You Bring the Tree and We’ll Provide the Presents…

You Bring the Tree and We’ll Provide the Presents…

By Elizabeth Talbot

100 years ago, and the first Christmas of the “Roaring Twenties” was about to be celebrated. With World War I a very recent memory, the mood in the UK was becoming more buoyant. A parallel optimism was rising in America, and both nations used Yuletide as a vehicle for demonstrative self-belief and commercial revitalization. A Century on and the fast-approaching Christmas of 2020 is being hailed as a much-needed salve and balm by many people, tired and ravaged by the effects of a terrible year. Whilst there is stark contrast between the two occasions separated by history, there are also some natural parallels.

Most definitely, description of a 1920’s Christmas would include familiar and now-standard ingredients: Christmas trees, wreaths, sparkling lights, stockings, candles, toys, nativity sets and Father Christmas… We would have felt at home with the seasonal atmosphere and activities: extravagant Christmas trees, sending greeting’s cards, extensive gift giving, lavish feasts, and the wide-spread use of images of Father Christmas, (or Santa Claus in America) in advertising, would all be fully-established by the mid-1920s. However, during this decade, the main mention of Christmas still began only a few days before Christmas Eve and most decorations would not be put up until Christmas Eve itself. This year, 2020, there are reports of families having begun decorating for Christmas before Halloween, in order to bring cheer into their locked-down homes.

The main symbol of many people’s Christmas is the decorated tree. Traditionally, in London, fresh-cut Christmas trees were brought in on wagons and sold on the streets in popular markets such as Covent Garden. They were generally for those people prosperous enough to be able to afford them as a luxury; but whilst country-dwellers always had easier access to fresh festive greenery without the expense, by the 1920’s Christmas trees were entering the living rooms of most people across the nation, no longer seen as an exclusive preserve of the wealthy and elite. Meanwhile, in America, where cut live trees had also been the cherished way to make the holiday come alive, by 1920, the artificial Christmas tree was taking centre stage. The “feather tree” was the first artificial Christmas tree, originally made in Germany as early as 1845 as a way of protecting Germany from deforestation. Metal wire or sticks were covered with goose, turkey, ostrich, or swan feathers. The feather sticks were drilled into a central one to resemble the branches on a tree; the feathers were often dyed green to imitate pine needles.

Sears Roebuck, the famous chain of American department stores, first advertised artificial trees for sale in their 1913 catalogues. Often, they had berries and candleholders at the branch-tips and a round white base. By the late teens, Japan was also manufacturing feather trees for the U.S. market, and by the 1920s the feather Christmas tree was the height of fashion. Artificial Christmas trees have taken many guises over subsequent decades and they are still as big a fashion-statement and conversation-starter as ever. In 2020, eco-friendly artificial trees are increasingly available.

Whether real or artificial, Christmas trees in the 1920’s would be lit, either with flaming candles, as in the Victorian period, or, if the house was fitted with electricity, with a set of rare but trend-setting coloured lights known as ‘fairy lights‘; topped with a fairy-doll which would stand in front of a large star. Christmas crackers were laid within the branches and elaborate paper decorations which unfolded into bells, fancy pom-pom balls or stars became very popular, as did crepe paper streamers. Shops sold individual metre-long lengths of tinsel: a thin design for a penny and a 'plush garland' for threepence.

Also available were hollow, painted glass novelties to be hung on the Christmas tree, such as balls, birds, candy canes, snowmen, and story-book characters. Baubles would be cheerful and bright in a myriad of colours including pink, orange, silver, and gold. In America, the Roaring Twenties also featured non-traditional colours for Christmas, such as “fashionable” pastel shades including lavender, pale robin’s egg blue, cream and rose. However, colours intensified over the decade as the Art Deco style began to impact mainstream consumer trends, and undoubtedly the biggest colour of the Christmas season, on either side of the Atlantic throughout the 1920s, was red. Any vintage Christmas decorations from this amazing period, including early electric tree lights, are serious collectors’ pieces, especially as they were neither robust, nor intended to last, and are definitely worth looking-out for as rarities.

Certainly, the glitz and glamour of the 1920s and its traditions are still seen today in the way we decorate our homes at Christmas, and much of our current taste is rooted in that era. Christmas and the jazzy, sparkly ‘20’s were made for each other. Equally, after the shock of World War I, people craved “the comfort of more innocent times”– Merry Old England and Charles Dickens were favourite themes, as evidenced by Christmas cards of the time. Images emphasizing the “homey coziness” of Christmas were also very popular 100 years ago and these have a renewed relevance and poignancy again this year.

TW Gaze wishes you all a safe and peaceful time, however you may be keeping Christmas 2020.