Sunday, December 10, 2017


Victorian Christmas trees were amazing. Instead of using a live tree, the Victorians borrowed the German-style tree that was small, made of wood dowels, and covered in feathers. Could they possibly be responsible for the acceptance of our artificial trees today? Then the German beautiful blown glass ornaments decorated these trees. They are often copied today making it even more difficult to know the difference between the new stuff from the truly old stuff. These shiny, colorful ornaments became the rage throughout Europe and then here in the USA. The other ornaments that were popular were colorful birds made of stuffing and feathers. And of course the required candles to light the tree.
As a child, I thought those pictures of the trees with candles burning on them were scary. What I didn't know was it was very rare they were lit for more than a minute to two. It was a big ceremony to light the tree, sing a little Christmas song while admiring them and then quickly snuff all those candles. No one blew the candles out because of the chance of blowing a spark onto the tree and setting it on fire. So they used candlesnuffers. Plus there were probably several buckets of water waiting as a precaution.
But to those folks living in the West, many did not have such frivolities nor could they afford them. Those in towns were more apt to have a tree like we might imagine. Still by today's standards, the Christmas trees then could be fairly comparable to today's if we consider how many times we've copied from the past with today's versions of Victorian or the primitive country-style. The big difference is those electrical strings of lights. The old trees with their tinfoil ornaments and those lovely flat lead ones made to look like snowflakes or stars, and strings of candy or nuts, were quite lovely. Maybe those who didn't put much emphasis on fancy decorations and never saw a visitor over the holiday except for those who worked the ranch, had less gilding, but it was a safer tree without all that lead - they didn't know a thing about how dangerous lead was.
Anyone remember the lead tinsel as a child? I do. It was so much "nicer" than the cellophane stuff we buy today that floats around the house and seems to reappear in the strangest places and at various times until well after Easter. But Easter grass has the same magical quality of lingering. When I think about all those times I handled that lead tinsel as a small child - oh-h-h.
Ranching was a tough business. And in places, trees were not exactly easily obtained. So feather trees were a great alternative, but they didn't catch on until the latter part of the 1800's. Feathers were abundant from those wild birds the family ate and from the chickens raised for food. The trunk made from a wooden dowel, could be covered in crinkled paper to make it look more like a tree and not just a plain dowel. Or sometimes this artificial tree trunk was covered in more feathers. But I'm also certain that a sturdy branch would also work very well. Ornaments were made of wood, paper, nuts, candy, or any sort of beans or cranberries or other small fruit that had been dried. Yes, paper chains, but also little paper cornucopias were filled with sweetmeats. Think mini cookies or cupcakes for sweetmeats - it's the sweetbreads that were a meat dish. Isn't our language confusing?
If the family lived in the woods, pinecones were often gathered in the spring and saved until Christmas to decorate the house. To make the pinecones look special, they might be painted with a little leftover barn paint and tipped in white from another project. Oh more lead paint, how did they survive? I guess the same way I did. Don't eat it. Anything could become a decoration for the tree. Ribbons were frequently found on the Christmas trees because they could be obtained in just about every color and many times with gold or silver woven in them. They easily wrapped a branch and were tied into a bow. No lights on the tree until that fabulous illumination on Christmas Eve or Christmas.
The pinecones were then saved and used as fire-starter for the fireplace or kitchen stove. I wonder if that means the lead from the paint on them became airborne and was now in their food? I'm not a chemist so I have no clue but that's the way my mind works.
But if the family had recently put a tin roof on the house, outbuilding, or barn they might have pieces of tin leftover. Then they could take tin snips and cut stars and other favorite shapes from the tin. Tin didn't shine as pretty as the bright side of aluminum foil, but it could be polished to closely resemble it. No fancy store bought polish was needed, just plain ashes taken from the wood or coal stove, mixed with a few drops of water, lots of what my grandparents called elbow grease, and almost anything could shine. I'm certain many a man wanted to surprise the occupants of the house with lovely little tree ornaments so he would get up from his evening supper and disappear into the barn to cut and polish some stars.
And if he wasn't doing that, he was carving tiny wooden ornaments from whatever wood he might have. It was not unusual for the wooden ornaments to represent a family member. If someone had sailed over on a ship, they might carve that or it could be that someone was fascinated with them. Frequently the ornaments represented farm animals or a baby's bed possibly to celebrate an upcoming birth, baby's first year, or to remember the child that was lost.
If it had been an exceptional good year, the wife might have one or more of those beautiful glass ornaments from Germany to hang on the tree. Hand crocheted snowflakes, little embroidered items that had been stitched and framed or stuffed like a patchwork quilt became a decoration. Even the simple clothespin could be converted to a tree ornament.
How do we know some of this? Frugal grandparents that managed to save these old items or collected them at garage sales or estate sales. Many have been donated to their local museum, and in a few cases, they are still being used on a tree because someone is interested in these items from yesteryear that had been passed down through the generations. They could be elaborate or plain depended on the skill of whoever was making it. But you can be assured that it was made with love.
My second full-length western historical A Rancher Dream has a scene in it where Christmas is described and you'll see the difference where Tiago thinks about his wealthy family's Christmas tree compared to the Coleman's Christmas tree.

A week before Christmas, Joseph found a pine tree, cut it down, and brought it inside. The children decorated it with bits of colored paper. Tiago took a scrap piece of tin from the barn and polished it with ashes from the stove before cutting it into strips, punching a small hole in each one, and twirling them. Alisa loved the shiny objects, and hung them on the tree with bits of ribbon.
It was a poor man’s Christmas, but no one seemed to notice. His family had a beautiful tree that went almost to the ceiling and was covered in imported ornaments from Spain and Italy. On Christmas Eve, when family and friends gathered at the house, his mother and father would light the tiny candles that covered it. It was magical even as an adult.
In the Coleman house, the women made cookies and sang songs as they prepared for the holiday. Lydia’s boys asked for trains and when he heard that they weren’t getting very much, he threatened Ingrid to stay in the house while he retreated to the barn. With only a few woodworking tools, he managed to make trains for the boys cut from some pieces of scrap lumber. They were solid and sturdy. He used a heated rod and decorated the plain wood. They weren’t fancy trains, but the wheels turned and he was certain Lydia’s boys had enough imagination to enjoy the primitive toys.

If you'd like to read more about Tiago and Ingrid visit Amazon:

 This Christmas as you decorate your tree for the holidays, remember what once was. Just as we remember the origin of each ornament. It was the same for our previous generations. The difference today is that Popsicle stick decoration that your little one has made probably looks better then the twig one made a hundred and forty ago or maybe not. 

from my house to yours


  1. I've seen German dowel trees but the feather tree is a new one on me. Such a variety of possible colors! In the winter of 1947-48, I moved to Florida from NJ's harsh winter. Trees on the light posts in the south turned brown in the sun! A shock to my 9 year old self. In 1970, times were tough and our "tree" was a branch! We learn to make do!

  2. I never thought about those southern decorations turning brown in the sun. Friends who live in those no-snow zones swear that palm trees decorated with lights are amazingly beautiful.

    I don't think the feather trees look much like Xmas, but that's me. :-) Easter?

    Years ago, a friend's husband went into the woods to find the perfect tree. Three days of running around their newly acquired property left him pretty upset. Out of frustration, he cut three pitiful branches and brought them home and left them in the bucket of water on their porch. Wife took one look and laughed, knowing it was a joke that really wasn't...exactly a joke. The next day when he got home from work, she had tied the three branches together with sturdy string that she found in his garage. Then she proceeded to decorate the "tree". It was funny-looking, but it matched their personalities and their quirky taste in art. In the ten years that they were our neighbors, they had become so fond of the Bohemian-style Xmas trees, they never attempted to do another traditional tree.

    Christmas is what we make it. And 100+ years ago, those families that made do or the others who wanted that perfect tree with beautiful imported ornaments are no different than those of us today. Isn't that exactly what we do?

  3. I always wondered why those Victorian trees didn't catch on fire..thanks for enlightening me on that fact.
    Feathers...uh-uh. Those don't seem right for a Christmas tree.
    We always had a green tree--never an artificial one--as a child and during the years I put up a tree--which I don't anymore. My two sisters got married at Christmas in small weddings in our parents' living room. I married at Christmas, too, but we had a big church wedding. My older sister's wedding was to take place about noontime on Christmas Day. We all had Christmas the night before in the living room. The next morning, Daddy had orders to "get that tree down before the wedding.Before we could take down the decorations, Daddy began to vacuum. The cord caught on a bottom limb, and down came the baubles, icicles, and all==strung out across the carpet in the living room. Countdown to the ceremony--all hands on deck...pick up every scrape of tinsel, etc...vacuum wasn't working right. Whew! A very nervous bride finally said, "I do."

  4. I agree, feathers seems a little odd for Christmas, but for those who never had live trees, maybe that seems odd and a waste of a natural resource. Remember that Christmas trees are farmed, even trees used for lumber are farmed and paper comes from the trees that are thinned from the stand.

    Oh my goodness. Christmas Nightmare! But why take the tree down for a Christmas wedding? I would think that would be part of the charm of marrying at Christmastime.

  5. I thought your excerpt was enchanting and warm for A Rancher's Dream.

    My father used to talk about life growing up in the little red school house his father transformed into a home. He would reminisce about his childhood before people in his small Pennsylvania town had electricity or running water.
    He told me about their Christmas tree which was usually a bunch of pine boughs placed in a big pitcher, decorated with homemade ornaments and candles for light. My grandfather was very cautious about setting fire to those candles and stood by with a bucket of water when they lit those candles.

    Your article was filled with wonderful facts about Christmas trees and ornaments. I do remember those metal "icicles". Mom loved those things. I had no idea they were made of lead. What a dangerous world we lived in then--and yet, we survived. This was a lovely blog, E.

    1. Thank you, Sarah. I appreciate your kind comment and I loved your father's childhood Xmas tree. I should consider it, being it's just me. I'll skip the candles. :-)


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