Although Christmas trees had been brought to England before the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign in 1837, it was Prince Albert’s influence on the Queen that first led to these material things becoming essential components of an English Christmas. Originating in Germany, with legendry links to St Boniface who introduced the Germans to Christianity, Albert encouraged his young wife to adopt this festive tradition after they were married in 1840. Setting an example that was then quickly copied first by the English elite and then adopted throughout society, Queen Victoria’s example not only established the practice of displaying and decorating a Christmas tree, but also contributed to a more general growth in the popularity of the festive season. Royal ascent for the Christmas tree combined with the Oxford Movement’s re-statement of the importance of Christmas and many other religious festivals, and the publication of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in 1843 resulted in Christmas being established as a popular and respectable Christian activity in the Victorian calendar.
Christmas trees quickly became synonymous with Christmas. Public places and institutions adopted Christmas trees as central festive ornaments. In 1875, the Archway Road Wesleyan Chapel decided to celebrate Christmas with a selection of lectures and a Christmas tree, in 1876 the Bow Road Wesleyan Mission Circuit decided to erect a Christmas tree at their bazaar and this image of Mr Charrington’s Assembly Hall in 1893, illustrates a large Christmas tree centrally positioned on the hall’s stage.
Images of Christmas trees also became extremely popular on Christmas cards, these examples from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s collections dating from c.1860-1880 and c.1900.
Representing children decorating trees in preparation for Christmas, these cards illustrate the important place that the tree had rapidly gained within Victorian Christmas traditions.
However, beyond the concept of the Christmas tree itself, these images also help offer other insights into the more detailed material culture of a Victorian Christmas, providing some suggestions about the sorts of material things that were used to decorate these trees. Early Christmas trees were largely decorated with homemade and edible ornaments including paper decorations, popcorn wreaths, gingerbread men, nuts and dried fruit hung from the tree in little nets. Indeed, it is likely that the red, white and blue candles represented on the earlier of these two Christmas cards would have been home made too. These crafted Christmas tree decorations were made in a broader context of gentrified craft and homemade production. During this period, middle and upper class women regularly conducted small scale, craft-like production for leisure, rather than economic purposes and patterns for paper decorations were regularly included in magazines aimed at middle class women. Indeed, Sarah O’Brien has identified how women were likely to have been primarily responsible for the practical day-to-day decoration of nineteenth-century Catholic spaces and it is therefore likely that the women making decorations for their Christmas trees were also crafting decorations for other spaces they inhabited.
By the latter stages of the nineteenth century, Christmas trees were more regularly decorated with shop bought decorations and it is likely that the miniature figurines and national flags used to decorate the trees in the two cards from the V&A, would have been bought rather than made. These two angel figures are now in the Museum of London’s collection and are likely to have been used as Christmas tree decorations.
Their bodies made out of carved and painted wood, they are dressed in cotton, have cardboard wings attached to their backs and a loop of cord, indicating their use as Christmas decorations. Dating from about 1870 it is unclear whether these angels were specifically made to be tree decorations or appropriated for this purpose. Nevertheless, these decorations provide an intimate insight into the materiality of the sorts of ornaments included on trees. Combining several materials that, despite lasting nearly 150 years, are all largely fragile and ephemeral, none of the materials used to make these angels were particularly expensive and their faces are not the picture of angelic delicacy! Therefore, although it is difficult to analyse the quality of the whole range of Christmas decorations made during the Victorian era, these examples seem to suggest that just as their handmade ornaments were either edible or highly ephemeral, at least some of their later tree decorations were also intended to have limited life spans.
In addition to raising the obvious safety concerns of a twenty-first century eye, these illustrations of, and actual material decorations from, Victorian Christmas trees not only provide some insight into what these trees looked liked, but also suggest something about the material processes and values that contributed to their decoration.
O’Brien, Susan, ‘Making Catholic Spaces: Women, Décor, and Devotion in the English Catholic Church, 1840-1900’, The Church and the Arts, Papers Read at the 1990 Summer Meeting and 1991 Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Diana Wood (Blackwell Publishers, 1992), pp.449-464