April 13, 2024


Did your grandparents teach you how to decorate your Christmas tree? If so, who would have taught them?

“We can actually thank Queen Victoria and Prince Albert for some of the traditional Christmas customs we have today,” said Karen Richardson, curator at the Haldimand County Museum, at a lunchtime lounge talk at the Homer Watson Gallery.

“We, as British subjects, followed every single thing that Queen Victoria told us to do. She was instrumental in telling us how to attend balls, how we should date, how we should talk, what we should wear, and even traditional Victorian mourning customs.”

It is also because of her husband, Prince Albert, who was from Germany, that we have certain Christmas customs, especially the Christmas tree.

The first Christmas celebration at Buckingham Palace was in 1841 and featured a tabletop tree. It was decorated with candles which they lit briefly to get the essence of them before blowing them out, she said.

“They always had a bucket of water handy nearby.”

Richardson said the ornaments that hang on the tree have a special meaning as well. The decorations were homemade, mostly popcorn, dried apples, oranges, cinnamon sticks and cookies.

“One of the really great things about the oranges were the smell. Even the tree had a wonderful smell to it,” she said.

The first artificial Christmas tree, which was invented in the 1840s, was called a feather tree because it was made out of real bird feathers.

Early decorations varied from Santa Claus ornaments to little dolls, teapots and teacups.

“If a little girl was going to get a doll, you would put the little doll right on the tree,” said Richardson. It was the same for tiny teapots and teacups.

Photographs of loved ones would also hang on the tree to remember them.

Birds and their nests were also popular, in part because they were said to bring good luck.

“So, any kind of luck you could bring into your household was really important to our Victorian ancestors,” Richardson said.

Ladies spent a lot of time doing needlework to hang on the tree. Purchased ornaments from Germany came later.

Young women and mothers would spend hours making Christmas presents for everybody in the family and would put them under the tree the night before Christmas.

“So, when the kids got up on Christmas morning they (would) see all their presents underneath the tree,” said Richardson.

Christmas didn’t become commercialized until 1860. That was when store owners started placing dolls in their windows to attract kids.

“The Victorians were romantic and followed all kinds of customs and traditions,” said Richardson.


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