Holiday Folklore: A Victorian Christmas Tree Tradition

Note: This is a fictional tale. Rich Knoblich, WV storyteller and a regular winner of the Liar Contest at the annual Vandalia Gathering hosted by the WV Dept. of Arts and Culture, likes to add some drama, mystery and fun to his fables. It’s been said that some of the best lies are ones that are weaved with a thread of truth, which is exactly how Knoblich designs his short stories. Can you spot the truth in this tale?

In many households decorating the family Christmas tree is a major holiday tradition. However, techniques vary. Time-strapped families may opt for the artificial tree. There’s nothing like the excitement of pulling a perfect tree out of a box and stringing lights on realistic branches with no fuss or mess. It leaves plenty of time to enjoy a garbage weather football game between two conference teams with lackluster 6-6 records, both barely in the running for a fourth-tier bowl game.

However, if your family is like mine, you desire the aroma that only a live, fresh-cut tree can provide. In which case, a different ritual usually occurs. The adventure starts with the family piling into the cold sedan, driving into the countryside in search of the right evergreen, sawing it down, lashing the tree to the roof of the car, and then hightailing it out of there just when a farmer discovers a tree missing from his front yard. I still recall hearing the sounds of booming shotgun rounds as we’d whisk pell-mell down the country lane. Dad always making the same joke about needing a new muffler.

But at my Uncle Bob’s homestead it’s putting up the Christmas tree doesn’t create excitement but taking it down generates “Oohs” and “Ahs” from friends and neighbors. Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally are what may be termed, hard-core traditionalists. Even though they own every timesaving appliance and electronic gadget ordered from the Internet marketplace, Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally prefer the traditions of their holiday ancestors. They’re like an entrenched Amish farm family adhering to traditional ways, but with modern sensibility thrown in for ease. Let me give you some background to understand and appreciate their tree-trimming tradition.

Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally celebrate in the fashionable style of a Victorian Christmas. It was in the 1800s that England began to adopt the decorating of trees that the Germans had been practicing for centuries. The Victorian tree of the 1800s was not one of the bushy boutique pyramid creations we’re accustomed to nowadays. Their trees were firs, which had long open branches with short needles. This was a practical matter. The Vic’s didn’t have electric light bulbs to glam up the tree (electric tree light strings were invented by GE in 1903. If one went out…). Instead, candles were clipped onto the tips of the tree boughs. The candlelight created a gentle warm glow that would be admired by naturalists in today’s harsh electric world. Popcorn was strung in long strands, the white lacy threads draped dramatically against the dark foliage. Cranberries were strung to add a deep crimson color to the greenery. The blazing candle flames needed plenty of gaps to prevent setting the branches on fire.

The tree was lit only once. It was a remarkable sight. The family gathered around the adorned tree, each holding a bucket of water, while father and mother quickly lit the candles. Everyone would gasp at the beauty and potential terror blazing before them. It only lasted for a minute or two before the candles were quickly extinguished. It wouldn’t take long to ignite a branch that blackened the wall. It was as if Santa smeared his chimney soot suit across the wallpaper.

Back in the 1800s, when the appearance of live decorated trees inside the house first became a tradition, the head of the family was one Blanche Eleanor. Blanche didn’t care what the Vic’s were doing or how newfangled it was. All she knew was that she kept a tiptop spic and span clean household that shone whenever a neighbor or the church ladies’ basement auxiliary platoon stopped by for a visit. Blanche wasn’t about to have the menfolk drag in a needle-shedding, pine pitch-dripping, insect-infested evergreen into her spotless parlor where it would threaten them with conflagration. Besides, the thought of those farm boys tramping in with muddy work boots and scuffing up her polished hardwood didn’t set easy with her.

But eventually, the family settled on a delightful compromise that became a family and neighborhood tradition. The tree was set up outside in the front yard just off of the walkway. There it could be decorated safely with several yards of surrounding snow between its shedding needles and Blanche’s clean family home. It was decorated with the usual popcorn strings and cranberry strands. The family even took to filling pinecones with peanut butter and hanging the cones like ornaments from the branches. The treat attracted red cardinals that became living Christmas tree ornaments fluttering and flickering over the boughs. Soon the yard became a Norman Rockwell illustration as deer ventured for a nibble when the crimson winter sun glowed in the distant horizon. Sylvester, the neighbor’s forty-pound calico cat, came by for a foray among the branches. 

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The residents in the neighborhood enjoyed the marvelous sight. Horse and buggy drivers seemed to slow their pace to catch a view of that wondrous naturally decorated Christmas tree. Whenever friends and family came to visit, they always lingered on the walkway to admire the beauty of the attractive green foliage against the white snowbanks before turning to the warmth of the hearth.

Amazingly, it wasn’t this display of decorated nature that established the family’s reputation for celebrating in the traditional Victorian style. As noted earlier, it was the taking down of the tree that brought a community together. 

Blanche was given the honors of first whacking the tree a few times with a baseball bat to scare out any woodland creatures that may have taken up shelter within its thick branches. Then, in true Victorian fashion, candles were attached to the dried evergreen boughs at sunset. They were lit and never extinguished allowing the flames to overtake the tree crown. The tree blazed gloriously, short-lived as it was, in the enveloping darkness of a winter night. The flames leaped into the star-studded sky with glowing red ashes falling back to the snow to sizzle and snuff out.

It was quite a spectacle from the get-go and became a popular way to finish off the holiday season. Blanche was particularly pleased since it didn’t endanger the house, there was no mess to scrub up, and the ashes fertilized her garden the following spring.

Uncle Bob and Aunt Sally have, however, updated several of the practices as a matter of modern convenience. No longer are white kernels of popcorn laced from bough to bough. Who’s got the time? Instead, several containers of Jiffy Pop popcorn are hung from the branches. The metal loop handles are easy to hang from the branches and the shiny aluminum bowls look just like huge silver ornaments. Gone, too, are the peanut butter-filled pinecones that attracted so many cardinals. The red feathers found in the snow were testimony as to why the neighborhood cat weighed forty pounds. In place of the cones, the family now hung red russet potatoes that masquerade as ornaments. Bob and Sally also forego the cranberries. At their age, instead of tediously stringing the little red berries, they prefer to filter cranberry juice through their kidneys.

Each year friends, family, neighbors, and the local volunteer fire department gather out on our snow-covered lawn a few days after the New Year’s hangover has cleared away. The candles are lit in the Victorian fashion and everybody warms themselves by the ensuing firelight. One tradition has passed by the wayside. The tree trunk no longer gets whacked a few times with the baseball bat. Ever since it was discovered that turkeys liked to roost in the upper branches they became a part of the new modified tradition.

The procedure goes something like this. Neighbors and relatives have January sixth marked on their calendars. As the sun sets, folks quietly congregate with personal knives and forks, wrapped in napkins, tucked into their back pockets. They gather in a ring around the Victorian Christmas tree quietly sharing talk as the sun begins to lower in the sky. Suddenly, at early winter’s sunset, expectancy electrifies the crowd as the propane torch is lit and the candles are quickly lit. Soon, with the majestic beauty of a candle-lit old-style tree glowing before them, the hungry crowd cheers when the first needles catch fire and the initial flame quickly engulfs the dry evergreen needles, lighting up the surrounding yard and grinning faces with its roaring blaze.

When the embers die down, leaving nothing but remnants, the feasting begins. From the ashes, Bob rakes out the baked potatoes, roasted turkeys, and Jiffy Pop done to perfection. Serving dishes are produced, loaded up with the spoils of the holiday season, and the guests enter the house for a good old-fashioned holiday feast.

The dinner conversation centers on how high the flames were and how they compared to the best tree clean-ups of the past. Fond recollections of flaming Victorian tree masterpieces eventually give way to the rating of the current tree. Many items go into consideration before a final score is ascertained. How high were the flames (a dicey problem on windy years), how tender the turkey, the number of old maid kernels left in the popcorn, and of course the pH content of the ashes now fertilizing the flower garden. After a serious dining table discussion, a note is made on the kitchen calendar much like the score of an Olympic event with 1988’s benchmark balsam fir having a perfect score of 10.

And that is how the holiday season ends on top of the mountainside where I was raised. It’s comforting to know the Victorian traditions developed by our forebears are still being carried out in the digital era. 

• Rich Knoblich is a tour guide, storyteller, Behind the Scenes presenter and host at the Welcome Center for Oglebay Resort. He also tells for Grand Vue Park in Marshall County. Along with Judi Tarowsky, he has developed storytelling festivals at Pricketts Fort State Park and Grand Vue Park.