I have always pictured early Americans gathered around their Christmas trees, lit with glowing candles. The idea of Christmas trees is such an important part of current American culture that it’s hard to imagine a home without one. We certainly enjoy cutting our family tree and decorating it every year. However, colonists in the late 18th century didn’t have Christmas trees.
Christmas trees originated in Germany, but did not become a part of American traditions until the late 19th century. There are some reports of German colonial settlements in Pennsylvania having outdoor community trees decorated by the mid-1700’s, but there were no trees with candles inside homes.
So if early Americans didn’t have Christmas trees for decorations, what did they have? Obviously Christmas trees stay green in the winter, which is a welcome sight when all is else is brown and gray. It’s no surprise then that early Americans looked to decorate their homes with those plants that stay green in winter. Here are a few of the most common colonial Christmas decorations.
These plants, naturally staying green in winter, were often used to decorate homes and churches for Christmas. Most of these plants also have unique smells that help to brighten what would have been the cold and gray days of winter. Laurel, for example, is also known as the Bay leaf which is often used as a spice in soups.
Not surprisingly, early Americans didn’t start decorating for Christmas in November (or October even!). December 25th was often the day that decorations were brought inside as part of the Christmas Advent season. This was typically as twelve day period of time where multiple celebrations and parties occurred. Gifts would be exchanged, but not necessarily on December 25th.
Many of these early traditions and decorations continue today, even if Christmas trees weren’t a part of early American life. We put up evergreen garland and wreaths on our house, with the added flare of electric lights! It’s fun decorating today and to look back and remember how Christmas traditions have changed.