Posted by: Karlee A. Turner | December 3, 2014

Christmas Trees and Godey’s Lady’s Book

The Earliest American Christmas Trees: The arrival of St. Nicholas or Santa Claus was but one part of the transformation of Christmas during the nineteenth century. Another tradition embraced and adapted by much of the world, including America, was the Christmas tree. Many people around the world credit the German people as the contributors of a decorated evergreen tree within their home for the Christmas season, although, in actuality the Christmas tree has a long history dating as far back as pre-Christian times.  Evergreens symbolized fertility and regeneration to the Romans, while Christians adapted the meaning of the tree as a symbol of new beginnings – it represented the Tree of Life (forever green) and Jesus (forever with us).

 The earliest American Christmas tree can be traced back to a sketch drawn from real life by John Lewis Krimmel. Kimmel was a German who emigrated to the Philadelphia countryside and created the sketch (below) as early as 1812 or 1819 – the same decade that St. Nicholas first made his appearance in New York state. History buffs may recall that New York was originally a Dutch Republic and called New Amsterdam, hence it seems logical that the earliest American tree might have originated within the German-American population. Over the next twenty years, the Christmas tree gradually increased in popularity.

The first printed image (below) of an American Christmas tree occurred in 1836. It appeared in Boston as the front piece on a Gift Book titled, The Stranger’s Gift. The book was written by another German immigrant named Herman Bokum.  Bokum had filled a Harvard teaching position vacated by a Hessian named Charles Follen, who just four years before in 1832 had put up a tree in his Cambridge home. It was reported by an eye-witnesses that Follen decorated his tree with seven-inch tapers, gilded egg cups, paper cornucopiae filled with comfits, lozenges and barley sugar. By 1834, it seems that Dr. Constantin Herig and Frederick Knerr brought the first Christmas tree to Philadelphia. Needless to say, the idea of a Christmas Tree continued to increase in popularity. In 1847, a man named William A. Muhlenberg, a native of Reading, PA had a tree put up at his Sunday School in New York.  Soon Christmas trees became more common, although they had not yet achieved universal appeal, as they would by the 1850’s – 1860’s.

Godey’s 1850 December publication further promoted the charm of an in-home Christmas tree when they highlighted Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s Christmas celebration which included a table-top tree (see below). The same print appeared in Godey’s December 1860 issue.  Of course, when the print was originally published in 1850, it had been Americanized; that is Queen Victoria’s crown and Prince Albert’s mustache had been removed from the original 1848 Illustrated London News engraving.  Albert was born near Colburg, Germany and had a Christmas tree as a child and noted years later after his marriage to Victoria, “I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest [his brother] and I were in the old-time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be,”(1). However, the idea of a Christmas tree was not unheard of by Victoria either; as the 13-year old princess wrote in her diary in December 1832: “After dinner….we then went into the drawing-room near the dining room….There were two large round tables on which were placed two trees hung with lights [candle tapers] and sugar ornaments,”(2).

(1) Source: The Prince Consort: Man of Many Facets. The World and Age of Prince Albert, page 78. Oresko Books, 1977.

(2) Source: The Girlhood of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s Diaries, page 61. Longmans, Green and Company, University of Wisconsin (date unknown).

Over the next decade and beyond, Christmas trees began to appear in church and marketplace, which in turn served to increase their use in homes. Calvinists, however, continued to resist Christmas trees although many others welcomed it as an important aspect of their interior holiday decor.

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Responses

  1. […] For more information and photos of early Christmas trees go to https://karleeaturner.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/godeys-christmas-1848-issue/    […]

  2. […] more information and photos of early Christmas trees go to https://karleeaturner.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/godeys-christmas-1848-issue/ GA_googleAddAttr("AdOpt", "1"); GA_googleAddAttr("Origin", "other"); GA_googleAddAttr("LangId", […]

  3. Thanks Karlee


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