For some reason, christmas trees and historic houses just go together. Both, in their own way, seem to embody tradition, nostalgia, the bonds of family, and c0ntinuity over time. Perhaps this is why there are few things that strike me as more timeless than a beautiful historic home decked out in traditional Christmas decor. It just looks “right” and it warms the heart to behold a colonial house graced by Christmas wreaths, red bows, garland, white candles in every window, and — of course — the Christmas tree in the front window.
But exactly how historical is this timeless act of Christmas decorating? Specifically, what is the story behind Christmas trees? After all, when I was a kid listening to The Night Before Christmas, I imagined that kids like me hundreds (if not thousands) of years ago hung their stockings by the chimney with care. In my youthful imagination, I pictured medieval cottages with snowy roofs, with large fireplaces inside, crackling with warm Christmas Eve fires, the dancing flames illuminating stockings hanging from the mantel. I imagined children in those houses, just like me, gathered wide-eyed around their Christmas trees, wondering what magical gifts St. Nick might bring on Christmas day. The romantic idea of an ancient, ever-existing Christmas loomed large in my young mind, adding a splash of magic to my childhood experience of Christmas —with the Christmas tree, the egg nog, the reindeer, the shiny, stringy tinsel we spread on the tree (remember that stuff?), the stockings stuffed with candy canes and knick-knacks, and of course, the baby Jesus. (As a kid, I wondered, did baby Jesus have a Christmas tree? He must have, because it all seemed so timeless).
Yet during graduate school, I read The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum, which forced me to alter my romantic imagination about Christmases past. As it turns out, Christmas, at least as we know it, was an invention of the 19th century. In other words, the “ancient” Christmas tree tradition is actually less than 200 years old. That’s still kinda old, but definitely not “ancient.” Nissenbaum covers a wide range of subjects regarding the history of Christmas, but one large point he makes is that Christmas, before the 1800s, was actually kind of a “party” holiday. Hooligans went out in the streets and caused trouble. People got really drunk. All kinds of sins were committed. In fact, ye olde Puritans of early America, some of the most religiously devout Christians in history, actually outlawed Christmas during the 1600s in Massachusetts. They hated Christmas. There was no Biblical justification for such a holiday, they said. In 1659, the church elders even passed a law that fined people 5 shillings for celebrating Christmas in any way. (From this perspective, modern folks bemoaning the “War on Christmas” seems laughable).
Nissenbaum surmises that Christmas trees hardly existed in the United States until the 1810s or 1820s, when the fledgling tradition was imported by a few immigrants from Germany. And even then (as you’ll notice in my illustrations) Christmas trees were often much smaller and usually set on a table. In 1812 or 1819, an artist sketched the above scene, which he had observed at a home in the Pennsylvania countryside. His depiction (above) is the first (ever!) known image of a Christmas tree in the United States. What we see in the picture is a tiny Christmas tree gracing the family’s dinner table (and apparently, a dog about to eat a baby, and a creepy uncle apparently banished into the corner). A few years after this image was sketched, we find the earliest known written reference to the actual phrase “Christmas tree” — which was in 1821, when a guy in Lancaster, PA wrote that his children had gone to a local mill “for Christmas trees” (I know, I know….who sends their poor little kids into the cold weather to go fetch the tree?!). However, it was still another 15 years — not until 1836 — before the first printed image of a Christmas tree was published in the United States, as a frontispiece in a book called The Stranger’s Gift. In that image (see below), we again see a small Christmas tree, on a table, illuminated by burning wax candles (and apparently, yet another dog hoping to eat a child’s arm).
In 1820, around the same time as the first “sketched” Christmas tree, an author in Europe had written a fanciful story insinuating that Christmas trees were somehow an ancient tradition, portraying trees as the centerpiece of Christmas Eve festivities as early as Medieval times. That was terribly inaccurate. In all actuality, he was probably describing a type of celebration he had only recently observed among his contemporaries. And his story seemed to very much describe a scene similar to the above picture, giving us a glimpse into what the earliest Christmases were like:
“Every family assembles all its members together and fathers and mothers are surrounded by their children; they light up a number of wax lights [candles], which they suspend to the branches of a small fir-tree, which are also hung round with the presents they mean to make of them.”
It was not until the 1830s that the “christmas tree” began to show up regularly in early magazines and books, helping to gradually spread the relatively new German holiday tradition in the United States. In 1850, a magazine in Philadelphia, Godey’s Lady’s Book, published a picture (see left) of Prince Albert and Queen Victoria gathered around a “table top” Christmas tree in England (no rabid dogs in this one), further popularizing the previously German tradition in America.
So obviously, after 1820, it took several decades for Christmas trees to be truly widespread. By the time of the Civil War, it seems that many Americans would have regularly included a Christmas tree in their holiday celebration. (However, for the record, it wasn’t until the 1880s that electricity would come along to actually illuminate Christmas tree lights).
Anyway, if there’s a point I want to make here (and I’m not sure that I really have a point), I guess it would be that Christmas trees, for many older historic houses, are (surprisingly) historically inaccurate. Based on the history above, it wasn’t until well into the Greek Revival period of architecture (1820-1860) that Christmas trees began to show up in Americans’ holiday celebrations, and even then, they weren’t ubiquitous. As such, as appropriate and as “classical” as it seems to display a Christmas tree under the exposed beams of a rustic, 18th-century farmhouse, or fireside in a Federal-style mansion, there actually would not have been a Christmas tree in those houses during the era when they were built. Even with Greek Revival homes, there may or may not have been a Christmas tree present. Victorian-era houses, post-Civil War, would have been the first houses likely to host Christmas trees from their very beginning.
Obviously, though, none of this really matters a whole lot. Christmas is about celebrating tradition, enjoying (?) family, and, perhaps most of all, it’s about youthful imagination. So if we want to suspend disbelief for a month and imagine America’s oldest houses had Christmas trees in them at Christmastime, who is to stop us?