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Victorian Christmas TreesAuthor: Georgia S. Chamberlain
(Article orginally published December 1959)
Wrote the editor of Gleason's Pictorial Drawing Room Companion in 1852, "Already is the Christmas Tree established as one of the household gods of New England and a large portion of the states."
German Prince Albert introduced the Christmas tree to England soon after his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840. The Queen made fashionable in her own country this German custom of decorating an evergreen with lighted candles, balls, and toys to symbolize the birth of Christ as the Light of the World, and New England followed her lovely lead. In German settled sections of America, the Christmas tree had already been introduced. After Charles F. E. Minnigerode placed a Christmas tree in the home of Nathaniel Beverly Tucker in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842, many families in the South took up the German tradition.
"A Beautiful Representation of a Christmas Tree" in Gleason's Pictorial for December 11, 1852, shows an angel-topped tree, hung with candles and ornaments, elevated on a table covered with a floor-length cloth. Among the toys under its branches are a horse-drawn chariot, a train, dolls, and a soldier on horseback. Symbols of plenty surround the scene; in medallions are Victorian reminders of the ever-present Poor.
Harper's Weekly for December 28, 1867, suggested editorially, "...on Christmas-eve some star stands over every young child; and we have a fancy that this is what helps dear old Santa Claus find his way as surely to each one of them. He keeps a good look-out for every star." The tree shown here, a segment of a larger drawing in that issue, "Christmas Morning-Awaking," shows again the small tree, planted in a container, for table use. Pennants as decorations were only briefly popular.
The table tree was still in vogue in 1878 when genre artist F. A. Chapman illustrated an anonymous poem, "The Christmas Tree," for Christmas in Art and Song, a holiday book issued by the Arundel Printing and Publishing Company of New York. As background he used the familiar double parlor of the period, and made prominent such toys as a hobby horse, steam engine, and sailboat. Smaller toys were hung directly on the tree. Patriotically he replaced the customary tip-top angel with an American flag.
Perhaps the first fire-conscious father to light the family tree electrically was inventive Ralph E. Morris, an employee of the New England Telephone and Telegraph Company. About 1895, when the new little 12volt flashlight-size lamps were just being introduced into telephone switchboards, he purchased several dozen from the Western Electric Company, soldered them to wires, and covered them with colored paper. His son, Leavitt Morris, now travel editor for The Christian Science Monitor, reports great neighborhood admiration for the new safe decorations.