Twinkling lights hung on fragrant boughs, laced with golden antiquities; garlands strung from the mantle, framing a glowing fire of crackling pinecones; the family Bible prominently displayed on a table, opened to the greatest story ever told. Walking from room to room, the heavenly scents of fir, pine, hemlock, sweet spices of cinnamon, cranberry, and apple fill the air. Windows are frosted and the walls faintly shudder with the howl of the snow-laden winds outside. Guests filter in and leave their calling cards at the foyer desk, each one a brightly decorated token of the season. Names are crisply spelled out in fine script, surrounded by pictures and designs in bright, cheery colors. The mail basket is overflowing with cards lavishly printed with the lithographs of Currier & Ives and Louis Prang. A scrapbook in the parlor, another in the children’s playroom, announce with appropriately selected pages, that Christmas is here in all its spectrum and splendor.

When we celebrate Christmas with family and friends, we have the Victorians to thank for many of its joyful festivities and delightful customs. They revived old traditions, such as caroling, and invented new ones such as sending Christmas cards.

The Victorians also promoted church-going, gift-giving, and charity to the poor as essential parts of the holiday. They transformed the folk figures of Father Christmas and Santa Claus into symbols of holiday generosity, and they greatly popularized Germany's traditional Christmas tree or Christbaum

Most of all, the Victorians made Christmas a family celebration, with its primary focus on the Christ Child and children. A Victorian Christmas entailed the exchange of gifts between parents and children; attendance together at Church services; a multi-course family dinner; and visits with friends, relatives, and other families.

Behind the double doors of the Victorian parlor stood the Christmas tree, an old German custom the Victorians enlarged upon both in style and decoration. This tradition had come to England by way of Queen Victoria's great-great-grandfather King George I.

When she was Queen, Victoria had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. In 1848, an etching of Victoria, Albert, and their children gathered around their decorated tree was published in The Illustrated London News. At about the same time, Charles Minnegerode, a German professor at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House. Martha Vandergrift, aged 95, recalled the grand occasion, and her story appeared in the Richmond News Leader on December 25, 1928. Presumably Mrs. Vandergrift remembered the tree and who decorated it more clearly than she did the date. The newspaper gave 1845 as the time, three years after Minnegerode's arrival in Williamsburg. Perhaps the first Christmas tree cheered the Tucker household as early as 1842.

As a result, Christmas trees became the popular fashion in England and the central feature of the Victorian family Christmas. German settlers had brought the custom to America, but when the same illustration of Victoria and her family appeared in Gody's Lady's Book in 1850, Christmas trees became even more popular in American then in England.

What made the Victorian Christmas tree so special was its elaborate decoration. Decorations included gingerbread men, marzipan candies, hard candies, cookies, fruit, cotton-batting Santas, paper fans, tin soldiers, whistles, wind-up toys, pine cones, dried fruits, nuts, berries, and trinkets of all kinds. Paper cornucopias filled with nuts, candies, and other treats were the Victorian favorite. It was not uncommon to find some small homemade gifts, such as tiny hand-stitched dolls or children's mittens, and freshly baked treats like sugar cookies. Hand-dipped candles were placed carefully on each of the branches. A Christmas doll or angel could usually be found adorning the top of the tree.

Children often helped to make the tree decorations. They would string garlands of popcorn or cranberries, or make chains of paper flowers. Some families set up a Nativity or outdoor scene under the tree, using moss for grass and mirrors for ponds.

Later in the century imported ornaments from Germany began to replace the homemade ones. First came glass icicles and hand-blown glass globes called kugels. Dresdens, which were embossed silver and gold cardboard ornaments, took exotic shapes--moons, butterflies, fish, birds, ships, animals, flowers, trolley cars, and even automobiles.

A Victorian family's most prized ornament was the Nuremberg angel atop the tree. It had wings of spun glass, a crinkled gold skirt, and a wax or bisque face. Angles or cherubs represented the Victorian ideal of childlike or womanly innocence.

From A Victorian Christmas


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Victorian Tree