Some of the prettiest trees in Christmas shops this season are labeled Victorian. Decorated with lacy, beribboned confections in pastel colors, they are lovely to look at and reminiscent of holidays past. But such ornaments would never have appeared on a Victorian Christmas tree.
"They have a feminine, boudoir look," says Carolyn Flaherty, editor of Victorian Homes magazine. "Very romantic. But the Victorians were dignified. They never would have had them in their parlors."
It's easy enough, though, to duplicate how the Victorians actually decorated -- without spending a lot of money. You'll end up with a tree affirming the values that have endeared the Victorian era to late 20th-century America: the importance of family and home, the virtues of a simpler way of life and the pleasures of old-fashioned pastimes.
For inspiration, you could start with the American Victorian Christmas tree at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. This year it's located on the second floor of the Museum of American History. (Only six to 12 of the Smithsonian's 50 themed trees are on display each year.)
As you'll see, many of the ornaments on a Victorian tree were handmade -- no matter how much money the family had. The Victorians were great savers; and their bits of fabric, sentimental pictures, ribbon, eggshells and paper were fashioned into charming decorations.
"The Victorians saved all sorts of things from their kitchens," says Sunny O'Neil, who made many of the ornaments for the Smithsonian's tree. They took eggshells, for instance, and created nests or little people out of them. Walnut shells became cradles for tiny baby dolls.
Here are some other things you or your children might fashion to decorate your Victorian tree:
Paper fans from bright paper
Cutout paper snowflakes
Cardboard ornaments of Victorian angels or Santas trimmed with tinsel
Crocheted snowflakes or decorations made from bits of fabric
Cornucopias decorated with Victorian-looking stickers (cherubs, flowers, birds) and filled with candy or nuts
Bunches of "grapes" made by wiring nuts together
Cookies and gingerbread men
Paper chains and strings of popcorn and cranberries
Small bouquets of paper flowers, called tussy-mussies by the Victorians
Matchboxes and other small boxes wrapped to look like gifts
True, not all of us have time to make our own ornaments. To achieve the same effect, Mary Pat Andrea, owner of NightGoods and several other decorative accessories shops in the area, says she saves things year-round for Christmas. "I tie everything I own on my tree," she explains with a laugh. This might include a nostalgic photo tied with a ribbon, a gold tassel, a pretty pincushion.
She mixes these bits and pieces of her past year with store-bought ornaments, as the Victorians did. Most of us aren't lucky enough to own antique ornaments from the 19th century; but blown-glass ornaments, "Old World" reproduction ornaments as they're called, can be bought at various Christmas shops and decorative accessories stores. These glass balls, fruits and animal shapes in jewel tones are the true Victorian-style ornaments, as opposed to what you find labeled "Victorian" in Christmas shops. You may want to include a blown-glass pickle on your tree: The child who spots it first is traditionally awarded a small gift. (Pickle ornaments can be found at Stebbins Anderson, Watson's, Smith & Hawken and various Christmas shops around the area.)
Toys and gifts were hung on Victorian trees, so raid your children's rooms for doll-house furniture, small dolls and teddy bears, other miniature toys, little decorative flags and metal musical instruments. Or make your Victorian tree a table-top tree with small, inexpensive gifts hung on it so your kids can have the fun of looking for their names among the evergreen boughs.
You probably won't be decorating with the sugarplums, sweetmeats or bunches of raisins that were found on a Victorian Christmas tree. But old-fashioned-looking foil-wrapped chocolate Santas, candy canes and marzipan fruits would all be appropriate.
Icicles were imported from Germany in the 19th century; drape your tree with today's version -- no longer made of lead, of course. (These are what are now called tinsel.)
Various kinds of garlands were essential to a Victorian tree. Silvery tinsel garlands were introduced in the late 1800s, but they were smaller than today's -- about an inch in diameter. You may have to hunt to find such narrow tinsel. Or you can order it and many other reproduction tree decorations from D. Blumchen & Co., which specializes in Christmases past. (For a catalog, call  652-5595.) The company's motto for its silver-plated tinsel and icicles is "guaranteed to tarnish"!
A Victorian tree would have candles, of course, not lights. "But they lighted them only two or three times during the Christmas season," says Sunny O'Neil, who's also the author of "The Gift of Christmas Past: A Return to Victorian Traditions." (Of course, their season was much shorter than ours.) You can buy candleholders with clips and small wax tapers, but then you'll need -- as the Victorians did -- a bucket and a sponge on a pole nearby to put out any fire. Tiny white lights are a good compromise.
Perhaps the best way to get a Victorian look is to remember less is not more. More is more. More tinsel and garlands and paper chains, more sparkly glass ornaments, more handmade things, more mementos, more paper ornaments hung with ribbons, more chocolate-filled cornucopias and peppermint candy canes, more little gifts and toys and snowflakes and angels and anything that brings the old-fashioned Christmas spirit into your home.
If you're interested in tackling a handmade ornament more complicated than a paper snowflake, here are directions on how to make a fairy cradle from "Victorian Christmas Crafts" by Barbara Bruno:
"This hinged and ribboned walnut held an enchanting surprise for a Victorian miss. When the shell was opened, it revealed an elfin babe nestled in its lacy cradle. The doll might be china or a delicate, painted-wax cherub covered by the tiniest of handmade quilts. Sometimes, an incredibly tiny wardrobe accompanied the infant in its nutshell nursery.
"To make this Victorian fantasy, drill two holes in each half of a walnut shell. Align the holes to make a back hinge and a front clasp. Line the halves with fabric or silver paper. Glue a frill of lace around the outer edges. Bind the edges with silk ribbon, fixed in place with glue. Snip the ribbon, if necessary, to leave the holes free. Thread a ribbon through the back hinge and join the shells with a bow. Add a small doll or other gift of your choice. If the shell is to be a cradle, you can line the inside edge with another lace strip. Thread another length of ribbon through the clasp and close with a bow and a hanging loop."
Pub Date: 12/08/96