Victorian Christmas Decorating, featuring Frosted Branches and Gilded Acorns

Happy Christmas by Viggo Johansen, 1891.

There’s nothing more quintessentially Christmas than a Victorian Christmas, complete with mistletoe, tinsel, and candles on the tree. But there was more to Victorian holiday decorating than tinsel and candles. Just like us, many Victorians had a fondness for glitter and gold. In my new Victorian Christmas romance A Holiday By Gaslight, there’s a scene in which the guests at a country house party decorate for Christmas by gilding acorns and artificially frosting the tips of holly and ivy leaves with crystals. These Victorian decorating ideas didn’t originate in my fevered authorial brain. They were actual methods used to create glittering, gold-flaked, holiday cheer.

An issue of the Delineator from 1900 declares that “one of the handsomest effects” for the Christmas tree was “having the tips of the green boughs glittering with crystals and reflecting the lights in many brilliant colors.” It goes on to state that:

“One would suppose, at first sight of the glittering display, that some expensive method was necessary to produce the effect, but the process of covering the green twigs with crystals is very cheap and simple.”

At this juncture, I feel it necessary to warn you that you should definitely NOT try this at home. Many recipes the Victorians employed for decorating were highly toxic and not at all safe for use. The information provided below is purely for your historical edification.

The Christmas Tree by Albert Chevallier Tayler, 1911.

To produce the effect of glittering crystals on Christmas tree branches, the Delineator recommends the application of a solution of alum and boiled water. The recipes reads as follows:

“Put into a bucket a pound or more of alum and pour a gallon of boiling water upon it. Place the tree in such a position that the tips of the boughs may remain in this solution for some hours— perhaps overnight. Repeat the process until as many boughs are tipped with crystals as will make the tree very beautiful; or, if preferred, cut off the twigs, crystallize them and fix them again on the boughs.”

This method of frosting could also be used to create crystals on the leaves of holly and ivy. The 1881 edition of Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine describes one method for doing so, writing:

“On one pound of alum, pour a quart of boiling water. Whilst still warm, suspend the leaves in it by a string tied round the stalks; leave them in for twenty-four hours and then hang them up till dry.”

Arthur’s also offers a few more methods for creating snow-like crystals on Christmas tree branches. One was by coating the surface of the branches and leaves with gum solution and then “sprinkling thickly with flour.” Another, used to create an effect that resembled hoar frost, was to drape white cotton wool over the branches and then:

“Drop gum upon the wool, wherever frost would naturally form, and sprinkle coarse Epsom salts over it.”

As an alternative to Epsom salts, a Victorian could purchase “frosted glass, ready crushed.” Or, for an even cheaper solution, Arthur’s advises its readers to:

“…crush with a garden roller, any pieces of glass, such as old bottles, which have been saved up during the summer for this purpose.”

Christmas Tree by Alexei Korin, 1910.

Along with frosted branches, gilded acorns and walnuts were also very popular Victorian Christmas decorations. Golden fruits were very much in style as well. According to the Delineator:

“Golden fruit is popular on frost-tipped Christmas trees and reminds one of the orange-tree bearing the ripened fruit in an early frost or snow-storm.”

Gilding requires far less explanation than frosting. For this, Victorian simply used gold leaf. However, for something like Christmas decorations, there were less expensive methods for gilding fruits and nuts. The Delineator advises its readers to:

“Hammer a long tack into the end of the walnut by which to suspend it after gilding. Using a feather or soft brush, wash the nut with mucilage; then roll it in gold powder until it is well gilded; or, cover it with tin foil in imitation of gold leaf or paint it with gold paint.”

I hope the above gives you some idea of how Victorians created gilding and frosting on their Christmas decorations. For more Victorian Christmas cheer, check out my new Victorian Christmas romance A Holiday By Gaslight!

Mimi Matthews is the author of  The Pug Who Bit NapoleonA Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, and The Lost Letter. She researches and writes on all aspects of nineteenth century history—from animals, art, and etiquette to fashion, beauty, feminism, and law. 

Sources

Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine, Vol, XLIX. Philadelphia: T. S. Arthur & Son, 1881

The Delineator, Vol. LVI. New York: Butterick Publishing Co.,1900


Available Now

A Holiday By Gaslight
A Victorian Christmas Novella

England, 1861. Sophie Appersett is quite willing to marry outside of her class to ensure the survival of her family. But the darkly handsome Mr. Edward Sharpe is no run of the mill London merchant. He’s grim and silent. A man of little emotion—or perhaps no emotion at all. Can the two of them ever find common ground?
Find out more or Read an excerpt

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Advance Praise for A Holiday By Gaslight

“Matthews (The Matrimonial Advertisement) pays homage to Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South with her admirable portrayal of the Victorian era’s historic advancements in addition to courtship struggles arising from societal castes…Readers will easily fall for Sophie and Ned in their gaslit surroundings.” -Library Journal, starred review

“Matthews’ novella is full of comfort and joy—a sweet treat for romance readers that’s just in time for Christmas.” -Kirkus Reviews

“A HOLIDAY BY GASLIGHT is a warm and captivating Christmas romance which showcases how people from two different worlds can find common ground and genuine love.” -The Romance Reviews, top pick

“A graceful love story…and an authentic presentation of the 1860s that reads with the simplicity and visual gusto of a period movie.” -Readers’ Favorite

“A HOLIDAY BY GASLIGHT is smart and clever, very romantic, quite illuminating in so many respects, and one of the best historical Christmas stories I have ever read; a treat not to be missed by historical romance aficionados.” -Buried Under Romance

“Swoon-worthy and captivating, this endearing story’s protagonists are what enchant. Their love story is a teasing reminder of how powerful a backward glance, a silent pause, or gentle kiss can be. Only the most talented writers can conjure this elusive and bewitching spell.” -Austenprose

“[A] wonderfully charming and vividly rich romance, that will have the readers swooning with absolute delight. Perfect!” -Chicks, Rogues and Scandals

“Historically rich and tenderly romantic! Lovely in every way.” -Caroline Linden, USA Today bestselling author

“A lovely novella perfect for the Christmas Season.” -Vanessa Kelly, USA Today bestselling author


© 2015-2018 Mimi Matthews

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Adrian Burrell
Guest
Adrian Burrell

I did many of these decoration ideas for years because my parent grew up during the depression. My maternal grandmother was known for her baking and candies. Mom would blowout the eggs, give them a washing in and out, and Grandpa would paint them for ornaments. Mom saved the turkey wishbone, let it dry completely, then she sanded it and Grandpa would paint it gold or silver, over the years there were quite a few.

Vickie
Guest
Vickie

I love these and will definitely try painting nuts for the tree this year! So fascinating to see how the Victorians crafted!

Sam's mom
Guest
Sam's mom

Yes, I love the idea!

Wendy
Guest
Wendy

This all sounds amazing!!! (Minus the toxic part, of course.)

Anne
Guest
Anne

There’s nothing more quintessentially Christmas than a Victorian Christmas, ”

Lord, yes they invented our modern Christmas. Thank you Prince Albert!
You were wise to warn folks about trying to follow the toxic instructions, but I saw ” take a bucket….” and immediately bailed LOL! Merry Christmas!

Sarah Waldock
Guest
Sarah Waldock

Epsom salts are perfectly harmless and alum is fairly everyday if you do any home dying or cure rabbit skins – I would not like to mess with powdered glass, though!

May
Guest
May

Many thanks for this. I was reminded of art projects I did at school such as “frosting” paper leaves and such. Not surprising that some of the materials used for Victorian DIY Christmas projects are now considered toxic today.

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