Christmas trees!

As the cataloger for AAS’s Prints in the Parlor project, I’ve been working with gift books and annuals now for fifteen months. In that time, I’ve found few images that represent scenes of Christmas. This is surprising because many of the annuals were given as Christmas gifts and have titles that you would think have to do with Christmas: The Christmas Blossom, The Christmas Box, Christmas Tribute, etc. There are plenty of wintery scenes, and one scene that takes place on Christmas morning, but none with today’s staple of the holiday — a Christmas tree. Until now. I am nearing the end of the gift books in the collection that need to be cataloged and came across the first image I have seen (likely one of the earliest printed in the United States) of a Christmas tree! More about my find in a moment, but first, some background information.

Luther Amidst His Family at Wittenberg on Christmas Eve, 1536 from Wheat Sheaf

Christmas trees were somewhat common in Pennsylvania German communities in the early 19th century, but not in the rest of the country until the 1850s and 1860s. In fact, in the same batch of books I have on my desk, there is another scene with a Christmas tree, but this is of Martin Luther and his family in 1536 from German artist C.A. Schwerdgeburth’s painting done in 1845. It was engraved in a gift book titled Wheat Sheaf from 1853 that was published in Philadelphia. Obviously, this isn’t an American scene, but it does showcase the tree. It also illustrates the popular myth that Luther was the first to light a tree with candles in order to express the “light of God” to his children.

The Christmas Tree from Godey's Lady's Book

After doing a little more research on images of Christmas trees and I discovered that one of the earliest recognized images of an “American” Christmas scene with a decorated tree appeared in Godey’s Lady’s Book in 1850. The scene actually shows a modified version of the image of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert gathered around their Christmas tree in 1848. The engraver left out the Queen’s crown, and Prince Albert’s mustache. It is believed that this image, re-printed through the 1850s, gave housewives throughout the country the push to have decorated Christmas trees in their homes during the Victorian era.

But if 19th-century publishers were anything like advertisers today, they knew not to only publish items directed to mothers, but to the most impressionable consumers — children. Like periodicals such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, gift books were also widely published. In one of those gift books aimed at children, the 1841 Youth’s Keepsake, A Christmas and New Year’s Gift, published in Boston, an image appears on p. 71 showing the quintessential Christmas scene, complete with a candle-lit and decorated Christmas tree. The text that accompanies the image tells the story.

Christmas Eve from Youth's Keepsake
A mother stands at left after calling her children down to the parlor with a bell, waiting for destruction of her decorated table. Five young children burst into the room and hurriedly take their gifts from the neatly arranged table. Little Bell has gotten a new doll and clutches it as she thanks her mother. Frank has gotten a large toy house, which he promises to “take it to pieces, and I shall be able to put it together again.” Little Bill peeks around the door to find a line of toy soldiers for himself. Even Dash, the family dog is excited to see if there are any treats for him on that table and jumps on one boy’s leg. Even the children’s father, not seen in this image, will find it hard not to get into the holiday spirit:

Papa, who has left his study … calls from the entry to beg they will be rather more quiet. When he gets fairly into the merry circle however, perhaps he will find himself soon joining in the riot himself.

What little girl wouldn’t like to see a sparkly tree on the table surrounded by dolls and toys and treats, and what little boy would turn down a set of blocks or a tree with candies hanging off of its branches? Surely this scene, almost ten years older than the image from Godey’s Lady’s Book, was shown to mothers and fathers by excited children who wanted the same pretty scene in their homes on Christmas Eve.

For further reading:
Snyder, Phillip V. The Christmas Tree Book.. New York, 1976.
Marling, Karal A. Merry Christmas! Cambridge, MA, 2000.

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Associate Curator of Graphic Arts, American Antiquarian Society

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