Decorating Fragrant Evergreens
Jazz Guy: New York City, Nov 29, 2008 (CC)
From History Today:
As early as 1832, Harriet Martineau had identified what would become one of the most familiar symbols of the American Christmas. She had ‘little doubt’ that the Christmas tree would ‘become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England’. By the 1850s, many Americans, not just New Englanders, had fallen in love with the German custom. Some had seen Christmas trees for the first time when they had toured Germany and then recreated their experience of German Christmas celebrations for friends at home. Others viewed them first-hand in the homes of German Americans. The media introduced the custom even more widely, inspiring Americans throughout the nation to adopt the tradition as their own.
As the tree gained prominence in front parlours, it also assumed a place in the market. During the 1850s, town squares began to bristle with trees cut for seasonable profits. Seamlessly, the ‘German-ness’ of the tree receded as it became an icon of an American festival and, to some, an index of acculturation. Even in the homes of ‘the Hebrew brethren’, ‘Christmas trees bloomed’, noted a Philadelphia newspaper in 1877. ‘[T]he little ones of Israel were as happy over them as Christian children’. By 1900, one American in five was estimated to have a Christmas tree.
At first, the decoration of these fragrant evergreens reflected the whim of folk tradition. Celebrants added nuts, strings of popcorn or beads, oranges, lemons, candies and home-made trinkets. However, widely-read newspapers and ladies’ magazines raised the standards for ornamentation. (One suggestion: cotton batting dipped in thin gum arabic then diamond dust made a ‘beautiful frosting’ for tree branches.) Homely affectations gave way to more uniform and sophisticated ones, the old style overtaken by the urge to make the tree a showpiece for the artistic arrangement of ‘glittering baubles, the stars, angels, etc’.
Tree decoration soon became big business. As early as 1870, American businessmen began to import large quantities of ornaments from Germany to be sold on street corners and, later, in toy shops and variety stores. Vendors hawked glass ornaments and balls in bright colours, tin cut in all imaginable shapes and wax angels with spun glass wings. ‘So many charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home’, one advertisement declared.
Fraser Mummery: Christmas at Rockefeller, 2011 (CC)