I must now seek in the children an echo of what Ernest and I were in the old time, of what we felt and thought; and their delight in the Christmas-trees is not less than ours used to be.
Prince Albert, 1847
The decorated Christmas tree came into fashion in England during the Victorian era, and the practice was spreading to the rest of Europe … but the Christmas tree was originally a German tradition. In the early 19th century, the Christmas tree was taken to be an expression of the finer aspects of German Culture, especially among emigrants overseas. Queen Victoria had some familiarity with the tradition as a child, but it was really the German Prince Albert who embraced celebrating Christmas with a tree.
You can follow the popularity of the Christmas tree by its appearance in literature and the media. There was no mention of a tree in the poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas, which was published in 1823. Queen Victoria married Albert in 1841. Hans Christian Anderson’s The Fir Tree was first published in December, 1844. In 1848, The Illustrated London News described the Christmas trees decorating the interior of Windsor Castle and on its cover had an illustration of the main tree surrounded by the royal family. The queen was a trendsetter; she also introduced the fashion for white wedding dresses and the use of anaesthetic in childbirth. In just a few years, Christmas trees were decorating all the ‘better’ homes.
The Victorian Christmas tree was decorated with glass ornaments, sugared sweetmeats (not candy canes), cakes tied with ribbons, popcorn strings, and lighted candles and hand-made paper chains. Doesn’t that sound like an accident waiting to happen! Under the tree was usually decorated a ‘landscape’, a nativity scene or a tiny village or some such. The presents weren’t sat under the tree until Christmas day, or still went into the Christmas stockings (which were often filled with an orange in the toe as a special treat).
When writing in the Steampunk genre, it is always a good idea not to assume that modern celebrations are the same as Victorian-era celebrations. Not only will this add authenticity to your narrative, but I think it adds to the fun. Who wants to celebrate the same sort of Christmas every time? As well, Christmas makes for a great treasure trove of symbology that can be used for metaphors or underlying analogies.
The Christmas tree doesn’t just have to be all about Christmas, as trees have all sorts of connotations of their own. People were decorating their houses with greenery during midwinter centuries before Christianity introduced the celebration of Christmas. Just think of how much fun you could have with a Steampunk druid…