Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas Trees in the Era of Gone with the Wind

In 1870, Christmas was proclaimed an official federal holiday, in an effort to unite into one celebration a country that had been divided by a war. The foundations to this project lay in a series of elements that were already common to Christmas celebrations both in the North and in the South and that ultimately contributed to forging an American identity. It's on one of these elements that we are going to focus today: the Christmas tree.

The first Christmas trees appeared in the German communities of Pennsylvania in the first decades of the 19th century. Multiple accounts and sketches survive of these decorated trees, including a charming announcement from the Society of Bachelors in York, Pennsylvania  that in 1823 was promising to decorate its Christmas tree so that it would "be superb, superfine, superfrostical, shnockagastical, double refined, mill'twill'd made of Dog's Wool, Swingling Tow, and Posnum fur; which cannot fail to gratify taste." (Because, seriously, who wouldn't want a Christmas tree that is superfrostical and snockagastical at the same time?) The custom quickly became a point of fascination for Americans in the neighboring states and Christmas trees began to appear in parlors in New York and Boston.

By the early 1840s, the phenomenon of the Christmas tree had started to move southward.  In 1842, the citizens of Williamsburg, Virginia were buzzing with excitement to see the very first Christmas tree known to state history. It was Charles Minnegerode, a German-born professor of classics at William and Mary College, who introduced the first Christmas tree that holiday season, bringing over an evergreen to the home of his friend, Judge Nathaniel Beverly Tucker. Fortunately for us, a first-hand account of this 'inaugural' Southern Christmas tree has not been lost to the sands of time. A young Sarah Pryor, who you might remember from her account of the daring hoop skirt blockade runner, was on hand to recall the event in her memoir:
"The beautiful Christian custom of lighting a Christmas tree—bringing 'the glory of Lebanon, the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box,' to hallow our festival —had not yet obtained in Virginia. We had heard much of the German Christmas tree, but had never seen one. Lizzie Gilmer, who was to marry a younger son of the house, was intimate with the Tuckers, and brought great reports of the preparation of the first Christmas tree ever seen in Virginia.

"I had not yet been allowed to attend the parties of 'grown-up' people, but our young friend John Randolph Tucker was coming of age on Christmas Eve, and great pressure was brought to bear upon my aunt to permit me to attend the birthday celebration... The tree loaded with tiny baskets of bonbons, each enriched with an original rhyming jest or sentiment, was magnificent, the supper delicious, the speeches and poems from the two old judges (Tucker) were apt and witty."
--excerpted from My Day: Reminiscences of a Long Life by Sarah Pryor (1909)
Throughout the 1840s and early 185os, Christmas trees continued to grow in popularity, spurred by three very powerful forces in Victorian America: religion, commerce, and the publishing industry. Sunday schools began to incorporate Christmas trees into their holiday season festivities. The cheerful evergreens served as an enchanting reminder to young children about the Christian messages of renewal and promise at the heart of the Christmas season. In addition, resourceful teachers constructed games based around the Christmas tree, where pupils would receive small trinkets or sweets from the tree's branches for correctly reciting Bible verses.

Outside of the religious sphere, the world of commerce had also started to capitalize on the novel concept of the Christmas tree. Christmas trees were likely first sold for profit as early as 1840, when an intrepid farmer's wife from New Jersey set out for New York City with a cart full of trees for sale. By 1851, one of the first Christmas tree markets in New York City was set up in Washington Square by a gentleman by the name of Marc Carr. Other large cities soon adopted Christmas tree markets of their own.

The publishing world also served to widen the reach of the Christmas tree. Advertisements for Christmas trees started to cropped up in newspapers and magazines began to include holiday stories about Christmas trees. But there was one publication that played a greater role than all others in popularizing the Christmas tree in the United States. Any guesses about which one?

Yes, stop me if you've heard this one before: Godey's Lady's Book uses its sizeable influence in American culture to promote a holiday tradition and thereby firmly establish it within the fabric of the young nation. So how did Godey's do this? To explain, we need to first back up a little bit and jump over to the other side of the pond.

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at Windsor Castle. Originally published in 1848 in the London Illustrated News.
You see, in 1848 the Illustrated London News had featured an engraving of the royal family standing beside an ornate Christmas tree. This association was a meaningful one for an English audience, for the names of Albert and Victoria were associated in the public's memory with the introduction of this Christmas custom in England. Christmas trees had existed in England before Queen Victoria's reign, but their "official," large-scale debut only took place in 1840, when Prince Albert presented his noble wife with a Christmas tree as a gift.  Only two years after this engraving was published in England, Godey's copied it to use it as an emblematic scene of an American Christmas.  Of course, in order to do so, they had to remove some elements that were considered un-American, such as Queen Victoria's crown and ... Prince Albert's mustache.

"The Christmas Tree" published in Godey's Lady's Book, first in 1850 and then reprinted in 1860.
It was the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen in America and it nicely reflected the specifics of Godey's effort to popularize this custom. After a largely unsuccessful attempt to tie the Christmas tree to Adam and Eve's Day (Christmas Eve) and create an intricate religious meaning behind it, the magazine had settled for emphasizing the more accessible values of family and hearth. And it was a success. The Christmas tree became a symbol of domestic order and family unity. It presided in the front parlors of houses, the very center of social interactions during the holidays. It grew bigger and more ornate. The original small evergreens that could be perched atop a table were replaced by trees that went from floor to ceiling.
Godey's December issue of 1860 describes an evergreen of this grand stature in the aptly named story, "The Christmas Tree." (Just for good measure, the story was published alongside a reprint of the 1850 Christmas tree illustration.) Below, we've excerpted a portion of the story for you to read, which offers a wonderful description of  period Christmas trees and how they were decorated:
“It was a large evergreen, reaching almost to the high ceiling, for all the family presents were to be placed upon it. This finished, the process of dressing commenced. From a basket in the corner, Marion drew long strings of bright red holly-berries, threaded like beads upon fine cord. These were festooned in graceful garlands from the boughs of the tree, and while Marion was thus employed, Grace and the Doctor arranged the tiny tapers. This was a delicate task. Long pieces of fine wire were passed through the taper at the bottom, and these clasped over the stem of each branch, and twisted together underneath. Great care was taken that there should be a clear space above each wick, that nothing might catch fire. Strings of bright berries, small bouquets of paper flowers, strings of beads, tiny flags of gay ribbons, stars and shields of gilt paper, lace bags filled with colored candies, knots of bright ribbons, all homemade by Marion's and Grace's skilful fingers, made a brilliant show at a very trifling cost...” 
--excerpted from The Christmas Tree, Godey's Lady's Book, December 1860
By 1870, the year Christmas was enshrined as a national holiday, Christmas trees had become an intrinsic part of the American holiday celebration. Thus on that happy note, our look at Christmas trees in the Gone with the Wind era now draws to a close. On this Christmas Eve, we'd like to leave you with some charming period illustrations of children gathered around a Christmas tree. Then, as now, the Christmas tree served as a powerful symbol of joy and shared blessings--and we wish you a wonderful holiday filled with all the magic of the season! Merry Christmas!

Color plate of children around a Christmas tree, circa 1860s.
Color plate in close-up detail.

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