By Ruth Lambert
San Juan Mountains Association
With the founding of Animas City (1876) and Durango (1881), local residents often celebrated Christmas holiday traditions that were based in the Victorian customs of England.
The Victorian Era is named after Queen Victoria (1819-1901), the fifth female monarch of England, who, after the deaths of four male successors, became queen as an 18-year-old single woman in 1837. In 1840, she married Prince Albert of Germany, who brought many German traditions with him to Windsor Castle.
The decorated Christmas tree was part of German traditions as early as the 1700s, and Prince Albert was responsible for introducing the tradition of decorated Christmas trees to England. In the villages, residents brought trees from the mountains and hillsides; and in towns, families bought and carried home their trees from tree sellers. Most old-fashioned Christmas trees were decorated with lighted candles and handmade holiday ornaments such as homemade paper cornucopias filled with sweets, fruit and nuts, and popcorn garlands hung on many trees.
Edible decorations, such as raisins, popcorn and nut garlands, hung on many trees, and gilded English walnuts and glazed orange baskets were popular. Fancy cakes hung from the branches by ribbons, and paper chains were draped around the trees. Soon, many homes in England were decorated in traditions that became associated with the Victorian Era.
In North America, European immigrants from Germany, Austria, Holland and England brought these traditions with them, and decorated and illuminated trees were the height of fashion in America in the 19th century. The goose-feather tree became the first artificial tree. These were formed of metal wire or sticks covered with goose, turkey, ostrich or swan feathers. The German immigrants first introduced the feather Christmas tree into the U.S. However, the practice of using artificial trees did not become popular until Sears Roebuck first advertised artificial trees for sale in their 1913 catalogues.
Although today we no longer decorate our trees with lighted candles, Victorian traditions are still found in and around Durango. Residents are able to cut their Christmas trees in the forest. For others, trees are available for purchase. The San Juan Mountains Association is sponsoring our 2nd Annual Silver Bells Christmas Trees for Conservation in partnership with the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Noble and Nordmann Fir trees from a sustainable tree farm will be available at our new location at the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad parking lot at Camino del Rio and College. The lot will be open from Friday until Dec. 23, or until the trees are sold out. The lot is open from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on weekends.
On Dec. 13, the SJMA will host educational tree-related crafts for children. All lot profits benefit SJMA educational programs.
Victorian decorations, ornaments and handmade items to decorate Christmas trees are also available locally. On Dec. 5-6, at the Animas Museum Christmas Bazaar, you can buy unique items to decorate your home and trees for the holidays.
Be sure to buy your trees and decorations and establish your family holiday traditions.
Ruth Lambert is cultural program director with San Juan Mountains Association, a nonprofit dedicated to public land stewardship and education. Email her at Ruth@sjma.org.