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GEARY: Victorian era customs retain their popularity today

• Dec 23, 2016 at 3:00 PM

Many of our holiday customs — like Christmas trees, caroling, holiday cards and Santa Claus — have their roots in practices that were common in the Victorian era and before. Popularly practiced in England, many of these customs took longer to take root in the United States. Once established, however, they rapidly spread across the country and are still observed today.

One example is the custom of the Christmas tree, which originated in Germany, though its roots stem from pagan times. Evergreen trees and boughs were long-considered symbols of eternal life as they remain green throughout winter. As early as the 17th century, Germans brought small evergreen trees and boughs into their homes as decorations, helping them observe the birth of Christ.

In 1840, the British Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a small German duchy. It was Prince Albert who introduced the Christmas tree to Great Britain. Soon, fashionable British households began copying the practice set by the royal family.

Eventually, the use of the Christmas tree spread to the United States through the influx of German immigrants and through the influence of the British monarchy, becoming popular here by the 1850s.

Early Victorian era trees were decorated using ribbons, paper chains, cookies, candies and lighted candles. With the growing popularity of Christmas trees, the manufacturing of ornaments took off in the 1870s. Molded wax figures of angels and children, and cotton and wool (over a metal frame) ornaments with embossed paper faces became widespread. Germany exported glass and tin ornaments, which were hugely popular in America.

During the 1880s, Christmas in general became more and more commercialized, and Macy’s Department Store in New York was already beginning to decorate its windows in order to attract holiday shoppers, filling them with dolls and other toys, tempting to children. Fruit, nuts, popcorn and even small presents were hung on Christmas trees, joining the candles, cookies and candy still popular from the 1840s.

By 1900, it was estimated that at least 20 percent of Americans used Christmas trees in their homes, a remarkable percentage for a custom that had begun less than 50 years previously. The earliest artificial trees also appeared in the Victorian era with feather trees becoming very popular.

In addition to Christmas trees, caroling and Christmas cards were also popular British practices from the Victorian era that made their way to America. Strolling carolers, often accompanied by musicians, had been common in Britain for many years. Some believe the practice of caroling began with the poor literally singing for their supper. Others think caroling came from the tradition of wassailing, when singers would perform door to door in exchange for wassail — a hot, spiced beverage which helped to warm the singers on a cold night.

Caroling became popular in the United States, as well as in Britain. The interest in Christmas carols in the Victorian era became more prominent because many upper- and middle-class families at the time were able to have musical instruments in their homes for the first time. Singing became a family pastime and sheet music companies saw significant increases in sales.

Christmas cards made their appearance in Britain in the 1840s and, by the 1850s, their use had spread to America. American manufacturers began mass production of cards. The cards often depicted family scenes, but holiday food, presents and scenes depicting bounty and joy were also popular.

Later in the 19th century, Santa Claus and his reindeer became popular subjects of Christmas cards. By the 1870s, with the relative ease of sending Christmas cards, they began to replace letters and personal visits for many Americans.

The publication of “A Visit from St. Nicholas” began to cement Santa Claus’ popularity. First published anonymously in 1823 in the Troy (New York) Sentinel, it was attributed to Clement C. Moore in 1837, who acknowledged his work in 1844. Although Moore’s authorship is disputed by some scholars, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” shifted Christmas to a child-centered celebration.

During the Civil War and continuing into the decades after, American illustrator Thomas Nast depicted Santa Claus much as we see him today, further increasing his popularity.

Finally, the famous letter written to the editor of the New York Sun by Virginia O’Hanlon in 1897 asked the simple question, “Is there a Santa Claus?” The newspaper editor replied, “Yes.” Santa Claus was then firmly ensconced in America’s celebration of Christmas.

The Victorian era did much to influence the way Americans celebrate Christmas today. Be sure to stop by the Tri-Cities Historical Museum over the holidays. Our Victorian House exhibit is decorated with authentic feather trees covered with beautiful glass ornaments from the Victorian era. The museum will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Dec. 27-30 for all to enjoy.

Kevin Geary is the curator of education for the Tri-Cities Historical Museum and currently serves as the museum’s interim director.

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