Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Tall, nearly touching the ceiling, its branches pungently spicing the room, the stately tree awaits its final array­ – twinkling lights, shiny ornaments, sparkling tinsel, as well as a few precious treasures from years gone by. The Christmas tree is Pennsyl­vania’s gift to the nation, and the story of its arrival, the struggle for its acceptance and the development of its decorations is, in part, the story of Pennsylvania and its nine­teenth century immigrants, ministers, editors, women and manufacturers. A surprising, almost odd, diversity of influ­ences, perhaps, but all were effective promoters of the evergreen for nearly a century until the tree became the sym­bol of the secular celebration of Christmas.

The appearance of greens in celebrations preceded Cris­tianity; evergreen boughs, considered a talisman of eter­nal life, were used by druids to ensure the return of the sun at mid-winter solstice fes­tivals. As Christianity spread and December 25 was selected as the birth date of Jesus Christ, remnants of the pagan winter celebrations trickled into churches as decorations for the holy season. Con­sidered popish, rituals and holy days were banned from many Protestant churches following the Reformation, and the celebration of Christmas became closely allied to Catholic, Episcopalian, Lutheran, Re­formed and Moravian con­gregations. In Pennsylvania, Germans of these faiths were sometimes called “gay” Dutch to separate them from the Ger­mans belonging to the Amish, Mennonite or other “plain” sects. The “gay” Dutch from the Palatinate area of Germany celebrated Christmas first as a religious holiday and, second, as a folk celebration complete with trees, gifts, belsnickles and Saint Nicholas or Kriss Kringle. They con­tributed their customs to Penn­sylvania’s rich culture. The traditional Moravian tree, a pyramidal frame to which greens, apples, candles and hymn stanzas were attached, was used during a Christmas celebration in 1748 according to a Bethlehem diary.

Real trees were also used during the Christmas festival. Lewis Miller, a York folk.­artist, sketched a table-top tree hung with red and white objects in 1809. A decade Later Philadelphia artist John Lewis Krimmel depicted a decorated tree placed on a table with its fenced base sur­rounded by gifts and plates of food. About the same time Matthew Zalm of Lancaster noted in his diary on Decem­ber 20, 1821: “Sally and our Thos. and Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick’s saw mill.” Lutheran minister George Lochman of Harrisburg is re­ported to have had Christmas trees in his church, a bench­mark in the acceptance of their use.

While Christmas celebra­tions and trees appeared early in Pennsylvania, the customs initially were not well-received by the entire population. Quaker merchants in Phila­delphia kept their stores open on Christmas Day as on any day but “God’s Day,” while resi­dents in West Chester pro­tested payment to members of the legislature for Christmas holidays. A December 30, 1836, editorial in the Easton Sentinel observed:

We have heard some matter of fact Misanthropes denounce the extraordinary dinners – the exchanging of presents – the passing of the compliments of the season and the indulgence and relaxation which even; one feels privileged to enjoy, together with Christmas trees and New Year’s firing, as idle and unmean­ing ceremonies, fit only for children and even then without reason or meaning.

Nevertheless, support from Pennsylvania editors, ministers, women and businessmen slowly overcame the prejudice and the holiday gained national recognition in the 1890s, the same time the tree re­placed the baskets, plates and stockings favored by early households as the favored dis­penser of gifts.

The tree appeared in Penn­sylvania very early, but written references did not. As Penn­sylvania became known as a printing center, its editors eventually gained wide reader­ship and influence. Editors and writers soon championed the celebration of Christmas and the tree. Two popular chil­dren’s books, Kriss Kringle’s Book and Kriss Kringle’s Christ­mas Tree, promoted the holi­day and its early decorations in the early 1840s. The Guardian, issued monthly in Lewisburg beginning in 1850 by minister Henry Harbaugh, helped popularize the holiday. Harbaugh’s promotion of Christmas for seventeen years was but one of his confron­tations with accepted practice in Protestant churches. Ohio minister Henry Schwan, perhaps subscribing to Har­baugh’s guidelines, reputedly was severely condemned by his congregation the first time he placed a tree in his church. Despite the risks of incurring the wrath of their peers, others heeded the con­troversial advice to observe Christmas. The tradition grew and, during the last half of the nineteenth century, Protes­tant ministers not only erected trees, but wrote many of today’s most popular Christmas hymns, as well as some that have been forgot­ten, including “Gather Round the Christmas Tree,” an essential ingredient of Sunday school Christmas programs of that era.

The growing popularity of Sunday schools in the nine­teenth century provided an additional avenue of accep­tance for the decorated tree. Many newspaper reports of Sunday school programs in Union, Snyder, Lycoming and Columbia counties men­tion a tree. Danville’s Baptists decorated the largest tree, towering twenty-four feet, and Buffalo Crossroads’ Presby­terians erected two. An early detailed description of a tree and its purpose, prized by researchers, appeared in the December 12, 1874, edition of the Muncy Luminary:

The size of the Christmas tree depends on the number of pres­ents it is to be laden with; for a Sunday-school one or sometimes two trees of quite large size are procured. They may be of pine, hemlock, cedar, arbor vitae, or spruce; any evergreen of suitable shape will answer the pur­pose. The tree is usually set in a box and firmly fastened in place. The box is covered with white paper or muslin, prettily dec­orated with greenery, and serves as a resting place for presents too heavy to be hung on the tree. Pop corn strung may be grace­fully twined in festoons on the tree; ornamental balls of various colors of shiny surface come on purpose for decoration; also small white candles with tiny candle­sticks which are fastened to the tree with wires; also minia­ture flags, cornucopias of brilliant tints and filled with candies are pleasing to the children. Eggs from which the contents have been carefully removed may be cov­ered with bits of gilt paper from the band of envelopes, with flowers or fancy shapes cut out of calico or silk or any highly colored material and pasted on­ – these suspended from the limbs add beauty to the tree. Red and scarlet apples look well. The presents are labeled with the name of the persons for whom they are intended and hung upon the tree. The distribution takes place after the feast which it crowns and closes; the lighting of the candles in the tree giving the final effect to its beauty, before the gifts are removed.

Since it was common practice to borrow printed material without credit, this article was probably available to news­paper editors throughout Pennsylvania and, perhaps, the country.

Religious and children’s publications were joined by mid-nineteenth century women’s periodicals as ardent promoters of Christmas and the Christmas tree. Two Penn­sylvania publications, Godey’s Lady’s Book and Peterson’s Ladies’ National Magazine, were supporters enjoying national circulation. The most popular women’s editor, Godey’s Sarah Josepha Hale, blazed the way by printing an engraving of a tree in 1850. Through her immense readership, Mrs. Hale patiently nudged women, as well as men, to success­fully champion causes which included such widely disparate issues as the elevation of household training to domestic science, the Bunker Hill monument, and the need for public water and waste sys­tems. Christmas and the dec­orated tree were added to the ever-growing list. In 1860 she republished an engrav­ing copied from the Illustrated London News and provided other engravings of trees for subsequent editions during the decade. Pennsylvania women – together with women throughout the United States – joined ministers and pub­lishers to promote the tree and its colorful ornaments.

While Pennsylvania’s role as primogenitor of the tree in America has been recog­nized, its equally significant contributions to the devel­opment of ornaments has not. Godey’s was not only the first women’s periodical to picture a tree, but it was one of the earliest to offer directions for producing ornaments-a Christmas basket and a bellows bookmark (1861), a paper bell flower (1862) and a sentry box and pinecone Santa (1868). Following the Civil War, similar magazines increased pressure on women to bring the decorated tree into their homes. The cult of domesticity further defined the role of women and magazines offered additional instructions for decorations women could fashion at home. Godey’s was again a leader in printing precise instructions for plant­ing the tree and supplying patterns and directions for paper ornaments in 1880.

Following Godey’s and similar suggestions in other publi­cations, women in Pennsyl­vania produced images which today not only demand record prices at antiques shops and auctions, but provide a glimpse at another era. In­spired by favorite household items – hand mirrors, vases, baskets, rocking chairs and jewel boxes – women cut cardboard shapes and cov­ered them with glazed paper which they decorated with colored pictures and paper lace. Often they covered the shapes with cotton, trimmed them with gold stars and edged them with fine tinsel. Many magazines featured direc­tions for shiny paper cut­outs, but directions for other ornaments were handed down from generation to gen­eration, much in the same fashion as old family recipes. Midstate residents recalled grandmothers and older sisters fashioning sleighs, heavenly gates, trolleys with windows, and stars and crescents for the tree. In the early 1900s when their sisters and grand­mothers were making cotton ornaments, Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered tinted wadding in blue, pink, nile and yellow for four cents a sheet and white for two and a half cents. The ornaments not only record familiar possessions of women, but they also dem­onstrated modes of transporta­tion and fashion. Elaborately gowned maidens whirled by in curtained coaches or sporty cabriolets while their bolder sisters caught the drafts in hot-air balloons!

While homemade paper cutouts were not made exclusively in Pennsylvania, there was a strong tradition in the state. Both private and public collectors, including the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission and the Chester County Historical Society, report that antique cutouts in their holdings were primarily obtained in Penn­sylvania. A number of orna­ments can be traced directly to Pennsylvania families. The most complete descriptions of paper cutouts were originally reported by a Lancaster news­paper editor who noted that literally hundreds of stars, gondolas, hearts and crescents appeared on local trees in the 1870s. Interestingly, he also commented that they were handmade, with the exception of six purchased in Phila­delphia. However, an 1887 issue of the Pennsylvania-published The Ladies’ Home Journal renounced the practice of making homemade paper cutouts as a waste of time “fearful to contemplate.” Despite this stern repudiation, the holiday hobby remained popular until affordably priced glass ornaments stocked store shelves.

Manufacturers in Pennsyl­vania heeded well the popu­larity of paper tree decorations. In 1875 William Martin of Philadelphia patented a folded paper star trimmed with scraps of embossed paper. An unidentified “WG and Co.” applied for a patent for a paper sailboat in September 1878. The Novelty Ornament Com­pany of Philadelphia produced at least one paper cutout, a fancy covered dish decorated with embossed and flocked paper and trimmed with paper scraps. It sold for fifty cents, a considerable sum for a tree decoration in 1895 when the average worker (who earned twelve dollars a week) paid six cents for a quart of milk and twelve cents for a pound of round steak.

A prolific Pennsylvania producer of ornaments of the period was Bernard Wilmsen. Born in 1857, he was an officer of the Prussian army when he visited the United States on a second honeymoon. Rather than return to Europe, the twenty-six-year-old Wilmsen and his wife decided to set­tle in Philadelphia where he accepted employment with the Schwarz Brothers. Each of the four brothers separately owned a large toy store in Balti­more, Philadelphia, New York and Boston. (Of the four, only one remains, the well known F.A.O. Schwarz in Manhattan.) Recognizing that some of their most popular Christmas items were tinsel garland and tinsel rope im­ported from Germany, Wilmsen decided to start his own business. Aided by two hand­-operated machines manu­factured for him in Germany, Wilmsen began production of tinsel under the name B. Wilm­sen and Co. and achieved almost instant success with his popular creation. In 1887, the entrepreneur acquired patent rights from George W. Landenberger and expanded his line to produce the com­pany’s first ornament, which was a glass ball surrounded by a heart, wreath, diamond or other shapes formed from tinsel wrapped wire. In 1890 Wilmsen produced an un­breakable ornament designed in response to the burgeoning mail order business; it was a silk covered cardboard ball surrounded by sheared chenille tinsel shaped into similar forms as the earlier glass ornament. Durable yet in­expensive, the ornaments could be purchased from toy wholesalers for thirty-six cents a dozen.

Improvements in printing technology made possible mass production of brightly colored, embossed die-cuts known as scraps, scrap reliefs or glanzbilders which cap­tured the imagination of the public. Long used by confectioners to decorate lebkuchen (spice cookies) for hanging on trees, they were eagerly collected by homemakers and pasted in scrapbooks and autograph albums. Glanz­bilders could also be used to decorate paper cutouts, dressed as dolls or surrounded with tinsel for fastening to the tree. From a seemingly limitless array of subjects printed in Germany, Wilmsen primarily selected cherubs, angels and nativity figures for his ornaments, which remained com­mercially popular into the twentieth century. Ranging in size from four to fourteen inches, the smallest ”domestic tree ornaments” were offered wholesale by Butler Brothers for the price of six cents a dozen. Another popular Wilmsen ornament resembled home­made paper cutouts except that these metallic paper and crepe paper covered card­board shapes were precision-cut by machines.

Wilmsen continued capi­talizing on the escalating popularity of the decorated tree, patenting realistically shaped, foil covered bells in 1917; foil covered, tinsel trimmed balls in 1933; and foil covered cone-icicles in 1936. B.W. Fox managed the busi­ness after his grandfather’s death in 1948, and he introduced plastic, metallic tinsel which is used today in place of Wilm­sen’s original, elegant silver product.

Two other Pennsylvania manufacturers – C.A. Reed and the Beistle Company – con­tributed paper decorations which became so popular that they appeared in many early photographs of trees. Located in Williamsport since 1908, Reed is one of only three companies producing crepe paper today. Although its popularity has diminished, it was acclaimed by turn-of-­the-century women for making tree decorations such as flowers and fairies, festoon­ing the home with red and green streamers, and creating life-sized fireplaces and chimneys to set the stage for the tree and Santa. Crepe paper was imported from Ger­many in the 1890s and the owners, recognizing its poten­tial commercial success, pur­chased machines necessary to manufacture it in the United States. According to craft guides and women’s periodicals, the new wonder product seemed an indispensable accoutrement of domestic life; it was impossible to hostess a holiday event without using crepe paper.

The Beistle Company, founded in Pittsburgh in 1900 by Martin Luther Beistle, produced imitation palms and fems for hotel lobbies, Christ­mas tags, ribbons, greens, wreaths and calendars. Realiz­ing the increased interest in holiday decorations and, particularly, honeycomb tissue, Beistle expanded the com­pany’s offerings. He obtained equipment and the expertise necessary to manufacture honeycomb and relocated his business in Shippensburg in 1907. The company’s first offerings – bells, balls and garlands – were well received by consumers. Of the three products, the bell became as important a tree decoration as tinsel. Patented in 1914, the bell had been advertised earlier by Sears, Roebuck and Co. in two sizes; the fourteen­-inch model retailed for ten cents while two nine-inch bells sold for nine cents. By 1911, a dozen of a smaller size was included in every tree assort­ment package that Sears sold. Today, the Beistle Company produces honeycomb creations for all seasons.

Folded paper stars, another seasonal innovation, appeared in Pennsylvania. In the early twentieth century, cen­tral Pennsylvania newspapers printed directions and adver­tised packages of paper strips for pennies, and many households produced stars by the hundreds. The star was the only tree decoration some families could afford but how widespread the custom became is not known. In 1920 William R. Rudolph of Connecticut claimed a patent for the star, and today it appears as the familiar “Mora­vian Star.”

In addition to ministers, editors, women, inventors and manufacturers, Pennsylvania merchant F.W. Woolworth further encouraged the accep­tance of the decorated tree. Harper’s Bazaar had reported as early as 1873 that “berries, grapes, peaches, plums and other fruit of natural size made of transparent glass” were available for the tree, but it was, perhaps, Woolworth who brought German glass ornaments within reach of the average shopper. In 1880 at his Lancaster variety store, Wool worth introduced glass baubles and continued to offer them as his dime stores spread throughout the country.

As the nineteenth century waned, the custom of tying gifts to the tree faded. But the extinction of one tradition provided a favorable climate for the advent of another! The tree was now the elaborately decorated tree popularly asso­ciated with Christmas, an ele­gant beauty, not to be plucked by the hands of impatient children, but to grace the best parlor throughout the season. During the first decades of the twentieth century – the “gol­den age” of tree ornamen­tation – Sears, Roebuck and Co. offered all that was needed to dress a seven- to nine-foot tree, including candles, candle holders, tinsel ornaments, tinsel garlands, bead strings, clip-on glass birds, glass bells with clappers, assorted glass ornaments, candy con­tainers, wax-covered angels, Christmas snow, honeycomb tissue bells, metal ornament hangers and a fancy tree top for four dollars and seventy five cents. (A smaller tree could be lavishly decorated for two dollars and sixty-nine cents.) The tree by then knew no boun­daries. Brought to the Commonwealth by German immi­grants, heralded by ministers and editors, adopted by Vic­torian women and promoted by ingenious manufactur­ers, Pennsylvania’s gift, the decorated tree, had been embraced by the nation.


For Further Reading

Foley, Daniel J. Christmas in the Good Old Days. Philadel­phia: Chilton Company, 1961.

Hornung, Clarence P. An Old Fashioned Christmas in Illustra­tion and Decoration. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1975.

Kieffer, Elizabeth Clark. “Christ­mas Customs of Lancaster County.” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society 44: 175-182.

Miall, Anthony and Peter. The Victorian Christmas Book. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

O’Neil, Sunny. The Gift of Christmas Past: A Return to Vic­torian Traditions. Nashville, Tenn.: American Association for State and Local History, 1981.

Rogers, Maggie and Judith Hawkins. The Glass Christmas Ornament: Old and New. Forest Grove, Ore.: Timber Press, 1977.

Shoemaker, Alfred L. Christmas in Pennsylvania: A Folk­-Cultural Study. Kutztown, Pa.: Pennsylvania Folklife Society, 1959.

Snyder, Phillip V. The Christ­mas Tree Book. New York: The Viking Press, 1976.


Nada Gray has conducted exten­sive research on family holiday traditions as part of the Oral Tradi­tions Project sponsored by the Union County Historical Society. Her interest and expertise in that area of American cultural history are reflected in her two most recent publications, Herald Angels (1982) and Holidays: Victorian Women Celebrate in Pennsylvania (1983). In addition to her schol­arly pursuits, she acts as education director for the Union County Historical Society and teaches classes in Victorian era home and tree decorations.