Soldiers celebrated Christmas at Fort D. A. Russell in a unique manner. To get into the holiday spirit, this month’s articles will discuss various topics related to Christmas at Fort D. A. Russell and will contain a variety of historical photos of the base during the holidays. This week is all about the Christmas Tree.
The American interpretation of the Victorian Christmas tree was a product of economic circumstance, cultural preferences, geographical location and family heritage. The Christmas tree was first introduced to American culture through German immigration; however, the tradition was not immediately embraced by non-Germans. Indeed, the Christmas tree was not considered customary until the mid-nineteenth century, when the concept was first publicized on December 23, 1848. In a woodcut published in the Illustrated London News, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and their family were depicted standing around a decorated tree celebrating Christmas. Wanting to emulate royalty, the trend was widely received by the English-speaking world. Two years later, an American-variant of the Victorian Christmas Tree appeared in publication.
The American-style, Victorian Christmas tree undoubtedly imitated the original British design made famous by Queen Victoria. Mrs. Paula Taylor, Director of the Warren ICBM & Heritage Museum and resident Christmas cheer, provided a vivid example while setting up her Victorian Christmas exhibit at the museum:
“On each branch, dozens of candles were arranged, and hanging from the branches were elegant trays, baskets, and other containers for candies,” said Taylor. “Fancy cakes, gilt gingerbread, and eggs filled with sweet meats were hung from the branches by colored ribbons, the tree skirt was white damask and was covered with toys and dolls, and finally, at the top of the tree stood the small figure of an angel.”
The Christmas tree was meant to not only be a symbol of the holidays, but to also bring cheer to the family, as decorating the tree was meant to be a fun, family activity.
While families erected traditional, Victorian-style trees, soldiers stationed at Fort D. A. Russell constructed their own military variants. Though troops still strung garland and ornaments on their firs, they substituted the baskets of sweet treats for packs of cigarettes. Staying with the holiday spirit, troops enjoyed arranging the tree and the well-needed time off work. While living quarters were often home to the more traditionally-designed tree, these military revisions were placed in common areas, such as dining facilities and recreational areas. Despite being away from home, soldiers found a way to commemorate the holidays and enjoy each other’s company.
Kyle Brislan is the Historian for the 90th Missile Wing at F. E. Warren Air Force Base. He is a prior history instructor, published author, and Air Force veteran. His historical expertise includes: military history, early-twentieth century Russian history, and labor history.