Friday, December 24, 2010

A History of the Christmas Tree


Just as Santa’s visit and opening gifts marked the moment of the Christmas holiday, the Christmas tree demarcated the span and locale of the celebration. The tantalizing array of trinkets, toys, and mementos tied to its branches, and weightier treasures stowed beneath an imposingly decorated tree, created a powerful icon of the emerging American Christmas. The first accounts of a Christmas tree, a vestige of the evergreens Romans used at winter to symbolize regeneration, date to the German Reformation, after which the practice spread northward to Scandinavia. In England, Prince Albert, a German, made a gift of a small Christmas tree to his wife Queen Victoria in the mid-nineteenth century, reputedly marking the tree’s first appearance in England. The custom spread easily and quickly in America. Charles Haswell remembered that as a teen in the 1830s he braved “a very stormy and wet night” to go to Brooklyn, where a number of immigrant German families had settled, to see their “custom of dressing a ‘Christmas Tree.’”

Harriet Martineau had predicted the popularity of Christmas trees as early as 1832, when she noted that she had “little doubt” they would “become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.” An affluent urban class, which had grown fond of traveling, delighted in the Christmas trees they saw in Europe. Anna and George Ticknor toured Germany in 1835, where on Christmas Eve they had been dazzled by an evergreen alight with candles, the first they had seen. Two years later, they held a party at their home in Boston. Mrs. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who attended, wrote in her diary that the Ticknors had “a beautiful Christmas tree decorated with presents from one relation to another.” It was the first she had seen and she “was as much excited as the children when the folding doors opened and the pyramid of lights sparkled from the dark boughs of a lofty pine.”

Before long, small Christmas tree markets began to spring up in town squares. Sunday schools (and only later, often with protest, churches proper) began to set up Christmas trees and hand out candies to children. Magazines and books, increasingly available, also familiarized Americans with details of Christmas trees and the rituals attending them. In 1851, when her “children had such a number of gifts,” Mahala Eggleston, who lived on Learmont Plantation near Vicksburg, “made a Christmas tree for them.” She had learned about them “from some of the German stories” she had been reading. “Mother, Aunt and Liz came down to see it; all said it was something new to them,” she wrote in her diary. Godey ’ s Lady’s Book especially helped define the tree’s place in the American home Christmas. In 1850, it published in its December issue the first widely circulated picture of an small evergreen, decorated and atop a table, surrounded by a family.

The reasons for the tree’s popularity were not hard to discern. Candies, toys, and candles transformed it into a fanciful vision of delight that dispelled the gloom of winter. At the same time, it expressed perfectly the age’s romanticism that made nature a metaphor for moral ideals. The tree’s symmetry and perpetual green when all outside was barren reflected beauty, order, and life in God-created nature. Its impressive presence in the parlor attested to the importance of the home Christmas holiday, creating a proper setting for secular, domestic, and even sacred holiday rituals.

This was especially so in the industrializing North. Yet the new aspects of the holiday—Santa’s visits, a tree in the parlor, gifts wrapped in paper and string—were beginning to overlay southern traditions also. The conclusion of the Civil War hastened the expansion of this new Christmas tableau. Christmas possessed potent resources for grappling with issues of absence, discord, misunderstanding, forgiveness, and regeneration. It beckoned men and women past earthly travail into an idealized domestic haven that was neither particularly northern nor southern in its origins or biases. Moreover, it created a way of creating common bonds and traditions to bind the nation together. “In a day of general change,” the editor of Harper’s wrote, “we sigh for conservative elements and wonder how we may more closely attach the country to its best hopes and traditions.”


By Len Travers
Greenwood, 2006

Did you know the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas? Or that trick or treating on Halloween began in the late 1930s?  Every holiday has a history, and this book sets out to tell it.

No comments:

Post a Comment