Although I see them pictured on Christmas cards, did anyone in the past actually puts candles on Christmas trees? I put a single ornament and the branch bends. I don’t see how they would support a candle and not fall, light the tree on fire and burn down the house?
Yes, people did use to put candles on Christmas trees. And yes, these candles were a significant fire hazard. Some species of trees have sturdier branches than others. And I think that the candles uses were sized more like birthday candles than the sort of candles you would use in a candleabra.
Many of the candle holders that I’ve seen have a counterweight at the bottom, to hold the candle upright.
Pretty sure that was a thread here on SDMB last year. IIRC, someone actually did it in contemporary times: cut down a tree, hauled it inside, hung candles, lit them, sung 1, that’s one, as in ein, German Christmas carol, then extinguished the candles. It may have been more common in ancient times, with grand halls and such, but it doesn’t work with modern homes, trees harvested days ago and transported on top of your car, and left unattended.
Wisconsin Historical Society search for Christmas trees Type in Christmas tree in the picture search for results. You will find many interesting pictures of Christmas toys, trees, decorations and what people’s best was back then.
You can still buy boxes of candles marked as “Christmas tree candles” in Scandinavia, although I doubt anyone outside of historical museums uses them for that any more. They are smaller than standard taper candles and wouldn’t have weighed as much on the tree branches. (The reason they’re still sold is that some Christmas decorations, especially the older decorations that people might regard as treasured family heirlooms, require the smaller size.)
When candles were commonly used on the tree itself, people would generally cut down their own tree on December 23rd, and then light the candles once and only once on December 24th. Since the tree was so fresh, the fire danger was smaller than it would be with many trees today - cut some time in November and then displayed indoors in a heated room for weeks before Christmas Eve. It was still enough of a fire hazard that electric lights took over once they became cheap enough for ordinary families, but let’s not overstate the danger, either.
As I’ve mentioned on the Board before, my thesis advisor, who was from Germany (where this is traditional), covered his tree not only with candles but also with (highly flammable) straw ornaments. The candles are in special mounts which keep them upright. I imagine that, as long as the tree is green and well-watered, you’re safe enough.
Of course, Christmas trees notoriously don’t stay green an watered – you’ve cut them off from their roots, and even with the best of care they start to dry out. my advisor had his tree lit at a party for his students, and the drying tree caught fire. It went up with astonishing speed, but we were able to push it out the adjacent door/window into the snow outside, before it could do any damage aside from the black spot it burned into the ceiling.
The spot is still there in his ceiling. And the very next year he had the same sort of tree, flammable orbament, candles, and all.
My grandparents had lit candles in their Christmas tree when my mother was a child. By the time we were kids, though, they would put up the candles but only light them for maybe half an hour to set a pretty mood. (My mother was one of three girls; I am the eldest with four little brothers. This might partly explain things.) The candles are smaller than regular candles, like flodnak describes. The ones my grandparents had were in small metal holders which clipped onto the branch, like this one.
I remember reading novels from the turn of the century in which the Christmas tree was considered part of Christmas morning–it was decorated Christmas Eve after the kid went to bed, and was part of Santa’s bounty. I don’t know if this was universal, but it might explain how people could get away with lighting candles on Christmas trees.
A tree that fresh would certainly be far less flammable than today’s trees, which are cut down several weeks before Christmas and turn into dry fire hazards.
For several years I have been to a Christmas day dinner where our friends (she is originally Austrian) lights the candles on their tree after dinner and we sit around the living room admiring them. The tree is very fresh and carefully chosen not to have have dense branches. Since they buy the tree only on Dec. 24 and this kind of tree is not desirable, I imagine they get it at a considerable discount.
They use special candle holders that the wife says she got in Austria and they snuff them out long before they burn out. At first, I was nervous about the practice, but now I am used to it. She says it wouldn’t feel like Christmas without the candles.
Looking at the pictures I linked you will see many sparse trees, but not all are. You will see mostly candles of a size between the typical modern taper and a birthday candle. The ones I saw that were like taper candles were short stubs that they probably saved for the Christmas tree. The picture of the two adults decorating the tree is on December 24, 1901. I noticed on one of the pictures I didn’t link, a single 2 foot long candy cane near the top that I expect was a treat for the kid. It was definitely unique. There are straw ornaments on some trees.
The trees were still hazardous even if they were fresh cut. That would stop a candle from igniting tree needles. You had better watch it carefully and burn candles for a short period.
The Rouse Simmons was last spotted on November 23, 1912 by Kewaunee Life Saving Station. It sank off Two Rivers Wisconsin heading for a bay to weather the November gale. That was the year Herman Schuenemann never made it to Chicago to sell his trees. Why tell the story of The Christmas Tree Ship piloted by Captain Santa? It’s a good story and shows that the trees were not all fresh cut. In fact the sales started at about Thanksgiving.
When I was a child in the fifties my parents used to have one big Christmas tree with electrical lighting and one small with candles, that we lit when we wanted to be extra cozy.
Candles on Christmas trees are still pretty common here in Germany (even if the fire brigades recommend electrical candles). Search for Weihnachtsbaumbrand (christmas tree fire) on Google Images for pictures of some spectacular fires.
There is also an impressive simulation (original video by Discovery Channel) of such a fire.
We get calls for precautions by fire brigades and city administrations every year shortly before Christmas: don’t leave a tree with lit candles unattended, and keep a filled bucket at hand.
My mother, born in 1937, remembered their Christmas tree had small candles on it.
When I spent Christmas in Denmark in 1972, the host family on Christmas Eve lighted candles on a large tree. I can’t remember how long they stayed lighted, but we could see it during the evening meal or at least for part of it. Later we joined hands and danced around another Christmas tree in another room. That one did not have candles on it.
The lighted tree was the most beautiful Christmas tree I have ever seen.
I didn’t get the Christmas plum. Imagine! They let the three-year-old have it!
I think I’ve still got some of those holders stored somewhere. Last time we used them was maybe mid-to-late-70’s before switching to electrical. There was the fire hazard, sure, but the biggest reason for the change was that the small candles lasted maybe only two hours before needing replacement.
I barely remember around 1960 that we had some metal clips for candles like the one linked to above. They were about an inch and a half wide, pretty plain metal with flaring petals to grip the candle.
Don’t really remember candles or lighting them. I seeem to think the candles were a bit bigger than a birthday cake candle, maybe the size of your little finger? IIRC my parents said it was dangerous and would not light them, we had those giant light bulbs of those days instead. And then they lit the christmas rum-cake on fire.