Beautiful evergreen trees are at the heart of Christmas decor. They display cherished antique ornaments and scent the air around them. On this side of the Atlantic, the history of decorated and candlelit Christmas trees begins in Pennsylvania.
Two current museum exhibitions celebrate the splendid custom with multiple trees sporting historical and fanciful trimmings. "Yuletide at Winterthur" decks the halls at du Pont's estate in Delaware, while "The National Christmas Center Presents a Lancaster Christmas" traces the evolution of tree decoration in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The tree tradition was strong in Germany and came to these shores with early German settlers. Old World descriptions survive from the 16th century of trees decorated with fruit, nuts, pretzels, and paper flowers, and the practice was firmly established by the 18th century.
Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote in 1798 of his delight at the lighted tree displayed in a German home on Christmas Eve. When Queen Victoria married German prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg in 1840, the custom of a family tree became popular in the English-speaking world.
In a widely published 1848 engraving, Victoria and Albert with their children enjoy a tabletop tree at Windsor Castle. Toys are clustered below, while the branches support small upright candles and hanging containers for candies and fruit.
A classic reference for tree history is The Christmas Tree Book by Phillip V. Snyder, still available through online booksellers. Best of all, the book illustrates through drawings and period photographs how the tree itself has changed over time.
One of its earliest American images is an 1819-20 drawing by Philadelphia artist John Lewis Krimmel. The sketch shows a cozy family and pet dog gathered around a decorated tree, once again a small one on a table.
Jim Morrison, founder of the National Christmas Center in Paradise, Pa., east of Lancaster, is an expert on Christmas history. He says that "1821 was the earliest documented Christmas tree in the United States, and that was in Lancaster."
"Trees were so rare that the newspapers would write them up. It was reported that Matthew Zahm went out and cut a tree down to bring into his home as a Christmas tree."
Morrison says the National Christmas Center's "Street of Memories" exhibit recalls his own Philadelphia childhood Christmases, "going up Market Street, the stores and all the memories." Open daily through Jan. 4 (except for Christmas and New Year's Day), the museum is filled with displays based on holiday traditions, decade by decade. (Information: 717-442-7950 or www.nationalchristmascenter.com.)
This year, Morrison also has organized an exhibition of historic Christmas-tree room displays for the nearby Lancaster Quilt & Textile Museum. The presentation begins with a tree trimmed with edibles from 1821, pretzels and cookies, as well as German paper stars.
"Then we have an 1870s tree with handmade ornaments similar to quilt patterns," Morrison says. "They put cotton batting on cardboard shapes, sewed tinsel around the edges, and added colored scrap pictures."
Atop a music box is a turn-of-the-century goosefeather tree, the first type of artificial, reusable tree popular for homes. Vintage and replica goosefeather trees are still available and are perfect for antique ornament collections.
Although smaller trees were the norm in the 19th century, period photographs show that bigger-is-better Americans were decorating large floor-standing trees by 1900. Electric lighting had replaced dangerous candles by the 1930s, and branches were hung with imported blown glass ornaments in wealthier homes.
Spurred by creative urges and economic necessity, many families continued to make decorations - strings of popcorn or cranberries, paper chains and cutouts, gilded nuts and pinecones.
More possibilities were added after World War II. The 1950s introduced trendy aluminum trees, plastic ornaments, and bubble lights. In the 1960s, foam balls provided a base for crafting your own decorations.
Another mid-20th-century innovation was the "theme tree," and no one does them better than the house and garden staff at Winterthur. The "Yuletide" tour is supplemented this year with the exhibition "Good Tidings to You: Victorian Christmas Ephemera from the John & Carolyn Grossman Collection," which runs through Jan. 16.
The courtyard area is set up to replicate a scene from the old Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie Holiday Inn, says Victoria Saltzman, senior communication manager at the country estate.
"Our rare antique corner piano has a small tabletop tree. Out in our conservatory this year, we have a stunning live tree with vintage 1930s and 1940s ornaments and large colored lights. That's the way the du Ponts decorated their tree in that time period - those big lights were cutting-edge at that time. We realized that all the plants that Mr. du Pont was ordering to surround that tree were chosen because the color of their blooms matched the lights on that tree.
"Then we have our dry-flower tree, which is always one of the highlights here. We've been doing that for 20 years now and it's exceptional."
In another nod to Winterthur's beautiful gardens, she points out, "The one that's really attracting huge interest this year is the Butterfly Tree done by our floral designers. What makes it spectacular is all the branches of butterflies projecting out."
"Yuletide at Winterthur" continues through Jan. 10 at Winterthur Museum & Country Estate, Winterthur, Del.
Hours: Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., until 8:30 p.m. on Dec. 22. Closed Christmas.
Admission: Adults, $22; students and seniors, $20; children (ages 2-11), $12.
Information: 302-888-4600 or www.winterthur.org