Christmas was not widely celebrated in our Thirteen Colonies before the 1775-1783 American Revolution, and afterward the holiday fell entirely out of favor (along with most other English cultural customs) in the newly independent nation. Decades later, however, things had changed again, and by 1850—the year California entered the Union—Americans had once more come to accept and implement certain of England’s social customs as their own social traditions. As this decade dawned, a new English Christmas tradition was sweeping both sides of the Atlantic, having to do with a lavishly decorated, evergreen tree.
During the 1840s, Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert had established a family Christmas tradition at Windsor Castle: a fir tree hung with fruits and sweets and shapes cut from colored papers, and lit with dozens of small, glowing wax tapers. It was a Yuletide custom from his German homeland—but he wasn’t the first English monarch’s spouse to bring it to the British Isles. Years before Albert’s time, Queen Charlotte, the German wife of George III, had set up yew branches and a decorated tree surrounded by gifts for children at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December 1800. From then on, evergreen trees adorned with trinkets and surrounded by children’s presents became the proper fashion among refined English aristocracy at Christmastime.
So when Prince Albert imported several spruce firs from his native Coburg and sent decorated trees to schools and army barracks around London in 1840, the practice of having decorated Yuletide trees was already customary in England’s upper-class society. However, it was still quite a novelty to the masses until the mid-1840s, when London-based periodicals began publishing articles and images describing and depicting the royal Christmas tree. An engraving published in 1848 featured Queen Victoria, the Prince, and their children decorating a tree—and the custom of having such trees in their own homes quickly caught on with England’s middle classes.
Americans on the East Coast were likewise instantly captivated by the charming idea—right after the same 1848 engraved drawing of the royal family gathered around their Christmas tree was published, in 1850, in the popular American magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book. The first Christmas tree lot in the United States was established when an enterprising Catskill Mountains logger brought cut trees to New York City’s Washington Market in December 1851.
Out in California, though, it might have taken a bit longer for Christmas trees to become popular. People exchanged Christmas and New Year’s gifts with family and friends, and Santa Claus made his rounds. Church services on December 24th and 25th drew crowds, but the first newspaper report of a Christmas tree was not until 1854, when a church offered Christmas Tree Festivities as part of its Christmas Eve program.
The next year, more churches included decorated evergreen trees surrounded with loads of children’s gifts, to complement Christmas Day services. Shops that sold holiday candies and toys started decking their interiors with evergreen boughs and ornamented trees around this time, although the first advertisement for Christmas trees available for sale to the public appeared in 1856. The following year, a merchant advertised 1,000 cut Christmas trees of assorted sizes for sale . . . the first California Christmas tree lot?
Perhaps Christmas trees inside private California homes only became commonplace from about 1857 onward, yet Godey’s Lady’s Book was just as popular and influential on the West Coast as it was in the Atlantic States. There is no way to know whether California families were cutting their own trees from the snowy foothills all along since 1850, when the engraving of England’s royal Christmas tree captured the hearts of so many, and Christmas trees became a key component of ordinary families’ holiday celebrations.