At the turn of the 18th century the citizens of the new America saw a growing movement toward the celebration of Christ’s birth as Christmas.  The holiday was initially banned in the colonies, as the Puritans settlers of Massachusetts did not view Christmas as a holy day for several reasons.  At the forefront of Puritanical rejection of the holiday was the fact December 25th was not chosen as the Messiah’s birthday until several centuries after his death and resurrection, the latter coupled with the unholy celebrations that accompanied the holiday, which included drinking, playing games,  feasting, and “wassailing” – a tradition with pagan roots that involved singing to the crops to ensure a good harvest, which evolved into the tradition of door-to-door singing during Christmas that sometimes turned violent as poorer classes descended on the wealthy demanding drink, toasts and money.  The celebration was deemed dishonorable to Christ. “For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

    I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me.  May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it. Their faithful Friend and Servant,
    C. D.
    December, 1843.

Charles Dickens is credited with resurrecting the popularity and celebration of Christmas with his novel, “A Christmas Carol.”

Christmas Dinner at Mount Vernon, 1790

December 9, 2009

by Cynthia Bertelsen

Bertelsen provides the menu from George Washington’s menu at Mount Vernon.  There’s other interesting information at her website cited below.

An Onion Soup Call’d the King’s Soup

Oysters on the Half Shell

Broiled Salt Roe Hering

Boiled Rockfish

Roast Beef and Yorkshire Pudding

Mutton Chops

Roast Suckling Pig

Roast Turkey with Chestnut Stuffing

Round of Cold Boiled Beef with Horse-radish Sauce

Cold Baked Virginia Ham

Lima Beans

Baked Acorn Squash

Baked Celery with Slivered Almonds

Hominy Pudding

Candied Sweet Potatoes

Cantaloupe Pickle

Spiced Peaches in Brandy

Spiced Cranberries

Mincemeat Pie

Apple Pie

Cherry Pie

Chess Tarts


Plums in Wine Jelly


Indian Pudding

Great Cake

Ice Cream

Plum Pudding

Fruits, Nuts, Raisins

Port, Madeira from:



Many of the things we most love at Christmas started in the Victorian age, such as sending cards, and the invention of the Christmas cracker. The picture of a fat, jolly Father Christmas or Santa Claus, dates from Victorian times. The Christmas tree became popular, as did gift shopping in big stores. In England, the Boxing Day holiday also started in the nineteenth century.
Christmas Crackers – The first illustration of a Christmas cracker appeared in The Illustrated London News in 1847, but there is some argument as to who invented them. Two London sweet makers, Tom Smith, and James Hovell, both claim to have invented the cracker. In 1840s Paris, sweets called “bon-bons” were wrapped in twists of brightly colored paper. Tom Smith (or James Hovell) brought back the idea but added a little slip of paper with a message on it, called “kiss mottoes.” Later, other attractions were added, such as little paper hats, tokens and small toys, plus the “crack.” It is said that Tom (or James) was sitting in front of his Christmas fire where the yule logs were crackling, which gave him the idea of putting a cracker strip inside his bon-bons. The crackers were also made to look like tiny yule logs, as they still do today.
Christmas Cards – Children in Victorian England had the task of writing greetings to their parents in their very best handwriting. Sometimes adults wrote Christmas letters to each other, but this could take up a great deal of time. The printed Christmas card solved the problem. The custom of sending printed cards was started in England by Henry Cole, who did not have time to write letters to each of his relatives. He asked an artist, John Calcott Horsley, to design a card for him. About 1,000 of these cards were printed, and those not used by Sir Henry were sold by the printer for one shilling. This was not cheap, which may be why they did not sell very well. With the introduction of the “penny post” in 1840, it became cheaper to send mail, and as a result of color printing and the invention of printing machines, cards could be printed faster and cheaper. The first company to print and sell Christmas cards on a large scale was Charles Goodall & Sons of London in 1862. The first charity card was produced in 1949 by UNICEF. Richard H. Pease, a printer from Albany, New York, is credited with sending the first specially printed Christmas card in America, in 1851. It managed to make the first mistake in Christmas card history. The card showed a building on which was hung a banner proclaiming “Pease’s Great Variety Store.”
Christmas Mail – In America in 1822, the postmaster of Washington, DC, complained that he had to add 16 mailmen at Christmas to deal with cards alone. He wanted the number of cards a person could send limited by law. “I don’t know what we’ll do if this keeps on,” he wrote.
Letters to Santa – The following was printed in the New York Exchange in December 1893 – “Dear Mr. Santa Claus, I only want a pare of skates for Christmas and if it ain’t cold a sled will do. My old ones bust. If they Anita no snow I would like anything you think of. My mamma says you are poor this year…”
Charles Dickens – By the early part of the nineteenth century Christmas had almost died out. The Times newspaper, for example, did not once mention Christmas between 1790 and 1835. Charles Dickens with his story A Christmas Carol did more than anyone to change all that. His tale of Scrooge, the Cratchit’s, and Tiny Tim was a smash hit from the start. He wrote the story in just two months, beginning in October 1843 and finishing at the end of November. The book was published on 17 December 1843 and immediately sold out.

The following information is taken from the information signs at the Geffrye Museum.

“Dined at my House on rost Beef and Plumb Pudding”

It is Christmas Day and the family are about to have their dinner of roast beef and plum pudding. Although turkey was introduced into this country by the 1530s, it did not replace beef as the main dish of Christmas dinner until the late nineteenth century. Plum pudding, a boiled pudding of suet, eggs, flour and dried fruit, the forerunner of Christmas Pudding, was served with the beef rather than a dessert.

By the late eighteenth century, Christmas was a pale shadow of the feast celebrated 150 years before. Even in rural areas the ‘keeping’ of Christmas, whereby landlords provided a large feast and charitable gifts for their tenants, appears to have been less common and was a cause for concern among those that felt the wealthy were not honoring their obligations to the poor. On a smaller scale, however, Christmas was still about eating, drinking and giving alms.

Aspects of the Antebellum Christmas

Author: Tim Crumrin, Conner Prairie Historian,

Perhaps the most important of the changing elements was the country’s attitude toward Christmas. By the coming of the Civil War the antipathy shown toward the celebration by some religious groups and like-minded individuals was rapidly softening. Indeed, “by 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union” to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations.2 This was emblematic of a general acceptance of Christmas by many denominations. This changing of views combined with another ongoing force to further shape and help define the American Christmas.

The continuing popularity of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and its “carol” philosophy added yet another element by synthesizing “certain religious and secular attitudes… into a humanitarian pattern.” Its assertion that brotherhood, kindness, and charity should be a part of life– especially at Christmas– was quickly accepted and added to American tradition.3

It was within such an atmosphere that Christmas as we know it began to manifest itself. This essay will look at various aspects of Christmas celebrations during the 1830-1860 period, both those that reach down to us today and those which are but memories.

The Christmas Tree

The Godey’s Magazine publication, in 1850, of an article and illustrations depicting the British royal family’s celebrating around the christmas tree is generally seen as a seminal event in the ultimate American adoption of this German (Prince Albert, of course, was German) custom. Although the article did much to popularize the use of trees, it must be said that it was a custom that had already begun to take root across the United States. In fact, some historians argue that American adoption of the Christmas tree predated that of the British.4 There would seem to be support for this assertion. Successive waves of German immigrants probably packed in their cultural baggage the custom of adorning their homes with a small tree. As they spread through the nation, so too did the decorated tree.5

Some sources credit Hessian mercenaries with the introduction of the tree during the Revolutionary War.6 However, as there is no direct, extant evidence to prove this oft-told tale, it may be apocryphal. The likely source was probably a now forgotten German immigrant seeking to recreate a bit of his homeland in his new surroundings. No matter the originator, the christmas tree graced more than a few homes prior to 1850 and nearly every area was witness to its use.7 St. NicholasPerhaps the first American illustration of this was seen in an 1810 Krimmel painting executed in Pennsylvania.8 The Dictionary of Americanisms’ (1828) inclusion of a definition of “christmas tree” and the publication of Kris Kringle’s Christmas Tree in 1845 are indicative that the custom was more widespread than previously thought.9

With this background it is not surprising that the tree had become established by 1860. So established, in fact, that a “German tree” was placed at the White House by President Franklin Pierce in 1856.10 Whether the tree was placed upon a table as German customs prescribed or on the floor as Americans were wont to do is uncertain. Trees of the period were decorated with various edibles and home-crafted ornaments, but by 1860 glass trinkets made in Germany were becoming available to adorn the branches. Most, however, were decorated with fruits, strands, and candles. Although, some people were more creative, like the German immigrant in 1847 Ohio who had the local blacksmith pound out a metal star for his spruce, where it was placed alongside paper decorations.11


Music exclusively associated with Christmas was added to songbooks during this period. Caroling became increasingly practiced. The type of music, however, belied the burgeoning secularization of the season, as most of it was of a “sacred” nature or rampant with allusions to Christ’s birth. “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” 1851), “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (also 1851), “There Came A Little Child to Earth ” (1856), and “We Three Kings of Orient Are” (1859) all were composed before the Civil War.12

Legal Recognition

Governments recognized the growing importance of Christmas by dealing with it as they knew best: by passing a law. The first state to make Christmas a legal holiday was Alabama in 1836. Between 1850 and 1861, fifteen states (including Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Minnesota) followed suit.13 A significant result of this “legislation” was the states’ recognition of December 25th as Christmas Day. This helped standardize the date for celebration. Previously, celebrations took place at varying times during the month (particularly December 6th, St. Nicholas’s day), or on January 6th, Epiphany. Thus, events during the period helped cement the date used today.14

The original impetus for legal recognition seems to have come from the business community. The initial legislation forbade the collection of promissory notes on Christmas day and some judicial activities were suspended. Provisions for the closing of schools, banks, and government offices generally did not appear until after the Civil War.15

Christmas Cards

One modern element all but unknown during this period was the christmas card. They were relatively well-known in England by 1860, but the custom had yet to make inroads on this side of the Atlantic. The first such Christmas greetings in the United States are thought to be those issued by a New York engraver in 1851. Richard Pease printed cards, showing a family dinner scene, that read “A Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year, to: From: .”16 However, it was not until Louis Prang of Boston introduced a line of cards in 1875 that they became widely used. 17


Another “tradition” rapidly coalescing during the period–and decried still– was the commercialization of the holiday. As early as the 1830s newspapers were filled with blandishments designed with “Christmas shoppers” in mind.18 Every thing from raisins for baked goods to pianofortes for the parlor to uplifting books for the mind and soul were pushed via the papers.19 Merchants were quick to realize the potential of the gift-giving season and capitalize on the growing importance of Christmas. Santa Clauses had begun to appear on street corners and in stores by 1850. Philadelphia storeowners were among the first to offer seasonal employment to those willing to impersonate Santa.20

The trend did not go unnoticed. A Terre Haute (Ind) newspaper editor commented on the frivolity associated with the 1855 season. He was bemused by the “gambol,” gift exchanges, and the person of “Santa Clause” that seemed to dominate the holiday. He wondered if such behavior was the proper way of celebrating the birth of Christ. In a telling comment, he noted that it was probably already too late to change things, as the trend was already well established. 21

Bearers of Gifts

A major difference between the antebellum celebration and that of today was the variety of gift-bringers dotting the landscape. Of varying ethnic or national backgrounds, they scurried across the land on their mission to reward or punish. Already by 1860, though, one was beginning to overshadow the others. With the coming of the war and the enlistment of Thomas Nast to his side he would come to dominate, but in pre-Civil war America he had competition.

Santa Claus

The greatest of all modern Christmas icons, Santa Claus, was evolving during the period. Although it was to be several years before Nast was to give the jolly, round one his most enduring form, “Santa Claus” of 1860 would be easily recognizable to the modern child. “Santa,” of course did not spring full-blown upon America, but was born of legend and centuries of permutation. He was the amalgamation of the traditions of gift-givers of many cultures, a bishop legendary for his kindness, and the pens of several early 19th-century American writers.

His most likely ancestor was St. Nicholas, a 4th-century Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor. Hard facts about Nicholas are difficult to come by (not even a Papal Council could burn away much of time’s fog), but over the centuries the legend of this kindly, charitable man grew apace.22 By 1,000 c.e. Nicholas was arguably one of the most important and beloved saints in Christendom, having become the patron saint of people as diverse as pawnbrokers and spinsters in search of husbands. Most of all, he became identified as the patron of children.23

Nicholas first became associated with Christmas during the Middle Ages. An agent of this transformation may have been a 13th-century French nun who left gifts for the poor on the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day (December 6th). Thus he became linked to gift-giving.24

Not even the Reformation’s hostility toward Catholic saints could dim Nicholas’ luster in the eyes of his followers. History of Antebellum ChristmasChildren still looked forward to his gifts, or dreaded the switches he might leave behind to punish transgressors. As the latter indicates, the Nicholas legend also had its darker side. As an arbiter of behavior he could reward or punish. It is likely he was used a weapon by parents in the age-old struggle of wills. Eventually, these disciplinary duties fell to a companion, known variously Knecht Ruprecht, Schwarze Peter (Black Peter), Krampus, or Belznichol. This bearer of punishment was usually portrayed as a shaggy, dark-visaged bogeyman.25

St. Nicholas’ first appearance in the New World was in 1492, when Columbus named a bay after him.26 Times became rather lean for the saint after that, partly because America’s mainly Protestant settlers disdained saints and the rituals associated with them. Doubtless, private celebrations based upon the Nicholas legend occurred, usually among Moravians or Dutch settlers. The fact that laws were passed prohibiting is evidence enough. the above notwithstanding, St. Nicholas entered a quiescent period that was to last until the 19th century.27

The Nicholas who reemerged in the early 19th century was soon transformed into a secular saint who was to play a central role in what was to become a folk festival instead of a purely religious occasion. This revitalization came through the confluence of American literary efforts and the increased immigration of Germans and others wont to celebrate Christmas.

John Pintard, his brother-in-law Washington Irving, Clement Moore, and the anonymous author of Kriss Kringle’s Book were the literary pioneers who helped establish Santa Claus. Pintard, an early light in the in the New York Historical Society, was among the first to resurrect Nicholas, who was to become the patron saint of the society. At a society dinner in 1810 Pintard unveiled a broadside showing Nicholas, two children, and stockings hung from a fireplace. Beneath those now familiar elements of the Christmas story was the phrase “Sancta Claus, Goed Heylig Man” (Saint Nicholas, Good Holy Man).28

Irving was the next to take up Nicholas’ cause and his inclusion (twenty-three times) of him in Knickerbocker History did much to bring the old saint before the public. Clement Moore’s now universal “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (“The Night before Christmas”) was published in 1823. Its synthesis of many elements of the legend was a boon to the Christmas celebration and the exaltation of Nicholas.St. Nicholas - The Night Before Christmas Another major influence was Kriss Kringle’s Book, offered in 1842. The book told of St. Nicholas, or Kris Kringle, a “nice, fat, good humored man” who brought gifts for good children.29 The descriptions of Santa Claus in these and other books and the illustrations of Robert Weir, brought about the change in image from a thin ascetic to a robust character.

As is clear from the above, St. Nicholas, Kris Kringle, and Santa Claus had all become synonymous by mid-century. As such, it is appropriate to discuss the evolution of terms. Santa Claus is, of course, a corruption of St. Nicholas. Popular thinking has it that the Dutch were responsible for this alteration, but this appears to be untrue. Linguists view it as having originated in Switzerland where such phonetic changes were consistent with normal usage. The analogue Dutch term “Sinterklaes” postdates the original corruption.30 Kriss Kringle was a corruption of Krist -Kindl, or Christ-Child (see below), that came to be associated with the jolly, fat man instead of a cherubic child.31 Exactly when these variations occurred is impossible to pinpoint, but they were well in place by 1860.

Santa Claus, then, was well with us by 1860. A thin, ascetic saint had added much poundage, undergone a secularization process, and a name change. In the process he was becoming the center of a folk festival that was to overawe all others.


But there were still other contenders about. The Weinachtsmann was a German secular version of St. Nicholas who had made his appearance by 1800. He, too, travelled about on Christmas Eve, walking from place to place with a sack or basket of gifts. Though usually viewed as of kindly disposition, he also carried in one hand sticks meant for bad children. He was normally portrayed as a thin, stooped old man. He made a minor appearance in America among the Pennsylvania Dutch.32

Father Christmas

Father Christmas was the English equivalent of Santa, with some differences. He was not descended from the Nicholas tradition, but filtered from the pagan mists as the descendant of a character from a medieval mummers’ play. Initially, he was more concerned with wassail and mistletoe than gifts for well behaved children. However, he grew into the role of kindly gift-giver. He was transplanted to America by British immigrants. By this period he had come to more closely resemble Santa Claus in attitude and bulk.33

Pere Noel

Pere (Papa) Noel was a French gift-giver who showed up in America, mainly in Louisiana, during the period. He was a version of Santa Claus with a Gallic twist– especially among the Creole. Often he had the same fat stomach, but with the addition of a twinkling wit and an eye for the ladies. He would arrive at celebrations, joke with all present, and hand out small gifts (New Years was the time for major gifts).34

Krist-Kindl, or Christ-Child

The concept of the Christ-Child as a gift-giver evolved in Germany. The Krist- Kindl appeared as a substitute for St. Nicholas partially because, some historians argue, the old gent was too redolent of Rome for some Protestant reformers.35 At any rate, the Krist-Kindl was portrayed as a cherubic child (boy or girl) who travelled by mule carrying gifts. Children set out a basket, filled with hay for the mule, to receive their gifts. The Krist-kindl concept was adopted by some Pennsylvania Germans.36 By 1860, however, he/she was rarely a part of Christmas; the role having been overtaken by the jolly elf who had appropriated the name.


In 1805 Thomas Jefferson had 100 guests visit the White House to celebrate Christmas and he entertained the guests after dinner by playing the fiddle. President Andrew Jackson was known for hosting Christmas parties for a local orphanage and engaging in an annual snowball fight on the grounds of the White House.

One day, a nephew asked him “Did you ever hear of a Christmas without presents, Uncle Andrew?”

“Yes,” the President replied, ” once there was a little boy who never had a toy, and when his mother died he was all alone in the world. I was that boy”. This sad experience lead President Jackson to insist that there were plenty of presents under the tree for those children who shared Christmas with him in the White House.

The Christmas Tree has been a tradition in the White House since 1835 when Andrew Jackson?s French chef make him a sugar-frosted pine tree, surrounded with toy animals made out of flavored ices.

President Franklin Pierce, our 14th President erected a Christmas tree to the White House in 1856 for a group of Washington Sunday School children, while caroler’s sang “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”

One of the most unusual Christmas parties held at the White House occurred in 1857 under the Bucanan Administration. James Bucanan was without a First Lady and was widely considered to be a “lonely man”. He put out invites to his Christmas party to thirty American Indians from the tribes of the Poncas, Pawnees and Pottowatomies. According to news reports the Pottowatomies arrived in “citizens dress” but the others “‘were in their grandest attire, and more than profuse of paint and feathers”.


In the weeks leading up to Christmas, the family join in, in hanging decorations in the home. Red and green are the traditional colours of Christmas. Green represents the continuance of life through Jesus. Red symbolises the blood that Jesus shed at his Crucifixion. We hang greenery around the house such as evergreen boughs, holly and mistletoe. Wrapped around the tree as garland is a long string of popcorn, and candies and cakes, hung with ribbon. On the branches are candles and imitation and real fruits. For more great information on Victorian Christmas traditions, please visit

Washington Irving and St. Nicholas in Early New York

Early Dutch settlers of New York considered St. Nicholas to be their patron saint and practiced a yearly ritual of hanging stockings to receive presents on St. Nicholas Eve, in early December. Washington Irving, in his fanciful History of New York, mentioned that St. Nicholas had a wagon he could ride “over the tops of trees” when he brought “his yearly presents to children.”

The Dutch word “Sinterklaas” for St. Nicholas evolved into the English “Santa Claus,” thanks in part to a New York City printer, William Gilley, who published an anonymous poem referring to “Santeclaus” in a children’s book in 1821. The poem was also the first mention of a character based on St. Nicholas having a sleigh, in this case pulled by a single reindeer.

More Antebellum Christmas information from:

Clement Clarke Moore and The Night Before Christmas

Perhaps the best known poem in the English language is “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” or as it’s often called, “The Night Before Christmas.” Its author, Clement Clarke Moore, a professor who owned an estate on the west side of Manhattan, would have been quite familiar with the St. Nicholas traditions followed in early 19th century New York. The poem was first published, anonymously, in a newspaper in Troy, New York, on December 23, 1823.

Reading the poem today, one might assume that Moore simply portrayed the common traditions. Yet he actually did something quite radical by changing some of the traditions while also describing features that were entirely new.

For instance, the St. Nicholas gift giving would have taken place on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day. Moore moved the events he describes to Christmas Eve. He also came up with the concept of “St. Nick” having eight reindeer, each of them with a distinctive name.

Santa Claus Drawn by Thomas Nast

The famed American cartoonist Thomas Nast is generally credited as having invented the modern depiction of Santa Claus. Nast, who had worked as a magazine illustrator and created campaign posters for Abraham Lincoln in 1860, was hired by Harper’s Weekly in 1862. For the Christmas season he was assigned to draw the magazine’s cover, and legend has it that Lincoln himself requested a depiction of Santa Claus visiting Union troops.

The resulting cover, from the Harper’s Weekly dated January 3, 1863, was a hit. It shows Santa Claus on his sleigh, which has arrived at a U.S. Army camp festooned with a “Welcome Santa Claus” sign.

Santa’s suit features the stars and stripes of the American flag, and he’s distributing Christmas packages to the soldiers. One soldier is holding up a new pair of socks, which might be a boring present today, but would have been a highly prized item in the Army of the Potomac.

Beneath Nast’s illustration was the caption, “Santa Claus In Camp.” Appearing not long after the carnage at Antietam and Fredericksburg, the magazine cover is an apparent attempt to boost morale in a dark time.

The Santa Claus illustrations proved so popular that Thomas Nast kept drawing them every year for decades. He is also credited with creating the notion that Santa lived at the North Pole and kept a workshop manned by elves.

Prince Albert and Queen Victoria Made Christmas Trees Fashionable

The tradition of the Christmas tree came from Germany, and there are accounts of German settlers, as well as Hessian mercenaries, having them in early America. But the custom wasn’t widespread outside German communities.

The Christmas tree first gained popularity in British and American society thanks to Queen Victoria’s husband, the German-born Prince Albert. He installed a decorated Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1841, and woodcuts of the Royal Family’s tree appeared in London magazines in 1848. Such illustrations, published in America a year later, created the fashionable impression of the Christmas tree in upper class homes.

The first electric Christmas tree lights appeared in the 1880s, thanks to an associate of Thomas Edison, but were too costly for most households. Most people in the 1800s lit their Christmas trees with small candles.

Christmas Tree timeline from

  • 1510 – The first written record of a decorated Christmas Tree comes from Riga, Latvia. Men of the local merchants’ guild decorated a tree with artificial roses, danced around it in the marketplace and then set fire to it. The rose was used for many year and is considered to be a symbol for the Virgin Mary.
  • 1530 – There is record from Alsace, France (then Germany territory) that trees were sold in the marketplace and brought home and set up undecorated. Laws limited the size to “8 shoe lengths” (slightly over 4 feet).
  • 1600s – By the 17th century, it was common in Germany to decorate Christmas Trees with apples. This practice was a holdover from the 14th and 15th centuries when evergreen boughs hung with apples were the only prop used in the “miracle plays” that were performed at the churches on December 24. December 24 was Adam & Eve’s Day in the early Christian calendar, and the plays were used as ways of teaching the Bible to a largely illiterate population.
  • 1700s – In parts of Austria and Germany, evergreen tips were brought into the home and hung top down from the ceiling. They were often decorated with apples, gilded nuts and red paper strips. Edible ornaments became so popular on Christmas Trees that they were often called “sugartrees.” The first accounts of using lighted candles as decorations on Christmas Trees come from France in the 18th century.
  • 1800s – The Christmas Tree was introduced in the United States by German settlers. It rapidly grew from tabletop size to floor-to-ceiling.
  • 1851 – Christmas Trees began to be sold commercially in the United States. They were taken at random from the forests.
  • 1853 – Franklin Pierce is credited with bringing the first Christmas Tree to the White House.
  • Late 1800s – The first glass ornaments were introduced into the United States, again from Germany. The first ones were mostly balls, but later chains of balls, toys and figures became more common.
  • Around 1883 – Sears, Roebuck & Company began offering the first artificial Christmas trees – 33 limbs for $.50 and 55 limbs for $1.00.


    The earliest in the early 1800’s, as we’ve mentioned in passing,were fruit (particularly apples) and nuts. These, along with the evergreen trees themselves, represented the certainty that life would return in the spring.

    Other fruits began to be added, along with paper streamers and bits of shiny metal foil. Whether a tree was lighted or not, the idea of reflecting the light in the room where the tree stood grew in popularity.

    Another concept, too, began to take hold with the German families in whose homes the first “popular” trees resided. Food, often gingerbread or other hard cookies, would be baked in the shape of fruits, stars, hearts, angels and – yes – bells.

    As the idea of decorated Christmas trees spread, various countries added their own variations. Americans, for instance, would string long strands of cranberries or popcorn to circle their trees. Small gifts began to be used to decorate the tree, sometimes contained in little intricately woven baskets, sometimes nestled in the crook of a bough, sometimes just hanging by a thread or piece of yarn. In the UK, creative ornaments of lace, paper or other materials showed the variety of interests and talents of their makers. Small “scraps” cut out of newspaper or magazine illustrations also found their way to the family’s tree and after a few years it became harder and harder to actually see the tree beneath the ornaments.

    Angels in a Tree

    German Class Ornaments In the mid -1800S

    Up to now trees had been decorated with the creative efforts of the loving hands of family and friends. In the latter part of the Nineteenth century various German entrepreneurs began to make ornaments that were mass produced and sold strictly as Christmas ornaments.

    The area around Lauscha, long known for its glass making, was the hub of the glass ornament trade in Germany. Firms which had been making glass barometers, canes, ointment bottles, goblets, bulls-eye glass window panes, eyes for stuffed animals and brilliantly colored marbles discovered that they could diversify into making molded glass ornaments. Initially replicating fruits, nuts and other food items, they soon branched out and began to manufacture hearts, stars and other shapes that had been created out of cookies but now had the added dimension of a wide color palette enhanced by the luminosity of the glass itself.

    Blown GlassSoon the glass blowers of Lauscha were creating molds of children, saints, famous people, animals and other forms – and discovering that there was no apparent end to the market for this new type of Christmas ornament. Nearly everyone in the town was involved in some way in the creation of Christmas ornaments with whole families working either in a factory or in a home-based foundry.

    Exporting Ornaments to the world – Late 1800’s

    One of the first American mass merchandisers, F.W.Woolworth, began importing German glass ornaments into this country in the 1880s and by 1890, according to one source; he was selling $25 million worth of them. Need we remind you that the name of his stores was Woolworth’s Five and Dime Stores? That’s a lot of ornaments. We’ll find Mr.Woolworth’s name appearing again a few decades later.

    We’ve mentioned before about how legends play an important role in the way we celebrate Christmas today. One of the most popular concerns

    The Pickle Ornament.

    For generations people have been hiding a glass ornament – most likely from Lauscha – in the shape of a green pickle (gherkin or dill not specified). The rationale for the pickle is that German parents started doing it to reward the most observant child in the family. The first one to spot the pickle got an extra present from St. Nicholas on Christmas morning.

    It’s a lovely story. Except for some small details: St. Nicholas traditionally comes to visit German children on the Fifth or Sixth of December, German children traditionally open their presents on Christmas Eve, and most Germans had never heard of the pickle ornament.

    According to a recent highly reputable online review, the story gaining currency these days involves a Bavarian who came to America and fought in the Civil War. Captured by the Confederates and confined to the notorious Andersonville prison, the Bavarian, John Lower (Hans Lauer, perhaps), starving and near death, convinced a jailer to get him a pickle to eat. Buoyed both mentally and physically by eating the pickle, Lower survived and began his own tradition of hiding a small glass pickle ornament in the family Christmas tree. Its finder on Christmas morning would benefit from a year of good luck.

    Perhaps it’s just a coincidence that the main source of pickle ornaments was Lauscha. It does make a good story in either case.

    In our next installment, we’ll look at other types of ornaments and see how they evolved through the early part of the Twentieth Century.

    German Non-glass ornaments – Dresdens and Tinware

    Not far from Lauscha is the German city of Dresden. As their fellow craftsmen in Lauscha were blowing glass, artisans in Dresden were making ornaments out of pressed and embossed paper. Often highlighted with bright, even garish, colors, these ornaments were not just Christmas-themed but included fish, birds and other animals that, while consistent with Christmas ornament traditions, were also suitable for other occasions such as birthday parties.

    Other ornaments from the late-Nineteenth, early-Twentieth century were made of pressed tin (much like many of the mechanical toys coming out of Germany at the time and those of Louis Marx later in America) with brightly colored lithographed surfaces. This was the time, too, when the thin foil strips we know as “icicles” or tinsel made their appearance. To their German creators they were known as “angels’ hair”.


    The Victorians

    Christmas LampDuring the nearly seventy years of her reign, Queen Victoria presided over a resurgence of the Christmas celebration. The illustration of her family around their Christmas tree that appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in December, 1860, inspired Americans as well as their British cousins to follow her example with a decorated tree of their own. Many customs of Christmastime past had faded during the early part of the Nineteenth century, but her adoption of the season (if not the actual day of present-giving – she continued to follow an older tradition of giving gifts on January One) encouraged the rediscovery of Christmas carols, charitable giving at the season, and, of course, hearty meals of roast beef, goose or turkey followed by plum pudding.

    Many of the ornaments decorating the trees of Victorian households were of the handmade craft variety and instructions for their construction were included in popular magazines. One example includes an early light bulb, encased in a tatted net, with an observer’s woven basket suspended from the bottom: a perfect hot-air balloon.

    The ornaments that were commercially available tended to be a bit on the gaudy, well, colorful, and side. They might include brightly illustrated figures of cute angels, cute children, cute animals, and cute elves – well, you can see the trend here. They would also include fanciful creations of airships and other imaginative craft captained by Father Christmas or even Santa Claus – depending on which side of the Atlantic you resided.

    There was an abundance of lace, delicate curly wire decoration, beadwork, tinsel and other materials… often on the same ornament.

    The Increasing Popularity of Christmas

    As the Twentieth century began, Christmas and its celebration was, for most Europeans and Americans, a time to focus on the visible aspects of the season with an emphasis on the delights of children. Gift-giving to the younger members of the family was encouraged not only by the youngsters themselves, but by enterprising merchants as well.

    The number, variety and complexity of glass ornaments coming out of Germany was now augmented by competitors in Czechoslovakia and other countries. These ornaments, however, retained their handcrafted originality, even when produced in the vast numbers demanded by an ever-growing consumer base. Because they were all handmade, by people who often followed in the glassmaking traditions of generations of their families before them, each ornament had a touch of individual craftsmanship.

  • Advertisements