Community & News

Community & News

The "Victorian Christmas Tree" in the 1812 Wickham House

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Today, the Christmas tree has become a standard part of celebrating Christmas in America. The tradition continues, often unquestioned, even though the inclusion of the tree has a fascinating history that comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.

In colonial times, Americans paid very little attention to the holiday, either because they came from many different religious sects or national origins that celebrated Christmas differently, or not at all. The tree and trimmings is a Germanic tradition, brought to Britain along with the Hanoverian and Saxe-Coburg royal family and promoted by the inexpensive illustrative press, especially trade cards by Louis Prang in the19th centuries. It even became popular in non-German immigrant American homes during the Lincoln administration, as a way to boost moral to Northern victory. Since the tree also symbolized peace, goodwill, and rebirth, families after the Civil War saw it as a way to express idealized national identity.

However , the tree started to assume a place in the market in the 1850s, only intensified by businessmen importing German ornaments in the 1870s. By the 1890s, Americans adopted the tree and the trimmings, linking it to the punch bowl and harvest supper traditions of 12th Night and winter socializing. According to Penne Restad, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas in Austin, December is a “season that Americans, using the language and objects of their culture, recapture ideals and act according to their better selves. In this sense, the nation's Christmas truly brings together the culture's two most disparate yet similarly unbounded projects – to seek wealth and to secure salvation.” Throughout the 20th century, the Christmas tree, real or fake, has become a ubiquitous market object found in many homes all over the U.S. to celebrate this time of year.

Today, the 1812 Wickham House no longer features a Christmas tree because the Christmas tree would not have been a part of the seasonal traditions in early half of the 19th century. The décor changed to simpler greenery, as a way to focus on the dining room interpreted for a holiday feast. When the main museum was renovated in 2014, the Christmas tree typically displayed on the museum's Lower Level would no longer fit in any of the designated areas. Instead of a Christmas tree, the museum decided to feature the 1893 Blind Girl marble statue by Edward V. Valentine in the space on the Lower Level.

Below, photographs from the archival collection demonstrate the grand trees between 1961-1971, a period when the Wickham House annually displayed a Victorian Christmas tree.
 

 V.62.109.01
Choir members, to include Mr. and Ms. Mann S. Valentine, sing beside the decorated Christmas tree.
December 11, 1961
Mann Satterwhite 
Richmond Times Dispatch Collection
V.62.109.01

 

V.63.30.95
Children gather around the Valentine’s "Old Fashioned Christmas Tree"  in the Wickham House.
December 2, 1963
Carl Lynn
Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection


L.68.03a
Members of the Westhampton Junior Woman's Club decorate the Valentine's Christmas tree.
December 1, 1967
James Netherwood
Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
L.68.03a

 

P.70.16.70
H.H. McVey and his daughter admire the elaborately decorated tree at the Valentine.
December 1, 1968
P.A. Gormus, Jr.
Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
P.70.16.70


P.70.45.02
The Valentine’s staff decorates the large Christmas tree in preparation for the annual holiday program.
December 4, 1970
P.A. Gormus, Jr.
Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
P.70.45.02

 

P.74.06.05
Two girls help decorate the 1870s style Christmas tree in the 1812 Wickham House.
December 1, 1971
Masaaki Okada
Richmond Times-Dispatch Collection
P.74.06.05

Stephanie Trujillo
PR & Marketing Intern
The Valentine