|Antiques Digest||Browse Auctions||Appraisal||Home|
( Originally Published 1909 )
Coleridge's letter, as we have seen, was written in January 1826. In the succeeding December the English people were to obtain a nearer view of the Christmas tree. A great German lady, the Princess Lieven, who had taken up her residence for a season in London brought many German customs with her.
"On Christmas," says Henry Greville, an amusing gossip whose diary was published after his death, "the Princess Lieven got up a little fete such as is customary all over Germany. Three trees, in great pots, were put upon a long table covered with pink linen. Each tree was illuminated with three circular tiers of colored wax candles,-blue, green, red and white. Before each tree was displayed a quantity of toys, gloves, pocket-handkerchiefs, work boxes, books and various articles-presents made to the owner of the tree. It was very pretty. Here it was only for the children. In Germany the custom extends to persons of all ages."
Not yet, however, did the custom pass over to England. The people who saw the tree in the parlor of the Princess Lieven or who heard about it from those who had there seen it, made no attempt to copy it in their own homes. A dozen years were to pass before the tree took firm roots in English soil.
It was the marriage of Queen Victoria to a German prince-Albert of Saxe-Cohurg-that brought about this result. The first child was a daughter (named Victoria after her mother) who became Empress of Germany and the mother of the present Emperor William. The second child was a son, who is now King Edward VII of England. When the Princess Victoria was about five years old Prince Albert set up a Christmas tree, German fashion, in the royal nursery at Windsor Castle.
A writer in the Cornhill Magazine places the date of the introduction of the Christmas tree into England as December 1841. He remembers, he says, when his parents, "who had spent many winters in Germany, first introduced it, some forty-five years ago into England, what astonishment it created, what surprised delight it afforded."
This writer gives a little too much credit to his parents. No mere subjects of the queen could have made other people follow so readily in their footsteps. The royal example, however, was sufficient. Once a Christmas tree had been set up in Windsor Castle, you may be sure that Christmas trees blazed and twinkled in every British household that could afford one. It has remained ever since just what it is with us, the centre of all the Christmas festivities.
From the London News for December, 1848, I have taken a picture which represents the Windsor Castle Christmas tree with the English royal family of that date grouped around it. It is interesting to note how this English paper deals with the novelty recently brought over from Germany.
"The tree employed for this festive purpose," says the News, "is a young fir about eight feet high, and has six tiers of branches. On each tier, or branch, are arranged a dozen wax tapers. Pendent from the branches are elegant trays, baskets, bonbonnieres, and other receptacles for sweetmeats, of the most varied and expensive kind; and of all forms, colours, and degrees of beauty. Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread and eggs filled with sweetmeats, are also suspended by variouslycoloured ribbons from the branches. The tree, which stands upon a table covered with white damask, is supported at the root by piles of sweets of a larger kind, and by toys and dolls of all descriptions, suited to the youthful fancy, and to the several ages of the interesting scions of Royalty for whose gratification they are displayed. The name of each recipient is affixed to the doll, bonbon, or other present intended for it, so that no, difference of opinion in the choice of dainties may arise to disturb the equanimity of the illustrious juveniles. On the summit of the tree stands the small figure of an angel, with outstretched wings, holding in each hand a wreath."
The tree, we are further told, was an object of much interest to all visitors at Windsor Castle from Christmas Eve, when it was first set up, until Twelfth Night, when it was taken down. Other trees were placed in other rooms of the castle. Prince Albert had his, which was decorated and hung with presents by Queen Victoria, who in her turn received a tree furnished in the same manner by her consort.
Two trees also stood on the sideboard of the royal dining room and presented, we are told, "a brilliant appearance when all the tapers are lighted up among the branches."
In America the Christmas tree had become a fixture long before its appearance in England. German emigrants to our shores had brought it over with them, just as in earlier times the Dutch settlers of New York had brought over Santa Klaus. But it flourished in German settlements alone for many years before it was adopted by their neighbors, the northern descendants of the English Puritans and Pilgrims, or the southern descendants of the English Cavaliers.
New York, as the great landing place for emigrants and also as a city whose Dutch beginnings had given it a leaning towards the Teutonic spirit, was the first spot in which the German Christmas tree made a new home for itself. Gradually but surely the custom spread to citizens of other than German birth. Fathers of families got into the habit every Christmas of going out into the forests surrounding New York to cut a young spruce or fir tree for the holiday times. Or if they were rich enough to employ men-servants, they sent out the footman or the butler for this purpose.
It is said that a woodsman named Mark Carr, who was born among the foothills of the Catskill Mountains in the early part, of the nineteenth century, was the first to make a regular business of Christmas trees. He had heard or read of the holiday festivities in the great city of New York, where churches and private parlors were hung with holly and hemlock leaves, and a pine or a fir tree stood in the middle of the nursery, covered with presents for the children.
It occurred to him that the young fir trees growing on the mountain-sides all around his little country home might be made use of for these holiday purposes. He could run no great risks in making trial of the idea. All he could lose was the time it took him to chop the trees down and bring them into market and the cost of a few days' living in New York.
In December, 1851., he put his plan into practice. Early in the month he and his boys loaded a couple of great sleds with young trees cut down from the neighboring forests, and having hitched a yoke of oxen to each sled drove them through the deep snow to the Hudson River at Catskill, whence the father started with them to the city.
One old-fashioned silver dollar secured the use of a strip of sidewalk on the corner of Greenwich and Vesey streets. Here the hopeful mountaineer arranged his forest novelties for Christmas buyers. Nor had he long to wait. Customers flocked to his corner. Starting with moderate prices he soon raised them, as tree after tree left his hands, to sums that he would have deemed fabulous when he first dreamed of the experiment.
Next year he returned to the same place with a much larger stock, and "from that time to this," says Hexamer, an old historian of New York, "business has continued to exist until now hundreds of thousands of trees are yearly sold from Mark Carr's old corner."
At the present day, Christmas tree choppers usually begin work about the first of November. Thus they avoid the early snow falls which are liable greatly to increase the difficulties of the business by melting and freezing again on the trees and making their branches too brittle. Firs and pines growing in open spaces are preferred to those in dense woodlands because they are more stocky and symmetrical. As the trees are felled the woodsmen pile them up beside the forest roads, where they will keep fresh and green for weeks or if necessary for months.
The balsam fir is the favorite for Christmas trees in the middle and eastern states. Its leaves retain their color and elasticity longer than those of the black spruce, of which large numbers are however shipped into markets further south.