What is the origin of Christmas trees in America?
A decorated Christmas tree would have been an odd sight for your ancestors to see any time before the mid-19th century. With few exceptions, German-Americans (and only those from a particular region of Germany) were the only ones in the U.S. who decorated trees with moss, cotton, pecans, red pepper swags and popcorn for Christmas.
But that changed in 1850, when Americans saw the British Royal Family and their Christmas tree in a popular women’s magazine, and adopted the tradition.
This woodcut of the Royal Family and their Christmas Tree reached hundreds of thousands of Americans in the mid-19th century is widely credited as the image that popularized the Christmas tree in the United States.
This image comes from Godey’s Lady’s Book, the most popular monthly journal in America in the 19th century. As of 1860, there were 150,000 subscriptions to Godey’s, and the publication was especially influential to American women. Reaching a wide audience, editor Sarah Josepha Hale became the dominant influencer of American culture in her time, and had a lasting impact on many tried-and-true American traditions. For instance, she also conducted a successful campaign to establish Thanksgiving as a national holiday.
This original woodcut, first published in England in The Illustrated London News in 1848, was edited slightly for an American audience.
The version published in Godey’s removed Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s mustache so that the scene would resonate more with American audiences. Despite alterations to their appearance, the Royal Family was very recognizable to American women and the fact who established the tradition of decorating a tree for Christmas in their own households.
Why did the Royal Family decide to have a Christmas tree?
Christmas trees weren’t widely popular in England either before the image was circulated there. The Christmas tree was already a tradition in the Protestant-dominated upper Rhine region, but not in Catholic lower Rhine region. Prince Albert, having grown up near Coburg, fondly remembered this tradition from his childhood in his writing.
But Victoria and Albert weren’t the first Royal Family to have a Christmas tree. In 1800, George III’s German wife Charlotte of Mecklenberg-Strelitz introduced a Christmas tree to her family. In fact, Victoria’s childhood was full of Christmas trees, but the tradition never spread much beyond the Royal Family until 1840’s.
How were Christmas trees decorated?
In her journal, Victoria wrote that the Christmas trees were “hung with lights and sugar ornaments.” but this wasn’t the typical decorations.
Early Germans in America decorated Christmas trees with candles and hanging treats – such as apples, nuts or cookies – and continued to do so into the 19th century. Most other Americans made home-made ornaments and sometimes brightly died popcorn on a string.
In 1882, Edward Johnson – an associate of Thomas Edison – was the first to add electric lights to a Christmas tree.
In the 1880’s, variety store titan F.W. Woolworth discovered Christmas baubles, native to Lauscha Germany. He began importing them to America and they soon sold by the million to those eager to jazz up their Christmas trees.
The tradition of gigantic Christmas trees in public spaces seems to be an American one that dates back to the late 19th century. The electricity lobby pushed for the first “National Christmas Tree” at the White House as a publicity stunt to glorify electricity.
Cutting and decorating a tree for the Christmas holidays soon became a classic American tradition that continues today.