With Christmas less than a week away, I wanted to share some interesting history about the holiday and Victorian traditions. I hope you enjoy!
Image by Winslow Homer entitled “The Christmas-Tree.” Harper’s Weekly, December 25, 1858.
The tradition of decorating a Christmas tree for the delight and amusement of young and old dates back to 16th century Germany. Still, many of us find ourselves asking, “How should I trim my tree this year?” or “How should I decorate my home for the holidays?” I thought it might be fun to share some of the ways our Victorians friends decorated their Christmas trees and homes. Who knows? Maybe some of us will decide to have a Victorian Christmas theme this year.
“The first Christmas tree was introduced into England in the early 19th century. In 1841, the German Prince Albert, husband of Queen Victoria, decorated a large Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, reminiscent of his childhood celebrations in Germany (the Christmas tree had been a deep-rooted German tradition since the 18th century).
Soon after, it became a Victorian Christmas tradition in England to set up a large tree at Christmas and decorate it with lighted candles, candies, and fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbon and by paper chains.
Sophia Orne (Edwards) Johnson (1826-1899) better known as “Daisy Eyebright”, was an American author. She wrote for many periodicals of her day and began a journal entitled “Daisy Eyebright’s Journal” for the Country Gentleman. In athe 1870’s Christmas issue, “Daisy Eyebright” explains how to set the Christmas tree up. According to Daisy,
“If you can obtain the tree from some pine woods near at hand, select a finely shaped fir balsam or spruce, with firm branches, and about nine or ten feet in height. Then spread a large sheet over one end of the parlor carpet, and put a good-sized tea chest in the center of it.
The lower limbs of the tree must be sawn off so that it can be firmly fixed into the box; and any small heavy articles, like weights and flatirons, can be put in for ballast, to keep the tree firmly in place. Then fill up the box with hard coal. The chest must be concealed with some pretty material; old curtains will answer the purpose, or the American flag; and a white furry robe is also suitable. Drape these articles close to the tree, and let them trail a little on the floor, to make a graceful sweep.”
Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, & their family from the 1848 Illustrated London News.
In 1847, Prince Albert wrote: “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest (his brother) & I were in the old time, of what we felt & thought; & their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.” He would decorate the trees himself with sweets, wax dolls, strings of almonds & raisins, & candles, which were lit on Christmas Eve for the distribution of presents, relit on Christmas Day, after which the tree was then moved to another room until Twelfth Night (January 6).
The Queen’s journal of 1850 describes the scene: ‘We all assembled & my beloved Albert first took me to my tree & table, covered by such numberless gifts, really too much, too magnificent.” “The 7 children were taken to their tree, jumping & shouting with joy over their toys & other presents; the Boys could think of nothing but the swords we had given them & Bertie of some of the armour, which however he complained, pinched him!”
Holly, Ivy, and everyone’s favorite ~ Mistletoe! Used for decoration around the house.
“These common plants all produce winter berries and were held to be “magical” long before Victorian times. The holly berries were said to repel witchcraft and a berry-laden sprig would be carried into the Victorian house by a male and used to decorate the Christmas pudding.
Mistletoe had pagan origins and in Victorian times it was not allowed in churches. However, kissing under the mistletoe was popular in Victorian homes. After each chaste kiss a white berry had to be removed from the sprig until there were none left – and no more kisses were to be had.”
Sneaking up from behind ~ a common and often successful maneuver.
The old “I say. Will you look at that. I’m under the Mistletoe. You’re under the Mistletoe. It’s fate.”
And finally…not even sure Mistletoe is in this image. Don’t care. (Edit: I found it! Yes, indeed…Mistletoe has been located and is being used appropriately. Good for you, sir!)
Daisy Eyebright” also explains how to properly decorate the Christmas tree up. According to Daisy,
“Now the tree is planted, and we must proceed to decorate it. Make chains of popped corn, strung together with needle and thread; at least a dozen yards will be none too much for a large-sized tree, and the pure white festoons entwined amid the dark green branches of the tree produce a fine effect.
“We must also have chains made either of glazed scarlet, gilt or silver; cut the paper into small strips, four inches long and not half an inch in width; fasten the two ends of each strip together with flour paste, and make half of them into rings; then take the rest and make into similar rings, but first slip each strip through two of the dried rings before joining the ends. In this manner all the slips of paper are interlaced, and we have a chain of rings which will greatly adorn our tree. They must be festooned in long, graceful loops from limb to limb, and the effect is very charming.”
Flower And Fruit Festoon clip art
Of course there was plenty for the children to do. Their activities added to the entertainment of the long evenings during the Christmas season. The children assisted in covering English walnuts with tinfoil or gilt paper and in filling small apples with cloves. The latter served to keep moths from the drawers of bureaus. They also made inexpensive, but acceptable presents.
Originally published in The Cottage Hearth, December 1876
(Article courtesy of Civil War Talk, December 17, 2020 ed.)