I love a good Christmas novella or two this time of year. Historical ones are my favorites. One thing you might not know unless you are a historical writer is that the Christmas tree was not always a part of American Christmas celebrations. So, finding one in a novella set before 1900s gives me pause.
The earlier a setting the less likely a tree in American History.
The Pilgrims didn’t celebrate Christmas. They considered the revelry of Christmas traditions sacrilegious, as did the Puritans in Massachusetts. So, if you set your story in 1600s America, there would be no tree.
Legend says Germany adopted the tradition of a Christmas tree when Martin Luther used the evergreen to explain the setting of the nativity to his children—just as Paul had used the statue to the unknown God to share Christ with the Greeks. (There are lots of articles on the internet explaining the origin of the Christmas tree in Europe.)
This strange custom brought to America by German immigrants took hundreds of years to become part of our Christmas celebrations.
There’s a variety of legends regarding the first Christmas tree in America. One being: Hessian soldiers (German mercenaries hired by King George to fight the colonists) brought the tradition with them. It is said a German immigrant in the 1830s decorated the first tree out west.
The media helped spread the tradition
Queen Victoria’s German husband Prince Albert is credited with introducing the tradition to English society about 1840. The tree was decorated with gifts for their children. An artist rendering of the tree appeared in the newspaper. Because of the popularity of Queen Victoria, the custom spread among the wealthy. They strove to have the most elaborately decorated trees.
Eventually the tradition crossed the pond. The first president of the United States to have a tree was Benjamin Harrison. (1889-1893). It was placed in his children’s play room. Allowing reporters to view the tree set the tradition in the forefront of American society.
By 1900 one in five households had a Christmas tree. Edison’s invention of Christmas tree lights made it safer for families to have a tree in their home. Before then, trees were illuminated with candles.
Strive for accuracy
When you write a historical that has any scenes focused around Christmas be sure to get the details right. Before the 1880—unless they were German immigrants—there probably wasn’t a tree. A little research should help you determine if a tree is essential for your setting. Most of the time there may be stockings hung or special dishes served. Some immigrants consider Christmas only a religious holiday while others added some version of Santa Clause.
A few additional historical tidbits
My Ukrainian friend celebrates Christmas in early January.
Three Kings’ Day is popular in many cultures. Gifts were given on January 6th rather than Christmas Day.
Check your facts regarding ethnicity of your characters when creating a Christmas scene.
Have you written a Christmas novel? Tell us about the traditions you added to your story.