Wednesday 8 December 2010

Christmas Trees and Peep-Shows in New Zealand

Christmas trees, like Boney M. and spray-on condoms, were a German idea. Prince Albert brought the festive fir over to Victorian Britain. But as the OED puts it, it remains:

a famous feature of Christmas celebration in Germany, frequently but imperfectly imitated in England

Prince Albert arrived in 1840 and by 1850 the Christmas tree was so well known that Charles Dickens could write a whole essay on the subject that began thus:

I have been looking on, this evening, at a merry company of children assembled round that pretty German toy, a Christmas Tree. The tree was planted in the middle of a great round table, and towered high above their heads. It was brilliantly lighted by a multitude of little tapers; and everywhere sparkled and glittered with bright objects. There were rosy-cheeked dolls, hiding behind the green leaves; and there were real watches (with movable hands, at least, and an endless capacity of being wound up) dangling from innumerable twigs; there were French-polished tables, chairs, bedsteads, wardrobes, eight-day clocks, and various other articles of domestic furniture (wonderfully made, in tin, at Wolverhampton), perched among the boughs, as if in preparation for some fairy housekeeping; there were jolly, broad-faced little men, much more agreeable in appearance than many real men--and no wonder, for their heads took off, and showed them to be full of sugar-plums; there were fiddles and drums; there were tambourines, books, work-boxes, paint-boxes, sweetmeat-boxes, peep-show boxes, and all kinds of boxes; there were trinkets for the elder girls, far brighter than any grown-up gold and jewels; there were baskets and pincushions in all devices; there were guns, swords, and banners; there were witches standing in enchanted rings of pasteboard, to tell fortunes; there were teetotums, humming-tops, needle-cases, pen-wipers, smelling-bottles, conversation-cards, bouquet-holders; real fruit, made artificially dazzling with gold leaf; imitation apples, pears, and walnuts, crammed with surprises; in short, as a pretty child, before me, delightedly whispered to another pretty child, her bosom friend, "There was everything, and more."

What lovely lists! A teetotum, since you ask, is a spinning top with letters on its sides. And a peep-show box in that more innocent age was a box with a magnifying glass in the side through which you could see little painted wonders. In the twentieth century some bright and drooling spark had the idea of putting dirty pictures inside, and eventually somebody decided to shove a whole girl in there. This is called Progress.

I'm not sure, but that child may, according to my dated Google Book search, have been the first person ever to utter the words everything and more*.

In New Zealand a Christmas Tree is the English name for the pohutukawa, which flowers at this time of year and looks like this:

*I'm excluding sentences like "I hate everything, and more precisely I hate...". Also, you need to be careful on Google-book-searches about periodicals, which are dated according to the first one in the collection.

1 comment:

  1. WA has a Christmas Tree as well - the Nuytsia floribunda. It's hemiparisitic, but in the Christmas spirit only takes a little bit from everyone.