Saturday, December 15, 2007

The Christmas Tree in America

Christmas has not always been a national holiday in the United States. In fact, until the middle years of the last century, Christmas in America was a religious holiday that was celebrated privately.

The nation's celebration of Christmas changed in the 19th Century. America had always been a nation of immigrants, but immigration increased substantially during the 1820s. Each ethnic group brought their own particular cultural traditions with them; however, they all shared a common reverence for the Christmas holiday.

The Germans are generally credited with introducing the "Christmas Tree" to America. The tradition allegedly began with a few German families in Pennsylvania who decorated their trees as early as 1820. Yet, the widespread practice of decorating evergreens was unusual until late in the 19th Century. In the United States, Christmas tree decorations significantly increased in popularity when Queen Victoria authorized the publication of an engraving of her family's Christmas tree in Godey's Lady's Book, an influential and popular American ladies magazine. Modified from a painting that was first published in the Illustrated London News in 1848, the Godey's illustration was the standard for how a tree might be expected to look.

[Original illustration of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and family gathered around the Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, published in the London News in 1848]

In the 1840s, most Americans did not have their own family trees. Instead, in places such as Williamsburg, Virginia, communities celebrated the holiday events with decorated "town" trees for the children. Trees were usually decorated with strings of popcorn, nuts and paper globes. Candles were frequently wired onto tree branches. Other ornaments during this time period included apples, gilded and natural fruits and nuts, cookies, popcorn, cranberries, homemade paper items, candles, cornucopias, and presents.

The first commercially produced Christmas decorations began to appear globally in 1848. Created in Germany, these ornaments were hollow balls that ranged in size from 1 inch to 18 inches and were meant to decorate one's Christmas tree. The modern glass ornaments we are familiar with today evolved from the tradition of these German glass blown balls; however, these delicate glass ornaments were not sold in America until the 1880s. William DeMuth of New York produced the first American-made glass ornaments in 1881. Drawing upon earlier tree decorating traditions, balls, beads and glass fruit ornaments were produced in large quantities.

By the 1870s, most Americans had embraced the winter holiday as a permanent part of its country's culture. The United States Congress officially declared Christmas a federal holiday on June 26, 1870. During this time, American businesses began to import tree ornaments from Europe. They were sold on street corners and toy stores. Tin ornaments, wax angels, cornucopias, tinsel, glass beads and balls were among the popular tree decorations.

[Modified illustration of the Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle, published in America in Godey's Ladies Book]

The 1870s saw the introduction of Tinsel and painted metal tree stands. Tinsel was made from a combination of wire and foil which was snipped to produce crinkled strands that were then hung as garlands on the tree. Also, before the 1870s, trees had been placed in crocks, wooden boxes and crates, but that soon changed when the first painted metal tree stand began to be manufactured in 1876.

It is interesting to note the many ways that the Holidays are now celebrated today and how these celebrations are traced back to the traditions of the past. Surely, connections like these help form the living spirit of the season and create enduring bonds meant to be shared with each successive generation. In an event, everyone here at Grandma's Attic wishes all of you a Happy Holiday filled with family, fun and lots of good food (and of course, FABRIC!)