Sprucing Up – The History of the Christmas Tree

Bringing home the Christmas tree

On 23 December 1848, The Illustrated London News published an engraving by J. L. Williams of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their five children gathered around a twinkling Christmas tree at Windsor Castle.  The publication of the picture was to mark the defining moment for the Christmas tree and within a short few years, it had, despite Dickens dismissing it as, “the new German toy,” become a widely adopted and accepted part of festive celebrations in Britain.  But the history of the Christmas tree stretches far further into previous centuries.  Allow our timeline to take you on a pine-scented journey back in time.

Christmas Tree

8th century – European legend attributes the origin of Christmas trees to the English St. Boniface, aka Winfrid of Crediton, a missionary in Germany.  Its rather grisly genesis stems from Winfrid’s chopping down of a tree before a crowd of barbarians, used previously as a site for human sacrifices.  According to legend, the blood-stained tree, “fell like a tower, groaning as it split asunder” but close by, a young fir tree stood miraculously unharmed leading Winfrid to lecture his audience, “This little tree, a young child in the forest, shall be your holy tree tonight”


ST BONIFACE/SACRED OAK

1533 – There is a belief, particularly in Germany, that Martin Luther invented the custom.  One Christmas Eve he was so apparently moved by a firmament of shining stars that he recreated the spectacle for his family by standing a young fir tree in their darkened house and placing candles on its branches.

1605 – The earliest authentic record of Christmas trees as we known them today is in a manuscript in which a Strasbourg merchant wrote, “At Christmas, they set up fir trees in the parlours of Strasbourg and hang thereon roses cut out of many coloured paper, apples, wafers, gold-foil, sweets etc.”

Martin Luther with his Family and their Christmas Tree

1737 – A member of the University of Wittenberg describes a country lady who distributed little trees bearing lighted candles to children, together with gifts laid beneath them.  Later in the century, Samuel Coleridge visited Germany and was intrigued by the delight his hosts took in their Christmas tree, which he described as, “a pleasing novelty”.

1800 – Queen Charlotte, German wife of King George III, hosts a children’s party at which a large yew tree is centre stage, decorated with, “bunches of sweetmeats, almonds, and raisins, in papers, fruits, and toys, most tastefully arranged, and the whole illuminated by small wax candles.”

Decorating the Christmas tree, 1938.
1820s
– In the household of Queen Caroline, maligned consort of George IV, Germans set up Christmas trees bright with candles and hung with presents for English children of the palace.

1840 – A thriving market for pine-tops are sold at a market in Manchester by German immigrants.

CHRISTMAS/TREE DUG UP

1841 – Prince Albert introduces a bedecked tree into seasonal royal festivities writing, “Today I have two children of my own to give present to who, they know not why, are full of happy wonder at the German Christmas tree and its radiant candles.”

1845 – First illustration of a Christmas tree in The Illustrated London News on 27 December 1845 accompanying a report on a celebration given by the London Mission Society at the Temperance Hall in Cripplegate for the benefit of 400 London children.  Their enjoyment “was crowned especially by the exhibition of a German Christmas tree, or Tree of Love, which was erected upon the stage of the Hall.”

Christmas tree at the Temperance Hall, 1845

1848 – One of the ILN’s most famous pictures is published in its 23 December issue and leads to the popularisation of the Christmas tree.  The engraving is accompanied by the following explanation of the tree as, “that which is annually prepared by her Majesty’s command for the Royal Children.  Similar trees are arranged in other apartments of the Castle for her Majesty, his Royal Highness Prince Albert, her Royal Highness the Duchess of Kent, and the Royal household.  Her Majesty’s tree is furnished by His Royal Highness Prince Albert, whilst that of the Prince is furnished according to the taste of her Majesty.”

Queen Victoria's Christmas tree

1851 – Although Christmas trees have been introduced to America by German immigrants in Pennsylvania, the tradition becomes widespread in this year when a woodsman called Mark Carr begins selling trees from Catskills at what will become Mark Carr’s Corner in New York.

1854 – A giant Christmas tree is erected at Crystal Palace.  Christmas trees for sale in Covent Garden market pictured in The Illustrated London News.

Christmas trees in Covent Garden Market, London

1864 – William Chambers writes of the Christmas tree, “the custom has been introduced into England with the greatest success”

1914 – On the Western Front in December 1914, small decorated Christmas trees are used as signs of a temporary truce by German soldiers.


CHRISTMAS TRUCE 1914 WW1

1930 – Artificial Christmas trees were made from dyed goose feathers in 19th century Germany, but in 1930 a British-based Addis Housewares Company created the first artificial Christmas tree made from brush bristles. The company used the same machinery that it used to manufacture toilet brushes.  (Aluminium foil Christmas trees appear in America in 1958).

1947 – A large Christmas tree is gifted to Britain by the city of Oslo as a token of gratitude for British support to Norway during the Second World War.  Given annually, the tree is the central focus of Christmas carol-singing in Trafalgar Square every year.

TRAFALGAR SQUARE TREE

2017 – Mary Evans Picture Library has almost 2000 pictures on their website charting the legends and history of Christmas trees

Christmas Tree Shopping

 

Postcards from the nursery: the collection of Peter & Dawn cope

The magical collection of postcards and ephemera amassed by Peter and Dawn Cope has been represented by us here at Mary Evans for almost eight years.  We quizzed its owners, the authors of ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ (Cavendish Publishing, 2000) on the origins of this incredible archive.  Read on to discover more:

 

Children with tangled kites
What sparked your interest in postcards and their illustrators?

Good question. It comes down to the fact that Dawn trained as an architect and I was trained as a graphic designer, so we love visual imagery. In the early seventies when we were raising our family, we were attracted to a very shabby copy of Kate Greenaway’s ‘A Apple Pie’ at the Saturday antique market held behind The Standard pub in Blackheath. From there we built up an good collection of Greenaway books which were fashionable at the time.

Then we began to attend book auctions at Sothebys, then held at Chancery Lane. Here we met plenty of book people who opened our eyes to other illustrators including Willebeek le Mair, Charles Robinson, Rackham, etc, etc. I recall that we bid for and bought for £470 a set of 10 watercolours by Millicent Sowerby, illustrated by her for publication in Humphrey Milford children’s annuals. This led us into collecting 1920s children’s books.

On a rainy holiday trudging round a market in Truro we stumbled on a postcard album brim full of postcards illustrated by Humphrey Milford artists like Lilian Govey, Eileen Hood, Susan Pearse and Millicent Sowerby. Contained in the album were 500 postcards sent to two children living in Plymouth by their parents (who were away a lot) and their grandma. This fed our appetite for more, so countless postcard fairs then ensued.

Nursery land

It’s a pretty extensive collection. Do you know how many postcards you have?

About 10,000.

And are you still collecting?

Yes. The collection has broadened to include various artists and publishers whose illustrative work epitomises social taste and the activities of the period 1900-1930 – the years covered by our collection.

Do you have a particular favourite illustrator?

One of our many favourites is Florence Hardy, sister of Dudley Hardy and daughter of marine painter Thomas Bush Hardy. She trained at the Sorbonne as a miniaturist. But by the time she graduated there wasn’t much demand for miniature painting. And when her father drank himself to death in 1897 leaving his new young wife (formerly the family housemaid) with a baby, Florence was obliged to seek work as a postcard and greeting card illustrator, to support the large family. I was told she worked with a magnifying glass. If you look at one of her postcards you will appreciate that it is carried out with the precision of a miniaturist.

Pub: Humphrey Milford, 'Postcards for the Little Ones'. Sky Fairies series. Fairies frolicking in the sky. Artist: Amy Millicent Sowerby Date: 1920

A lot of postcard artists in this genre were women. Why do you think this is?

There is a section on the rise of women artists in our book (see pages 22-25). Briefly, towards the end of the nineteenth century more girls had the freedom to attend art school at a time when women were campaigning for greater independence. Enterprising women, mainly from the middle class, found that they could combine freelance commercial illustration without compromising their family duties. And when World War 1 came along they contributed to the war effort by creating patriotic postcards featuring children, aimed at spreading propaganda to the youngest members of society.

Four little girls dressed in identical red capes and carrying matching fur muffs step out looking very festive. Date: c.1920

Did you meet any of the artists featured in ‘Postcards from the Nursery’?

We met Molly Brett, René Cloke, Kay Nixon, Susan Pearse, Joyce Plumstead, Jenifer Rickard and May Smith. We also met many of the next generation whose artist relatives were by then deceased.

Other than postcards, do you collect any other types of ephemera?

Post-Victorian greeting cards (many illustrated by our favourite postcard illustrators)
Illustrated children’s books including:

Dean’s Rag Books and Rag Sheets 1902-1940 (about 300+ rag books and 100+ rag sheets) Miniature children’s books published by Humphrey Milford (about 300 books)
Kate Greenaway (extensive collection)
Henriette Willebeek le Mair (extensive collection of books, postcards and china)**

Paintings and drawings by children’s book artists including:

Florence Mary Anderson, Maude Angell, Honor Appleton, Edith Berkeley, Edna Clarke-Hall, Muriel Dawson, Charles Folkard, Lilian Govey, Kate Greenaway, Florence Hardy, Helen Jacobs, Helen Grace Marsh Lambert, Ethel Larcombe, Joyce Mercer, Ethel Parkinson, Susan Beatrice Pearse, Rosa Petherick, Agnes Richardson, Millicent Sowerby, Fred Spurgin, Margaret Tarrant, Dorothy Wheeler.

Nursery china
Penguin Books published 1960-1980 (about 2200 books)
Books on art and design

**During the nineteen seventies and eighties I acted as design consultant to a London-based publisher,
reproducing the illustrations of Henriette Willebeek le Mair into books and on to porcelain in a more modern format. As a result we were introduced to the son of her original publisher, Augener. He sold me several signed limited edition copies of her famous books.

Do you have any plans for your collection?

Our prime concern is deciding how best to keep the collection intact after we depart. Currently we are at an advanced stage of building a Filemaker database for the postcard collection which may be extended to our greeting cards and other ephemera in due course. Ideally, we will want to sell the collection as a single entity to a university library or national institution either in the UK or abroad.

Delineator July 1929 - Cover in Art Deco style depicts a woman by the sea with cruise liner. Date: 1929

Have you ever considered an exhibition?

We have held a successful three month exhibition entitled ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ at Bethnal Green Museum in 1979, which was widely reviewed in the national press. One of our guests was Susan Pearse, artist of the Ameliaranne series of books from the twenties, thirties and forties, who was approaching 100 years of age by the time the exhibition opened.

We would love to mount another exhibition and create another book with a fresh presentation, make corrections and add new material and information gleaned over the ensuing years since ‘Postcards from the Nursery’ was published 17 years ago. Ideas and suggestions would be most welcome.

Christmas scene

Can you explain the obsession among postcard artists with Holland?

In Edwardian Britain people began to venture abroad for their summer holidays. Holland was the popular destination of choice. The Dutch were friendly and welcoming and most of them spoke English, whereas the French, after many years battling with the British, tended to be less welcoming towards British holidaymakers.

Spain and Italy were too distant for all but the wealthy. Consequently, the Dutch responded to this surge of British visitors by creating a huge market for souvenirs for the British to take home, and postcards that they could send back to their loved ones. At this time children seldom went abroad with their parents, but remained at home with their governesses, so they would receive postcards from their parents depicting Dutch children.

Here’s a lightbox of 100 images from the Peter & Dawn Cope collection.

Dutch boy and girl in blue

Festive old Father Christmas

Nowadays, Father Christmas and Santa Claus are a more or less interchangeable festive character, typifying the spirit of good Christmas cheer.

‘Twas not ever thus however. In Britain, the 19th century Victorian revival of Christmas customs reinvigorated a folkloric figure of old Father Christmas that owed much to mummers plays, the Merry England of Walter Scott’s 1808 poem Marmion, and Thomas Hervey’s 1836 Book of Christmas. Hervey’s Father Christmas is dressed in a long robe and wears a holly crown, while his followers include Roast Beef, Plum Pudding, Wassail, Misrule and the Lord of Twelfth Night.

A Christmas parade by Alfred Crowquill
A Christmas Parade by Alfred Crowquill, from the Illustrated London News, December 1844, shows some of these characters processing through the snow.

 

We have other similar depictions of Father Christmas in the mid-19th century from the Illustrated London News and the Illustrated Times, which show the holly-adorned merrymaker having a pretty hedonistic time.

"Heaven Bless you Merry Gentlefolks let Nothing You Dismay," Page of Victorian men and women getting into the Christmas spirit! indulging themselves in food, drink and dance.
(Left) Jolly Old Christmas by Smyth in the Illustrated London News December 1844. (Right) Merry Christmas! by Kenny Meadows in A Holiday Book for Christmas and the New Year, 1840s

 

The figure of Santa Claus originated in the Dutch-American communities of the USA, with the 4th century Saint Nicholas giving us the name from the Dutch dialect word Sinterklaas. He was associated with the present-giving theme for good children much more than the English Father Christmas. Santa’s character was developed by Clement C. Moore’s 1823 poem A Visit from St Nicholas, otherwise known as ‘Twas the Night before Christmas. Many familiar motifs appear in this poem, including Santa’s sleigh and reindeer, his toys-via-chimney delivery preference, and his rosy cheeks, round belly and white beard. But his diminutive stature described in the poem (which logically he’d need for a trip down the chimney) hasn’t survived to the present day.

SANTA FILLING STOCKINGS
Arthur Rackham’s illustrations of 1931 depict the ‘jolly old elf’ St Nick

 

The later 19th century started to see a blurring of distinctions between Father Christmas and Santa Claus, and the crown of holly was sometimes replaced by a hood. In 1879 the Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News commented, “he is generally a rollicking, robust old gentleman, with a wreath of holly round his head, a warm robe of brown trimmed with fur…I have also seen him in the window of a sweet-stuff shop with a hood over his venerable head”. In the States, caricaturist Thomas Nast’s version of Santa in Harper’s Weekly in the 1860s, further refined the image of modern Santa although it’s notable he still has the holly crown.

A pot-bellied Father Christmas with lots of presents. Date: circa 1870
Merry Old Santa Claus by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, 1860s

The vibrant red that Santa has worn exclusively since around the 1930s was not his sole colour choice in the late Victorian and Edwardian periods. Father Christmas on cards and scraps can often be found in a rainbow of colours from green to blue to violet, as well as in brown and white. Red, the colour associated with St Nicholas (and a Coca-Cola advertising campaign in the early thirties), won through convincingly in the end.

Portrait of Father Christmas on a Christmas card
(Left) In green on a Christmas and New Year card, c.1890s. (Centre) In blue on a Christmas card with holly, C.1900s. (Right) In purple delivering presents on a postcard, 1908.

Santa Claus on a Christmas card

(Left) In white on a Victorian scrap. (Centre) In brown on a Christmas card, c.1890s. The goat is an interesting inclusion, chiming with Thomas Hervey’s 1836 personification of Old Father Christmas riding a yule goat. (Right) In red delivering presents, Lizzie (Lawson) Mack in ‘Old Father Christmas’, 1889.