December 15, 2011

O Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum


As you settle into Christmas traditions of your own—re-watching that Rudolph claymation film, stringing popcorn and cranberries to hang on the tree, and dining on fried catfish and Austrian potato salad on Christmas Eve being a few of my childhood favorites—here’s a look at how Americans during the Gilded Age celebrated “the most wonderful time of the year.”

(This blog is first in a short series of snapshots that illustrate how Americans in the late 19th and early 20th centuries came upon or celebrated certain holiday traditions.)

Anyone who has been by Daley Plaza this month, where the Christkindlmarket showcases German wares and serves up hot, spiced Glühwein, can attest: We owe a lot to Germany for our holiday traditions.

The Christmas tree, for example. Germans have been hacking down coniferous trees and decorating them—with real lit candles, mostly—for centuries. Then, when England’s Queen Victoria married into German culture through Prince Albert, an 1846 illustration showed the couple and their children standing around a small evergreen with gifts scattered beneath it and candles blazing on its branches. This was enough to launch the Christmas tree into mass popularity, and English families started to add little personal touches of their own to its branches.

The U.S. took a bit longer to catch on to the adorned evergreen. A country of immigrants, America’s early citizens tended to carry over, then preserve, their homeland traditions on these new shores. Also, the tradition of using candles restricted the Christmas tree’s popularity somewhat, since a cozy evening by the tree could just as quickly turn into a tragic blaze that took the house down with it.

But in the late 19th century, in-home Christmas trees began to steadily increase thanks to the invention of electric lights. The open-flame hazard was eliminated: A tradition previously enjoyed by the very brave or confident could now be safely celebrated by all. (Well, mostly. First, only the rich could afford them. Second, the early electric bulbs burned so hot they presented a fire hazard of their own.)

A reporter with the Detroit Post and Tribune visited the New York City home of Edward H. Johnson, an associate of Thomas Edison’s, to see his first foray into the electric Christmas light in 1882, just a few years after Edison invented his bulbs:

“There, at the rear of the beautiful parlors, was a large Christmas tree, presenting a most picturesque and uncanny aspect. It was brilliantly lighted with many colored globes about as large as an English walnut and was turning some six times a minute on a little pine box. There were eighty lights in all encased in these dainty glass eggs, and about equally divided between white, red and blue. As the tree turned, the colors alternated, all the lamps going out and being relit at every revolution. The result was a continuous twinkling of dancing colors, red, white and blue, all evening. … It was a superb exhibition.”

By 1900, one in five American families had incorporated the Christmas tree into their annual traditions. People influenced by the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements, with their dislike of unadorned spaces, helped usher in the immense popularity of ornaments, including glass bulbs, homemade crafts, and objects of religious significance (like the angel or star one places atop the tree).

—Lindsey Howald Patton

National Electrical Contractors Association
Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas, Ace Collins. Grand Rapids: Zondervan (2003)
The Christmas Tree Farm Network
The Christmas Archives
Photo: Courtesy Lindsey Howald Patton


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