Behind the double doors of the Victorian parlor stood the Christmas tree, an old German custom the Victorians enlarged upon both in style and decoration. This tradition had come to England by way of Queen Victoria’s great-great-grandfather King George I.
When she was Queen, Victoria had a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. In 1848, an etching of Victoria, Albert, and their children gathered acround their decorated tree was published in The Illustrated London News. At about the same time, Charles Minnegerode, a German professor at the College of William and Mary, trimmed a small evergreen to delight the children at the St. George Tucker House. Martha Vandergrift, aged 95, recalled the grand occasion, and her story appeared in the Richmond News Leader on December 25, 1928. Presumably Mrs. Vandergrift remembered the tree and who decorated it more clearly than she did the date. The newspaper gave 1845 as the time, three years after Minnegerode’s arrival in Williamsburg. Perhaps the first Christmas tree cheered the Tucker household as early as 1842.
As a result, Christmas trees became the popular fashion in England and the central feature of the Victorian family Christmas. German settlers had brought the custom to America, but when the same illustration of Victoria and her family appeared in Goody’s Lady’s Book in 1850, Christmas trees became even more popular in American then in England.
What made the Victorian Christmas tree so special was its elaborate decoration. Decorations included gingerbread men, marzipan candies, hard candies, cookies, fruit, cotton-batting Santas, paper fans, tin soldiers, whistles, wind-up toys, pine cones, dried fruits, nuts, berries, and trinkets of all kinds. Paper cornucopias filled with nuts, candies, and other treats were the Victorian favorite. It was not uncommon to find some small homemade gifts, such as tiny hand-stitched dolls or children’s mittens, and freshly baked treats like sugar cookies. Hand-dipped candles were placed carefully on each of the branches. A Christmas doll or angel could usually be found adorning the top of the tree.
Children often helped to make the tree decorations. They would string garlands of popcorn or cranberries, or make chains of paper flowers. Some families set up a Nativity or outdoor scene under the tree, using moss for grass and mirrors for ponds.
Later in the century imported ornaments from Germany began to replace the homemade ones. First came glass icicles and hand-blown glass globes called kugels. Dresdens, which were embossed silver and gold cardboard ornaments, took exotic shapes–moons, butterflies, fish, birds, ships, animals, flowers, trolley cars, and even automobiles.
A Victorian family’s most prized ornament was the Nuremberg angel atop the tree. It had wings of spun glass, a crinkled gold skirt, and a wax or bisque face. Angles or cherubs represented the Victorian ideal of childlike or womanly innocence.