What would Christmas be without our trimming the tree? Some believe that it was Prince Albert who introduced the custom of the Christmas tree to England, while others maintain that they were introduced to England by King George III’s German wife, Queen Charlotte. However, it was only circa 1848, after the London Illustrated News ran the engraving depicting showing Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating around the Christmas tree with their children (above) that this tradition caught on with the public.
The painting above, Queen Victoria’s Christmas tree at Windsor in 1850 as painted by James Roberts (1824 – 1867), depicts presents around the tree from Prince Albert. We thought it might prove amusing to see what others had written about the Christmas tree in centuries past.
From Recollections from 1803 to 1837 by Amelia Murray:
“Christmas-trees are now common. In the early part of this century they were seldom seen, but Queen Charlotte always had one dressed up in the room of Madame Berkendorff, her German attendant; it was hung with presents for the children, who were invited to see it, and I well remember the pleasure it was to hunt for one’s own name, which was sure to be attached to one or more of the pretty gifts.”
From 20 Years at Court
The Hon. Eleanor Stanley (maid of honour to Queen Victoria, 1842-1862) to her Mother, Lady Mary Stanley, Windsor Castle, Saturday, Dec. 25th, 1847.
“Dearest Mama,—A merry Xmas, and many happy returns of the day to you and all the family at the dear old Castle. Yesterday evening we were desired, at a quarter to seven, to come down to the Corridor, to get our Gifts; we found all the gentlemen and Mrs. Anson already assembled, and presently the page desired us to go to the Oak-room, where the Queen and Prince already were, standing by a large table covered with a white cloth, in the middle of which was a little fir-tree, in the German fashion, covered with bonbons, gilt walnuts, and little coloured tapers. I send a bonbon as a Christmas box to little Blanche, which I took off the tree. . . . The children had each a little table with their new toys, and were running about in great glee showing them off; Prince Alfred, in a glorious tinsel helmet that almost covered his face, was shooting us all with a new gun, and Princess Alice was making us admire her dolls, etc. They had one Christmas tree among them, like us, but the Queen, Prince, and Duchess had each one, and altogether I never saw anything prettier than the whole arrangement.”
From The Memoirs of Princess Mary Adelaide, Duchess of Teck
Cambridge Cottage, January 1, 1848.
“My Dearest Draperchen, (her former governess, Miss Draper, whom she addressed as ‘Ma chere Draperchen), . . . Our Christmas went off very well. The room was beautifully decorated ; there were four fine trees, and these were connected by wreaths of laurel evergreens and holly.”
by the same author
Cambridge Cottage, January 9, 1849
“The Christmas holidays have been very happily spent by the inmates of Cambridge Cottage, and I have received a number of cadeaux! Our Trees were arranged in the Conservatory, which was hung with festoons of evergreens, from which transparent lamps were suspended. The whole was well lighted up, and looked remarkably pretty, and the three trees were quite covered with bon-bons and fruit.”
From My Reminiscences By Lord Ronald Sutherland Gower
“At Trentham, Christmas 1854, I find, on turning the pages of that record of my early years, much detail regarding our Christmas gifts and of the Christmas tree; now so general in English homes at Yuletide, but then hardly seen but in a few English houses. Our German tutor claimed to have introduced this pretty custom in this country in our family, the first implanted out of Germany having been erected by him in the hall at Stafford House. Until recently there was always one of these Christmas trees, richly decked, placed in one of the drawing-rooms at Trentham on Christmas Eve; and the household attended to see the illuminations and receive the gifts that were one by one cut off from the lighted boughs. No one was forgotten, from the most honored of the guests down to the kitchen-maids and stable-men. Christmas was worthily maintained in those days at Trentham. Generally after the tree there came a ball for the servants, given in a long gallery overlooking the stable-yard. All took part in the dances, which, with itscountry dances and Highland flings and reels, when the Scotch piper was in great demand, were always most successful festivities.”
From Letters by Lady Harcourt, December 17, 1885
“Yesterday I made an excursion to the city with Hilda Deichmann and her husband to buy things for our Christmas trees. It was most amusing ransacking in all the big wholesale houses, and reminded me of my childish days and similar expeditions to Maiden Lane . . . . . . . . Our shopping was most successful. All the prettiest things come from the German shops. The ginger-bread animals were wonderful,—some horses and dogs with gilt tails and ears most effective. The decorations were really very pretty—the stars and angels quite charming.”
by the same author
To G. K. S., Albert Gate, London, December 24, 1885.
“The sisters and I have been shopping all day getting the last things for the tree, which is to be on the 26th. The streets are most animated, full of people, all carrying parcels, and all with smiling faces. . . We wound up at the Army and Navy Stores, and really had some difficulty in getting in. They had quantities of Christmas trees already decorated, which were being sold as fast as they were brought in.”
From Christmas Cards & Their Chief Designers By Gleeson White (1894)
The origin of the Christmas card is, fortunately for its future historians, not lost in the mists of antiquity, that popular hiding place for all sorts of origins; but as clearly fixed as Archbishop Usher’s date of Creation – B.C. 4004 – with more trustworthy evidence to support it. In 1846, Sir Henry Cole (then plain Mr) suggested the idea of a specially designed form of greeting to send to friends at Christmas. Mr J. C. Horley, R.A., acting on the hint, produced a design of a trellis of rustic-work, in the Germanesque style, divided into a centre and two side panels. In the panels are figures representing two of the acts of charity, “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked;” in the centre is a picture of a merry family party, including three generations, grandparents to grandchildren, quaffing draughts of wine.
It was evident that some such individual, whether called buyer or commercial traveller, comes between the manufacturer and the retailer in almost every instance. Not only has this personage to reckon with the taste of shop-keepers, which varies from the best to the worst, with a tendency to the latter, but he has also his own standard to defend. Hence he sells most readily not only those goods the average retail trader is most likely to choose for himself, but a great many others which, since they approve themselves to the vendor, he can recommend with sincerity. It is strange that this needle’s eye, through which so much Applied Art has to pass ere it reaches the public, is not more often recognised as the chief obstacle to its progress. The public should not be held responsible for declining to purchase goods which never came under its eyes; the manufacturer should not be held blameworthy for the poor level of the Art he offers, when, possibly, he has tried and tried in vain to induce his travellers and the trade buyers to support his efforts to produce good designs.
Although 1846 has been so far accepted as the undisputed date of the first card, just before going to press, Mr Jonathan King, the owner of the largest collection, has called my attention to a paragraph in a journal of some standing, where a Mr Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, is said to be the real inventor of the Christmas card, seeing that a year or two before the above date he issued one, with a laughing face, and the motto “A Gude New Year to Ye.” Whether this be the card which is elsewhere said to have been engraved on a copper- plate by a workman, Daniel Aikman, in 1840 or 1841 and published with a Scotch motto, I am unable to prove. Should either of these statements be accurate, although one might, without special pleading, claim that a New Year secular greeting is not quite the same as one marking a religious festival, it would be best to give later inventors equal credit, and assume, what would be probably correct, that neither knew of the doings of the others.
So, too, the statement that engravers’ apprentices of Northumberland or Yorkshire (the stories differ, and one questions if such a class of artists exists in either place in sufficient numbers to found a custom), are in the habit of sending specimens of their own work to friends at Christmas, and have done so for a long period, may or may not be true, but is hardly likely to have been the source whence the card was derived. Equally difficult is it to obtain any details of Messrs Goodall’s cards in 1862 (or 1864, authorities vary,) which were probably the first issued to the ordinary trade. Despite a former sentence crediting Messrs Goodall with the honour of being the first publishers of Christmas cards, (always excepting the Sir Henry Cole card of 1846,) and, notwithstanding the fact that several of their cards, issued in 1864 and 1865, from designs by C. H. Bennett, are reproduced here, it is possible that other candidates might put forward reasonable claims.
It seems probable that ornamented note paper and envelopes appeared just before the cards, that the designs in relief, identical with those on the stationery named, were either simultaneously or very shortly after stamped in the centre of a card, which had its edges coloured or embossed. Certain it is that T. Sulman was very early in the field with relief-decorated paper and cards, and with lithographed designs. Leighton, of Fleet Street, and Mansell, of Red Lion Square, are also amongst the first, while R. Canton, (who started Valentine and Birthday card production in 1840,) and Dean & Sons issued many of their publications with special Christmas mottoes. The innovation of stamping reliefs in two ormore colours is dated to 1858. The introduction of foreign “chromo-lithograph pictures,” to replace those hitherto coloured by hand, or by stencil, is traced to Elliott, of Bucklesbury, in 1850, and to Scheffer and Scheiper, (I have but the phonetic spelling of these names,) in 1851. This item in the preparation of “made-up” Birthday Cards and Valentines had hitherto been very rudely prepared by colouring plain embossed relief with a brush, or stencilling lithographs, afterwards embossed and cut out.
An improvement in these devices is traced to a man whose professional occupation was to colour designs upon linen bands for the Irish trade. These cut out devices were prepared at a cost of 4d. per 1,000, the hands earning about 15s. a week, until Germany sent over more cheaply produced imitations at one-sixteenth of the cost. Thierry, of Fleet Street, known as the father of the Christmas card trade, was, doubtless, the first to introduce the elaborately embossed reliefs which afterwards came over in cart loads. Then they cost 8os. per 100 sheets, now their price has fallen to 10s. the 100 for large quantities. When one remembers that at first—and for many years after- a large majority of the cards, (which, however little they interest us here, helped to spread the fashion), were made up from foreign chromo-lithographs, even by firms of the high standing of Marcus Ward, we find that this importation of foreign embossed relief takes its place as an important commercial factor in the rise of the industry.
With Messrs Marcus Ward & Co., who started the production of Christmas cards as early as 1867, coincidentally with the opening of their London house, however, we come to a very different class of manufacturers. Here is a house, one of the earliest in production, with a record that reaches the highest level of decorative excellence ever touched by the Christmas card. This firm for awhile monopolised the whole of the better-class trade. Beginning with the use of German ” chromos,” usually mounted on card with lithographed borders in gold and colours, of home manufacture, they soon issued reproductions of original designs by artists of repute, and gained a position where they stood without rivals. It was, I believe, owing to the acute perception of one of the partners of this firm, Mr. William H. Ward, that Miss Kate Greenaway was “discovered” as a designer. At the earliest “Black and White” Exhibition at the Dudley Gallery Mr. Ward’s attention was drawn to Miss Greenaway’s work; and recognising that her special talent was in the direction of costume figures and dainty colours, he induced her to design for the firm.
It is this characteristic which must be reckoned to the honour of Marcus Ward’s cards; not because they employed celebrated artists more freely than other firms—capable designers indeed were commissioned, but their list of well-known painters will not compare in mere numbers for a moment with those of several of their near rivals—but because they saw that an architectural, not a pictorial, aim was the correct one. To talk of architecture in connection with so ephemeral an object as a Christmas card may sound absurd, but, nevertheless, I think all students of decoration must admit that its treatment should be more nearly allied to the surface decoration of buildings than to transcripts of nature, which are, in theory, attempts to imitate the out-look from a window of the building. This latter, usually held to be the aim of the pictorial artist, cannot be employed without degradation upon mechanically-produced reproductions in colour; but the artificial convention — the idea of decorative as distinguished from pictorial art— wherever you find it for stained glass, mosaic, enamel, inlay or colour printing, has another purpose to fulfil, which is more admirably achieved when the limitations of the material are duly observed.
Note: Alternately, the Hyperallergic site has published an article on Creepy Christmas Cards, which you’ll find here.
Following the Number One London Georgian Tour, Vicky flew in and met me in London for a night before we headed off on our epic research journey, visiting three Archives that hold documents related to the Duke of Wellington. Our first stop was the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. We had booked a hotel in nearby Caversham and our good friend, author Beth Elliott was kind enough to pick us up at the station.
You’ve heard me speak of Beth here on the blog before. She’s the sort of friend who is a comfort, a joy and who also happens to be very funny. In an understated English way. So, Beth collected us at the train station and drove Vicky and me to our riverside hotel, where we met a gaggle of other local residents.
Later that evening, we all went out to the nearby carvery and indulged in that most comforting of British food, the Sunday Roast, even though it was actually a Wednesday.
Next day, Vicky and I headed off to the Museum of English Rural Life.
We had ordered the documents we wished to see in advance, one of which was the Marriage Settlement between Richard, Marquis Wellesley and Maryanne Patterson, below. You’ll see that the Duke of Wellington was one of the executors of the Settlement. Between his brother and his former mistress. Yes, you read that correctly.
We spent the entire day reading historic documents and attempting to read Wellington’s handwriting. Boxes and boxes of letters and documents. Naturally, by the end of the day, Vicky and I were ready for a drink. And when we met up with Beth later that evening, we told her we’d love to have a plate of roast beef for dinner. Again. So we did.
Afterwards, we strolled through historic Caversham, which, as Cavesham, was mentioned in the Domesday Book and which sits on the north bank of the Thames.
Good friends, good food and good Wellington documents. As you can imagine, it was a wonderfully satisfying day. And one I’ll always remember. More to come . . . .
Following Number One London’s Georgian Tour, Louisa and I had a day to ourselves in London and decided to spend a good portion of it in the V&A. Following are photos of just a few of the things we saw on display in their Fashion Collection.
From the V&A website: French Doll. Fine bisque head with fixed glass eyes. Tightly curled mohair wig. Pierced ears (no earrings). Ball-jointed strung composition body.
Dressed in an English costume; silk satin formal day dress in gold and peacock blue, trimmed with deep blue silk velvet. Fully lined in white cotton. Large bustle. White lace at neck and wrists. Dress fastens in back with embroidered buttons. Smocking at yoke, bodice and cuffs. Leather shoes and crochet socks, some white cotton underwear. Doll was originally mounted/sewn to a padded cushion and had her shoes pasted to a cardboard base for display purposes; this has since been reverted by Conservation.