by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As part of the Homestead’s interpretation of regional history from 1830 to 1930, the holiday season provides an opportunity to show changing observations of Christmas during that century.
When the Workman and Temple families came to Los Angeles in the Mexican period, Christmas was primarily observed in religious expressions, such as attending a Midnight Mass as the day began, attending a recreation of a “Shepherds Play,” known as Los Pastores or Las Pastorelas, recounting the visitation of the shepherds to Christ’s birthplace in the manger at Bethlehem, and other components.
To the east, in the United States, William Workman’s brother and his family resided in Missouri and relatives of Jonathan and F.P.F. Temple were in Reading, Massachusetts, a suburb of Boston. During the 1840s, Christmas had little of the trappings (Christmas cards, effusive decorating, secular carols, etc.) associated with later celebrations of the holiday, but there were some emerging changes. One of these was the very gradual introduction of the Christmas tree.
Profiled in a post here last year about the changing representation of Santa Claus, for example, was an image from a book called Kriss Kringle’s Christmas Tree, which was first published in 1845 and then reissued in an edition two years later, with the Homestead having a copy of the latter in its collection.
The image shows Santa Claus atop a parlor table near a fireplace and a sleeping cat on a sidechair with St. Nick decorating a tree with ornaments taken from a basket on his back. The tree is hardly a majestic noble fir or other variety that we’re used to in modern versions and the ornaments Mr. Kringle is placing doubled as gifts for the children, rather than the wrapped presents we’re used to now.
In any case, it has been asserted that this frontispiece illustration is the earliest visual representation of a Christmas tree in the United States, so it has particular value in the documentation of the evolution of the holiday.
Another interesting artifact from the Homestead collection is an 1850 book, The Christmas Tree and Other Stories, written by Mary Howitt. Collections of stories for children were becoming increasingly common and popular as universal education was spreading through the country.
In fact, it bears noting that public schools were not adopted in Los Angeles until four years after the appearance of this book. William and Nicolasa Workman sent their son Joseph back east in the 1840s to get an education in Baltimore, where William’s sister Agnes Vickers lived, and their daughter did not know how to read or write. The Workmans, however, established a private school for the benefit of their Temple grandchildren in a room in their house and which operated from about the mid-1850s until perhaps a decade or longer.
Howitt’s title story, “The Christmas Tree,” is a tale set in Germany (where many of our holiday traditions originated) and concerns a widowed fairy godmother named “Mrs. Kinderliebe and her two remarkable Christmases.” The name “Kinderliebe” is German for “love of/for children,” so it not surprising that the story revolved around her many kindnesses towards youngsters, including a wealth of stories, fairy tales and riddles she told and a pantry laden with cakes, candies, fruits and nuts “and all sorts of nice things standing in her closet.”
A lodger in the Kinderliebe household is an elderly professor and Mrs. Kinderliebe tells her loyal servant, Barbele, of her desire to raise an orphan children, because of her great love for young people, but the professor, who prized quiet above most all else, keeps her from doing so.
Then, one day just before Christmas, the professor comes to the fairy godmother saying he’d received a letter than a former student of his and his wife died of fever leaving two orphaned daughters and wished that someone would take the girls and raise them.
Shortly afterward, Mrs. Kinderliebe went on a journey, while Barbele began preparations for the holiday. It was noted that “such as huge Christmas tree was brought into the house as was never seen before” with decorations below it “and hundreds of little candles were fastened to its twigs” with cakes and other items hung, as well.
At 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, having been invited to join the fairy godmother and servant in the parlor, the professor dressed to the nines and descended the stairs to find
the beautiful Christmas tree all blazing, and just under it stood a beautiful little girl, about six years old, with long shining hair falling over her shoulders, and rosy cheeks, and large blue eyes, in a black crape frock, and with a black ribbon round her beautiful golden hair.
The girl’s name was Seraphine (a “seraph” is an angel) and Mrs. Kinderliebe announced to the professor that “the Christ-child has been here and has brought a present for you.” As joyous as the event was, in succeeding months, Seraphine lamented the separation from her sister, Angela, who remained with a dour great uncle in Bavaria. So, sure enough, the next holiday, the professor took a trip that brought him back just before Christmas.
On that Christmas eve, Seraphine was invited to the professor’s room in the house to see his decorated Christmas tree and there it “blazed out, like a tree of beautiful fire; and just below it stood Seraphine’s little sister Angela.” They hugged and “laughed and cried together” and the story ended with “that was the happiest Christmas that the Professor and the fairy god-mother ever spent.”
At the front of the book is a print of five little children gathered around a table-top Christmas tree. The tree, despite candles flickering in some of the branches, doesn’t look properly trimmed so that it could actually accommodate those tapers without catching fire! In any case, some of the children are grabbing toys left on the table top below the tree.
Another early object from the museum’s collection that shows a Christmas tree appeared in the January 1851 issue of The Mothers’ Journal and Family Visitant, a Christian journal with a particular focus, as the title makes clear, on women and families.
This was a part of a serialized article about Martin Luther and his children and the print shows the religious revolutionary seated with his family in their home and surrounding a table, on which is a small tree with an angel at the top and toys, books, fruit and other items underneath it.
As with the tree in the book, this one is also not trimmed in such a way that two-dozen or so candles could actually be placed without sending the whole thing up in a conflagration. It may be that the desire for aesthetic beauty outweighted reality in determining how the tree should look!
A few years after both publications were issued, the first Christmas tree appeared in Los Angeles. The 1854 debut was courtesy of an British-born couple that set the tree out in a public, community setting. Still, it would be some years yet before Christmas trees were commonly found in Los Angeles, much less the rest of the United States. The next post in this series takes us to the 1860s when the tradition was taking root much more firmly.