Saturday, December 20, 2014

Victorian Etiquette of Christmas Trees and Stockings

Two conflicting views of St. Nick on Christmas Eve: One with stockings hung for Victorian era goodies of a large-sized apple, gingerbread, candy and small toys.  In another, Santa is with a Christmas tree. "There was no lack of room on it's capacious branches, and the New England stocking, conscious of its imperfections, shrank timidly into obscurity." From "LIFE" 1883

"The very name of the Christmas stocking is now held to be improper in the most refined New England circles, and New England children, as they gaze in joy and wonder if their Christmas trees glowing with lights and blossoming with copies of Emerson's works, and bags of oatmeal and beans, would laugh in derision at the sheer idea of a stocking large enough to hold those alluring delicacies."
Santa's looks have changed a bit over the years, as this old drawing suggests. There was a time when a Christmas stocking's capacity was so far reduced that it became an insufficiently hollow mockery. It could contain only the smallest sized apple, and no toys worth having could be crowded into it's contracted body. The result was indisputable and growing juvenile dissatisfaction, and as the only possible measure of relief the Christmas tree was introduced.
Statistics concerning the prevalence of Christmas trees during the recent Christmas season show a marked increase in the number of trees used in New England and in the West, and a decrease in the number of those used in this city and in its vicinity.
The Christmas tree is conceded to be German in its origin. Why the Germans originally adopted the fashion of hanging cheap candles and inexpensive presents on small evergreen trees, does not particularly concern us. Probably the thrifty Germans perceived that the Christmas tree was more economical than the Christmas stocking; but in the absence of any trustworthy data in regard to the stockings of the fatherland, it is impossible to arrive any decision. All that we certainly know is that Germans invented and used the Christmas tree, and that it was gradually adopted to a greater or lesser extent by other nations.
The introduction of the Christmas tree into New England followed soon after the introduction of transcendental philosophy. The relation between the two was not, however, that of cause and effect. They were both results, or perhaps the incedents of a great change which had naturally altered the character of the New England stocking.
In the early days of New England the stockings were hung up on Christmas Eve-  and which as a matter of course, as a full-grown stocking- was able to contain a fair and satisfactory quantity of presents. There was room in its extremity for a large-sized apple, and the capacity of the rest of the stocking for gingerbread, candy and small toys was all that could be desired. There was a time, however, when this capacity was so far reduced that the Christmas stocking became an insufficiently hollow mockery. It could contain only the smallest sized apple, and no toys worth having could be crowded into it's contracted body. The result was indisputable and growing juvenile dissatisfaction, and as the only possible measure of relief the Christmas tree was introduced.
Etiquipedia would be thrilled to find this spoon from 1892 in its Christmas stocking!
There was no lack of room on it's capacious branches, and the New England stocking, conscious of its imperfections, shrank timidly into obscurity. The very name of the Christmas stocking is now held to be improper in the most refined New England circles, and New England children, as they gaze in joy and wonder if their Christmas trees glowing with lights and blossoming with copies of Emerson's works, and bags of oatmeal and beans, would laugh in derision at the sheer idea of a stocking large enough to hold those alluring delicacies.
While the popularity of the Christmas tree in New England is that it's easily explained, an entirely different cause has led to the introduction of the Christmas tree into the thriving cities and towns of the West. The Western people are proverbially liberal, but even liberal people, if they are wise stop short of bankruptcy. The Western mother or sister who undertook to fill her personal stockings with Christmas presents, found the task a laborious and costly one. It is said- on the irreproachable authority of the Chicago press- that in Cincinnati and St. Louis, the pumpkin entirely superseded the traditional apple as the proper article with which to begin the storing of a stocking; and St. Louis papers have pictured with much pathos the Chicago matron in the act of employing pound after pound of candy, and a vast succession of bulky toys, into the insatiate maw of a stocking that no effort could fill. 
Moreover, when the Western Christmas stocking was partially filled, it required the muscular energy of a strong man to move it, and was it was necessary to place it on the floor under the bed of the child for whom it was intended, for the reason that it was unsafe to suspend such a heavyweight to any article of furniture. Accidents of a really serious character often occurred in connection with these overgrown Christmas stockings, and even when they were emptied they were still sources of danger, as was shown by the miserable fate of the small boy, aged twelve years, who crept into the empty Chicago stocking on Christmas morning, in the year 1865, and having failed to find his way out was not released for three days, at the expiration of which he was fortunately discovered by washer-woman, and saved from an untimely death by starvation.
LIFE 1883... When the "liberal West" area of the United States was Chicago and St. Louis. "The Christmas tree is now almost universal in all the leading Western cities, and it is only when a fond husband desires to give his wife a sewing-machine, or his daughter a sealskin dolman, that he suggests the hanging of a Christmas stocking."
That the Western people should, in the interest of humanity and economy, have substituted the Christmas tree for the Christmas stocking, in what might've been expected in view of the intelligence and enterprise of the West, the Christmas tree is now almost universal in all the leading Western cities, and it is only when a fond husband desires to give his wife a sewing-machine, or his daughter a sealskin dolman, that he suggests the hanging of a Christmas stocking. 
Thus, for reasons utterly dissimilar, the Christmas tree has virtually driven out the Christmas stocking both in New England and in the West, and there is little probability that in either locality the stockings will ever again come into favor.
On the other hand New York has never had any need of Christmas trees. To some extent the Christmas tree has been used in families, where the custom was adopted solely on the ground but it was a German custom, but it has never become really popular, and of late years has been steadily dying out. 
The stocking in which the Christmas treasures of our small boys and little girls are placed is capacious enough to satisfy any reasonable child, while it is not so large as to overtax the pockets or energies of parents. Could the same sort of stocking be imported and acclimated in New England and the West, Christmas trees would no longer have any excuse for being, and the stocking would be universally accepted as precisely the thing needed to fill every household with juvenile happiness on Christmas morning.