘The parlors and dining room were elaborately decorated in a most cool and effective manner. There were icicles and suspended snow balls and a miniature frosted Christmas tree.’ (Bisbee Daily Review, 1909)

Edwardian Christmas Tree Tinsel History
Edwardian Christmas Tree

‘Before commencing any decorations, the tree should be “frosted.” There are various ways of producing this effect: one is to wet the branches thoroughly and to pour over them boiling plaster of Paris. This should not be done too quickly, but be dripped upon the branches so as to form long hanging icicles. The plaster of Paris hardens in a moment, and looks very white and pretty. It is better to frost only the ends of the branches that are to be laden with gifts, and one or two boughs entirely that are to have no burdens except lights, as the plaster will crack and break away if much interfered with; the top boughs of the tree should all be done.

Crystallising the branches is done by brushing them well over with warm size of strong glue, and covering them when wet with powdered glass shavings – the same that are used in church decorations. This plan looks bright, and the glass reflects the innumerable lights well; but, as no icicles can be formed by using these glass shavings, the effect upon a large tree is not so good as that of the plaster of Paris.

To cover the branches with snow requires more labour, but well repays the trouble. The branches to be covered must be either wrapped round thickly with jeweller’s cotton wool, or it must be glued on to them in large quantities very firmly. Then a large-toothed comb or fork must be taken, and the wool combed out, so as to hang down in long fleecy waves of various lengths; and afterwards strong white gum must be sprinkled over the wool, and powdered glass shavings dusted thickly over, so as to adhere to the gum, and give the appearance of sparkling snow to the wool.’ (Bazaar Exchange and Mart, and Journal of the Household, 1875)

‘First of all, in decorating, the frosting is applied. Cotton-wool dipped in thin gum and then in diamond-dust [mica powder] makes beautiful frosting. Another way of giving the effect of snow piled up on the branches is by sprinkling the tree with water and then with flour, afterwards dusting with diamond powder.’ (Demorest’s Family Magazine, 1891) ‘The Christmas tree will look, too, none the worse if the gum-water is brushed on its prickly foliage here and there, and common salt sprinkled on it. This has the best effect of frost when seen close to’ (Routledge’s Christmas Annual, 1869).

‘”Diamond dust” (or powdered mica) – This is used for Christmas Tree decorations […] It may be used by putting on cotton, or it may be made to stick to almost anything by first applying a coat of varnish and then dusting on the Diamond Dust before the varnish is entirely dry.’ (Omaha Daily Bee, 1899)

Victorian Christmas Tree Alternatives

History Of The Christmas Tree
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)

‘In Nördlingen [in 1786] we don’t have the dark fir-tree for Christmas; instead of that a small cherry or apricot-tree is planted, months before, in a pot, and placed in the corner of the room. Generally these trees are covered with blossoms at Christmas-time […] In some parts of Austria, every member of the family cuts a branch of cherry, apricot, or pear-tree on the day of St. Barbara. […] About Christmas-time, white blossoms burst forth […] In the Tyrol they even try to force a cherry-tree to blossom in the open air. The first Thursday in Advent they put lime into the ground underneath a cherry-tree, and then it flowers at Yuletide.

All these usages, just as the Christmas-tree with its artificial flowers and fruits, its candles and paper blossoms, its golden apples and nuts, have their origin in an ancient legend about the winter solstice, which is found among the East Teutonic tribes of Iceland, and also among the West Teutonic peoples – the Germans and the English – so it must be assumed to be an old tradition of both. […] In German folk-lore we find the legend about the blossoming-trees of Christmas amongst the peasantry as far back as the fifteenth century […] The oldest mention of it dates back to the year 1426. […] Not far from Nüremberg there stood a wonderful tree. Every year in the coldest season, in the night of Christ’s birth, this tree put forth blossoms and apples’ (Folklore, 1892).

‘Instead of a Christmas tree, the presents are sometimes hung on a ladder, on the rounds of which tapers are fastened, the presents and decorations being hung to it just as to a tree. The ladder should be wound with a green wreath before decorating. A Christmas ladder is much more easily prepared than a tree, and looks very well. […] Presents may be hung also on a toy ship instead of on a tree. The ship may be bought at a toy shop, and the presents should be placed inside and hung on the masts and rigging, which are wound with greens and decorated with tapers.’ (The Young Folk’s Cyclopaedia of Games and Sports, 1890)

The History Of The Christmas Tree
Taking Home The Christmas Tree (Marin Journal, 1904)

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)

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)

Related: Victorian Christmas Decorations

‘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)

‘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)

Eco-Friendly Christmas Tree

Rented living Christmas trees are a trend right now. But this sustainable Christmas tree alternative was already known in the late Victorian era in France:

‘Contrary to the custom in Germany, where the tree is sawed off above the root, and fixed on a wooden cross painted green, or plated in a small garden, decorated with moss, the Frenchman take the tree out with the roots, wraps straw around them, and thus puts it into the room, often planting it in the garden after it has done its duty as an ornament of Yuletide.’ (Folklore, 1892)

The Victorian Christmas Tree
Christmas Tree, 1915

Victorian Artificial Christmas Tree

‘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.”‘ (The Guardian, 1865, p. 22)

‘Even the spirit of invention of the 19th century has got hold of it. Trees are made of moulded iron. Through the hollow trunk and branches gas-pipes are conducted, and instead of the modest light of the little wax candle, the glaring gas jet bursts forth from this artificial production of the ironfounder.’ (Folklore, 1892)

‘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)

‘For those so situated that they cannot have a really truly large tree, there is a little novelty in the market that may be set on the window sill or used as a centerpiece for the Christmas table. This is a little collapsible Christmas tree made of paper, which imitates to a nicety the real forest balsam fir. This tree, which is about twenty inches high, comes packed in a box with cornucopia, candles and ornaments to trim it.’ (Evening Star, 1909)

Traditional Victorian Christmas Tree Decorations
Christmas tree, 1907

Edwardian Electric Christmas Tree Lights

‘The danger of fire at a Christmas festivity is practically done away with by the use of odd and dainty fairy-lamps instead of the colored candles of past years […] a crescent showing the man in the moon serve as lanterns, the light shining through transparent eyes and mouth. However, nothing is so satisfactory and safe for illuminating the Christmas tree as tiny electric bulbs of different colors scattered thickly through the branches and attached to wires which receive their power from a portable battery.’ (The Savannah Morning News, 1904)

‘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.

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.

Christmas Tree History
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

16 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.

  2. I have learned more about Christmas trees on your site than I have on several other sites done by experts on collecting ornaments, and Christmas traditions. My brand new feather tree, DIY of course, will be gorgeous. Thank you so very much.

    Also, while I don’t make historical clothing for myself, I do love sewing for my antique dolls, so I will be back to explore the rest of your site.

    Thank you again for your beautiful website.

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