‘Oh Christmas Tree’: History of Christmas Trees, Lights & Décor

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott searches through old newspapers to see how Christmas tree lights and decorations have changed over the years.

As genealogists and family historians, I do not need to tell you that the Christmas season is one filled with traditions, family, and memories. One of the first Christmas memories I have is of our Christmas tree. In our home when I was growing up, Santa brought the tree on Christmas Eve—which made Christmas morning all the more magnificent and magical to a child!

I recall inspecting the Christmas tree, every light and every ornament. On our Christmas tree were a few very special, antique ornaments. These were Christmas ornaments which had a small candleholder on their tops and wax drippings on them. As I eyed these I would always make my parents and grandparents recount how Christmas trees of their youth were decorated with real candles rather than electric lights, and every year I begged for us to please do candles like in the old days.

A Little Family Christmas Secret

Every Christmas Eve, when my family would go to my Nana and Gramps Phillips’ house to celebrate Christmas with them, I always got a very special Christmas treat! When everyone was in other rooms, Gramps would secretly take me with him to their tree, pull a small wax candle out of his pocket, put it on one of the old ornaments, and light it for me. To this day I don’t know whose smile was bigger, his or mine. But I do know this: that memory is just one of the many reasons that I loved my Gramps so very dearly!

Lights, Christmas, Action!

Recently as I was researching an ancestor in GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives, I decided to look for more information on the venerable Christmas tree and its decorations, especially how we have lighted trees over the generations for our viewing pleasure.

photo of author Scott Phillips and his Christmas tree

Photo: Scott Phillips and his family’s Christmas tree. Credit: from the author’s collection.

Christmas Traditions with Pagan Origins?

I must admit I was surprised when one of my initial discoveries was an article from a 1920 newspaper about how pagan some Christmas traditions are. This article actually made me laugh since it seems it could have been in one of today’s newspapers. But I moved on in my Christmas tree history investigation!

Much Paganism in Observance of Christmas, Charlotte Observer newspaper article 24 December 1920

Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina), 24 December 1920, page 1

Then I came across a 1908 article in my old hometown newspaper, the Plain Dealer. This old news article interviewed several ministers who were all in favor of trying to discourage the common practice of decorating Christmas trees with lit candles.

Christmas Tree Candles Hard Hit, Plain Dealer newspaper article 29 July 1908

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 29 July 1908, page 12

Real Candles on Christmas Trees

However, (and I SO wish that I had known about this next article when, as a child, I would make my annual plea for candles on our tree), I found a wonderful, full-page story from a 1908 newspaper titled “Watching for an Expected Guest.” This historical newspaper article included dozens of stories about Christmas traditions around the world, such as “Worship at Cross of Ice” and “In the Realm of the Czar.” But it was an item at the bottom of the page titled “The Christmas Tree” that caught my eye:

“Wax candles are the only real thing for a Christmas tree, candles of wax that mingle their perfume with that of the burning fir, not the by-product of some coal-oil or other abomination. What if the boughs do catch fire? They can be watched, and too many candles are tawdry, anyhow.”

Oh, how I would have used this as “ammunition” in my fight for candles on our tree!

Watching for an Expected Guest [Santa Claus], Repository newspaper article 13 December 1908

Repository (Canton, Ohio), 13 December 1908, page 43

An Old Christmas Quiz

Then I made a really fun newspaper discovery! It was an article from a 1983 newspaper titled “A Christmas Quiz.” If you love Christmas like I do, then you have to look this one up and take this awesome 25-question Christmas quiz!

While I didn’t score well on the Christmas quiz, I did learn a lot and one of the questions I did get correct was #11; “Which American President was the first to decorate the White House tree with electric lights?” Do you know who it was? It was Grover Cleveland and at that time (1895) he made a big push for families to switch to electric lights on all Christmas trees. By the way, since GenealogyBank.com has complete editions of its historical newspapers, you can jump to the next page of the Oregonian and check your answers—but no cheating! Remember Santa knows who is “naughty” and who is “nice”!

A Christmas Quiz, Oregonian newspaper article 25 December 1983

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 25 December 1983, page 98

Electrocution by Electric Christmas Lights

Next up I found another article that I could have used in my childhood campaign against electric lights on our Christmas tree—and this was a safety issue I remember. This 1959 newspaper article reported a warning about the new all-aluminum Christmas trees that had just been introduced. It turns out they posed a potential risk of electrocution if electric lights were used on them.

Warning Is Given: New [Aluminum] Christmas Tree Is Electrical Hazard, Springfield Union newspaper article 2 December 1959

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 2 December 1959, page 2

The One Blown Bulb

I finally found what could have been a real winner in my candle crusade when I read an article from a 1920 newspaper. This article, while extolling the virtues of electric lights over “small wax candles,” did explain the difficulties of working with lights wired in “series.” You remember those: if one bulb went out, then the whole string went dark. Oh, my father (God rest his soul) would recall those lights I am sure! I can still hear him “discussing” this issue with the darkened string of lights. I bet if I had only asked right then, he would have acquiesced to my plea for candles!

New Christmas Tree Lights, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 12 December 1920

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 12 December 1920, section: Feature, page 6

Asbestos for Christmas?

Then I discovered even more support for my argument when I read this article from a 1913 newspaper. The very first sentence offered this advice:

“Asbestos snow for the Christmas tree and asbestos whiskers for Santa himself are part of the latest advice from the fire department.”

You see even the experts can be wrong!  Asbestos whiskers for Jolly Old St. Nick? Perhaps using reverse psychology, I could have wheedled those candles onto our tree.

Remember That X'Mas Trees, Easily Ignited, Often Bring Death through Carelessness, Trenton Evening Times newspaper article 21 December 1913

Trenton Evening Times (Trenton, New Jersey), 21 December 1913, page 8

Bubble Christmas Tree Lights

Then my entire imaginary crusade for real candles on the Christmas tree fell apart when I discovered this advertisement in a 1947 newspaper article. It offered for sale my very favorite Christmas tree light of them all: the venerable “Bubble Light”! For only $3.98 I could get a whole set described as:

“NOMA BUBBLE LIGHTS for your Christmas tree…novel idea—the lights bubble and flicker like real candles and seem to make the tree dance with joy…nine lights, each 5 in. tall in assorted colors…special clip for fastening to tree…3.98

ad for Christmas tree bubble lights, San Diego Union newspaper advertisement 7 December 1947

San Diego Union (San Diego, California), 7 December 1947, page 9

As you can see from this photo, I still adore bubble lights and have this one as a night light in my own home.

photo of a bubble nightlight

Photo: bubble nightlight. Credit: from the author’s collection.

NOMA & Christmas Lights

By the way, the San Diego Union article rekindled another Christmas memory. The NOMA label on Christmas lights was something I well remember my mother and father referring to when shopping for Christmas lights. NOMA (the National Outfit Manufacturers’ Association) began as a trade association and morphed into almost a monopoly on Christmas lights.

New NOMA X'Mas Lights, Oregonian newspaper article 20 December 1949

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 20 December 1949, page 14

You can read more about NOMA and Christmas lights history at this Library of Congress webpage.

Thinking about my love of bubble lights, I guess some things can change for the better; I can live without candles on my Christmas tree after all, as long as I have bubble lights!

Merry Christmas everyone—and now I have to go put the lights on our Christmas tree!

Christmas Presents of the Past: the Strange, the Unusual—and More

Introduction: Scott Phillips is a genealogical historian and owner of Onward To Our Past® genealogy services. In this guest blog post, Scott looks through old newspapers to find some truly strange, unusual—and sometimes heartwarming—presents given during past Christmases.

I always feel extra thankful around Christmastime that I am a genealogist. It is the best time to be with, and think about, family. Of course some of the most fun memories that always come flooding back are those of giving and receiving Christmas presents!

I grew up with many Christmas family traditions handed down from my Czech ancestors. I fondly recall that we always celebrated St. Nicholas Day on December 6th and that Santa Claus always brought our Christmas tree along with our gifts on Christmas Eve after we fell asleep listening for sleigh bells in the night. Now as an adult, I can hardly imagine how much work my parents must have done those late Christmas Eve nights…putting out packages, assembling toys, AND decorating a full Christmas tree. But, I certainly recall that those Christmas mornings were magical, seeing the tree for the first time with all those gifts for us kids under it.

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I remember being thrilled and amazed at what I found under the tree with my name on it! These fond family memories and my genealogy work got me to thinking about what presents other people might have found under their Christmas trees, so I turned to GenealogyBank’s Historical Newspaper Archives for a bit of fun to see what I might find.

The Elephant in the Yard

My first discovery, from a 1985 South Dakota newspaper, was a “white elephant” gift: literally, an elephant. It seems a certain Marie Christianson, of Apple Valley, Minnesota, woke to find an eight-foot-tall fiberglass elephant on her front lawn! Now, my family will tell you I have “missed” on more than one gift over the years, but at least I never tried giving anything that big!

Woman Gets Surprise from Elephant, Aberdeen Daily News newspaper article 15 December 1985

Aberdeen Daily News (Aberdeen, South Dakota), 15 December 1985, page 20

A Gold-Dipped Cow Chip

Next up I just had to read an article I found in a 1980 Texas newspaper, since it was headlined “Oh, just what I always wanted…a gold cow chip.” No kidding! This strange story leads with the opportunity to buy, for only $125, a gold-dipped cow chip made into a Christmas ornament, and it didn’t stop there. The article also reports on such gifts as cow chip drink coasters, a “hospital booze” dispenser, and other strange gifts. As the reporter comments: “But, of course, with Christmas gifts, like anything else—beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

"Oh, Just What I Always Wanted...a Gold Cow Chip," Dallas Morning News newspaper article 14 December 1980

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 14 December 1980, page 177

The Worst Christmas Gifts Ever

Then I came across a 1975 article from a Texas newspaper titled “Christmas gifts. Everything they never wanted.” It seems that the UPI undertook a survey to find some of the worst Christmas gifts ever. Right up there at the top was the WWII GI who was fighting in the mud of the western Pacific when he received his Christmas gift: a shoe shine kit! That one really had me laughing, as did several of the others as the UPI interviewed a host of big-name celebrities including Bob Hope, Carol Burnett, Phyllis Diller, David Niven and others. While I laughed over gifts such as Carol Burnett’s “a case of chicken pox” and shuddered over Phyllis Diller getting a snake, the gift that took the cake for me was Stanley Marcus, of the Neiman-Marcus Department Store chain. It seems his children couldn’t figure out what to give the man that probably literally had everything, so they gave him a live donkey for Christmas!

Christmas Gifts: Everything They Never Wanted, Dallas Morning News newspaper article 24 December 1975

Dallas Morning News (Dallas, Texas), 24 December 1975, page 9

Oh! It’s Moleskin Pants…Again

The laughter really rolled around my office when I came across a real “winner” of a Christmas gift in a 1984 Massachusetts newspaper article. This one makes me wonder if the genealogy and family history of Roy Collette of Owatonna, Minnesota, will include his Christmas gift of a pair of moleskin pants. It seems Roy and his brother-in-law gift and re-gift the same pair of moleskin pants each Christmas. In the article, Roy tells the story that it took him two months to unwrap his Christmas present of those pants since his brother-in-law, Larry Kunkel, sent them wrapped “cemented in a 12,000-pound, 17-foot-high red space ship”! Can you imagine? The two of them had been exchanging this same pair of pants, wrapped in various zany ways, since the mid-1960s.

Moleskin Pants Finally Free from Concrete Cocoon, Springfield Union newspaper article 29 March 1984

Springfield Union (Springfield, Massachusetts), 29 March 1984, page 2

The Real Santa of Danby & Mount Tabor

Soon I found a heartwarming article from a 1983 Louisiana newspaper, which told the story “Christmas legacy continues” from the small towns of Danby and Mount Tabor, Vermont. It seems a local boy, who made a fortune in the lumber trade, never forgot his hometown. When Silas Griffith died in 1903, his will set up an endowment to buy Christmas gifts each year for all the boys and girls in the towns of Danby and nearby Mount Tabor. This old newspaper article begins with a 75-year-old fellow recalling “washtubs full of large, juicy oranges” beneath the Griffith endowment tree as holiday gifts. William Crosby comments: “In those days, an orange was a pretty scarce item. It meant an awful lot to me.” That one really took me back, since every year when I was a child, year in and year out, my Christmas stocking held an orange in the toe as a very special winter treat. I can still taste the marvelous flavors as my sisters and I would stick a peppermint stick into the orange and drink the juice through our makeshift straws. Christmas magic indeed.

Christmas Legacy Continues, Advocate newspaper article 25 December 1983

Advocate (Baton Rouge, Louisiana), 25 December 1983, page 3

The Red Cross Delivers a Great Gift

Tears formed in my eyes as I read the next article I came across, titled “The Funny Christmas Gift,” from a 1918 Pennsylvania newspaper. This news story was incredibly moving to me, especially as we approach the centennial of World War I. If you want to truly get into the Christmas spirit and have immigrant ancestors in your genealogy as my family does, you must read this great story about a gift both simple and hugely meaningful. The story is told by a Red Cross worker who is helping process packages to troops overseas during WWI, and concludes this way:

The Funny Christmas Gift, Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader newspaper article 26 November 1918

Wilkes-Barre Times-Leader (Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania), 26 November 1918, page 12

Remember Rural Free Delivery?

Things got lighter after this when I found myself reading an article from a 1905 Pennsylvania newspaper, titled “Christmas with the Rural Free Delivery Carriers.” Now if you are old enough to recall sending mail with an address that featured “R.F.D.” in it, then you will really enjoy this wonderful trip back in time. This one is almost like having your own genealogy time machine! Be sure to check it out and read about what these wonderful rural carriers got from their appreciative customers around Christmastime. It was special to read how these fellows often received “potatoes, flour, apples, preserves, etc., in such quantities that the family is kept supplied with these things all winter in this manner.”

Christmas with the Rural Free Delivery Carriers, Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper article 17 December 1905

Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), 17 December 1905, section: comic, page 2

Strange Christmas Presents of the Rich & Famous

I was especially intrigued when I came across an article from a 1909 Louisiana newspaper, titled “Some Queer Christmas Presents.” This story tells of many gifts received by actors and actresses at Christmas, and I was pleased to see that several had been given bricks from a building that was significant in their lives.

Some Queer Christmas Presents, Times-Picayune newspaper article 12 December 1909

Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), 12 December 1909, page 48

I was given a brick once, as you can see in the photograph below. While it may not be from an opera house or famous theater, mine is from a community center in a small village in Michoacán, Mexico, that I was instrumental in getting built. I do believe that, as the earlier reporter noted, the beauty of a gift truly is in the eye of the beholder.

photo of author Scott Phillips with a brick he received as a present

Photo: Scott Phillips with his prized brick. Credit: from the author’s collection.

What have been some of your favorite, strange, or outrageous Christmas gifts in your family? Please tell us about them in the comments section.