When we think of magic, probably one of the most magical things of the Christmas season are brilliantly lit Christmas trees. Although decking the house with boughs of pine was a traditional Christmas practice [the pine scent was believed to clean the air and prevent disease], Christmas trees were uncommon in early America. The custom, introduced by German immigrants, did not become well established in America until Queen Victoria and her family were sketched in front of a Christmas tree in 1848. Immediately decorating trees for the holidays became popular in England, and by extension, in the status-conscious middle and upper class families of the eastern shore of the United States.
By the Civil War, although a luxury, Christmas trees were frequently featured in magazine illustrations and children’s story books. In 1865, Septimus Piesse gave the following directions for setting up the Christmas tree in his book Chymical, Natural and Physical, Magic (p. 165-166).
If you wish to amuse your friends, or a young party, one of the best ways is to provide a Christmas tree; there being no art or mystery in their construction, we can set to work and make one easily enough. First provide a young fir tree, capable of being planted in a good-sized flower-pot. This being done, set it upon a box or anything else that will give elevation so as to form a pedestal. The pedestal and pot must be decorated with leaves of the season, and the mould covered with moss, so as to give everything a neat appearance. At each branch or prong of the tree, a small wax taper is to be fixed upright; these tapers should be of as many colours as you can get. Suspended to each branch and at every point that is accessible, we are to hang anything and everything that we consider will please our party. Toys for children, sweets for youth, love mottoes and kisses for our ‘third age,’ and a few crackers for ‘the fun of the thing.’ When the ‘company comes,’ the tapers are to be lighted, and preparations made for the fair distribution of the good things ‘growing’ on the tree, taking care that there is sufficient’ fruit’ for all visitors.
While the idea of real candles on a tree is a scary one, the concept of decorating the tree with gifts for guests is one we might consider reviving. Just think – no more packing away fragile ornaments year after year and trying to fit the boxes into our closets. So this year why not have a Civil War style tree decorated with cookies, candy, small toys, and messages of love.
For more on Christmas during the Civil War see: