Many of the American Christmas traditions that we enjoy today originated in Germany and were popularized in England in the 1840s by Queen Victoria and her German-born husband, Prince Albert. An engraving of the royal family celebrating Christmas around a brightly decorated tree was published worldwide in 1848, and soon Americans eager to emulate British customs were decorating Christmas trees across the country. The colorful tree ornaments, crafted from paper, wire and metal tinsel, often depicted images of angels and St. Nicholas. Dresden ornaments, named after the city in Germany, were made using pressed cardboard and featured images of children, sleighs, musical instruments and outdoor scenes.
Candle and ornament clips were a popular way to decorate a Victorian tree, too. The ornament clips were adorned with a glass ornament, perhaps a bird with a real feather tail or a St. Nicholas figure. The candle clips held a wax candle that illuminated the tree and its sparkling ornaments. Victorians decorated their trees with colorful hand-blown or molded-glass orbs which were often covered with a delicate netting of metal wire or surrounded by tinsel.
The State Museum cares for an extensive collection of Victorian-era Christmas decorations, cards and gifts that have been saved and donated by Pennsylvanian families. The photograph above shows a sampling of these items arranged by CAP Curators Carol Buck and Jennifer Gleim. Please visit the Pennsylvania Trails of History Facebook page to see more images of Christmas artifacts from the museum’s collection.
Giving gifts as symbols of good luck, prosperity and happiness to friends and loved ones was an important part of the Christmas celebration. Often, family members worked for weeks hand-crafting gifts for one another. Most items were small and, when completed, were hung on the tree in time for Christmas morning. Children often received sweets, nuts and homemade toys.
Exchanging Christmas cards also originated during the Victorian period. Children were encouraged to create handmade cards to trade between family members. Louis Prang printed the first commercial Christmas card in America in 1875, and by 1881, was printing more than five million cards per year. From 1880 to 1884, he held a Christmas card design contest that was immensely popular and attracted well-known artists and designers.
Christmas became a national holiday in the United States in 1870. Soon after, department stores such as Wanamaker’s in Philadelphia debuted lavishly decorated displays featuring Christmas trees with a variety of toys including porcelain dolls, rocking horses, balls and card games arranged underneath.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.