by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As the last post in this series noted, the use of Christmas trees in America was just starting to take root (!) in the late 1840s and early 1850s and the first appearance of a tree in Los Angeles took place in 1854, thanks to an English-born couple who introduced an outdoor community tree.
By the 1860s and 1870s, however, the situation was changing substantially locally and more broadly. For example, by 1870, Los Angeles newspapers featured occasional advertisements and mentions in articles of Christmas trees in the area, as the accompanying example shows. Other examples include two artifacts from our collection that reflect the growing national use of trees in American homes.
One is from an 1861 book titled Christmas-Tide, and Its Customs, written by the Reverend T.B. Murray and published by an Episcopal organization in New York. A frontispiece illustration shows a family of nine (seven children was not all that unusual in those days!) gathered around a table-top tree, decorated with lit candles and surmounted by an angel tree topper. A few gifts are in evidence and everyone gazes reverently towards the tree.
Below is a direction to go to page 47 and there is the first lines of verses, presumably by Murray, about the Christmas tree. Some samples are worth reading:
Christmas tree as bright as glass,
How the branches wink and play!
Rich and leafy, green as grass
On a sunny summer’s day
Come and load them full and high;
They are strong enough to bear
All the goods that we can buy,
All that others choose to spare
Fill the branches to the end,
Like a pear-tree, thick with fruit;
Ah! they now begin to bend;
Pile the toys about the root
What is that with silver wings,
On the tree-top, up above?
“Tis an angel fair, who brings
Messages of peace and love.
Joyful news of Jesus’ birth;
Tidings of the day of grace,
When the Lord of heaven and earth,
Came to save our sinful race.
Round about our Christmas Tree,
Marching softly, one by one,
Sing we now, so cheerily,
“For to-night our task is done.”
Every guest shall have a prize;
“Christmas comes but once a year!”
Merry let us be and wise,
Then no rod have we to fear.
Notice how there is reference to commercialism, charity, and religion in these excerpted stanzas. The giving of gifts was gaining prominence during the holiday season and becoming as accepted in many cases as the other two.
Yet, that same year, perhaps the darkest period in American history loomed as the Civil War erupted. Two years later, in its issue of 2 January 1864, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published a remarkable two-page print, simply titled “Christmas 1863.” For a nation that generally expected the conflict to be concluded quickly, it was a shock that the war dragged out for as long as it did and with such bloody consequences.
Leslie’s publication struggled after its debut in 1855, mainly because of the economic depression that took place two years later, but its coverage and imagery of the war brought it success to the American reading public. This representation had several contrasting vignettes, including Confederate soldiers gathered around a cookpot hanging over a low fire under a straggly tree (contrasting to a healthy Christmas tree, perhaps?) while Union soldiers in a well-outfitted camp had time to decorate for the holiday.
Meanwhile, the two lower sections showed boys playing war during a snowfall, an ironic commentary maybe about the nature of war and how children or younger people play at it, while the image at the lower right shows a well-to-do family in a large, comfortable house with a roaring fire enjoying their tree and holiday in stark contrast to the rebel soldiers above them.
The tree has its candles and ornaments in profusion and there are plenty of toys for the little ones, while Santa is in a box at the center of the print looking down over the celebration.
Finally, there is a very interesting article, published in 1873 in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, one of Leslie’s chief competitors, called “Christmas Through Christendom” and which explained many of the then-known origins of holiday traditions. When it came to Christmas trees, the unattributed piece noted
The Christmas-tree is doubtless of German origin. Though in its present form it is of comparatively recent date, yet its pagan prototype enjoyed a very high antiquity. The early Germans conceived of the world as a great tree, whose roots were hidden deep under the earth . . . [and] much of its symbolic character was transferred to the Christmas-tree. At first fitted up during the Twelve Nights in honor of Berchta, the goddess of spring, it was subsequently transferred to the birthday of Christ . . .
The fir tree was emblematic of spring and the renewal of life after winter, adorning the tree with lights represented Christ as “the light of the world,” and gifts symbolized the gift by God of his only son. Not only that, but
This symbolism extended also to the most usual of Christmas presents, apples and nuts; the former being considered as an emblem of youth, the latter as a profound symbol of spring . . .
It was also stated that the use of a Christmas tree was a singularly Protestant tradition until recent decades, while the giving of gifts moved from St. Nicholas’ Day, stated as 5 December, though most western European nations celebrate it on the 6th and eastern European orthodox countries do so on the 19th, to Christmas Eve.
The article concluded by observing
Now the Christmas-tree, radiant with light and loaded with its rich variety of golden fruit, is not only to be found every where throughout Germany, but has taken root and become acclimated from the Alps to the Ural, and from the Kiölen to the Appenines; beneath Italian suns and amidst Lapland snows; alike on the banks of the Neva and the Po, the Mississippi and the Thames—in truth, wherever German civilization has penetrated or German Protestantism prevails.
The next installment on the evolution of the Christmas tree takes us to the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in which the secular aspects of the holiday increased, as did the rise of commercialism, and as the tree stepped down from its table-top perch and took to the floors of homes, while increasing its height as compensation!