Christmas postcard printed in Germany circa 1900-1910. A picket fence surrounds a tabletop tree trimmed with candles and beads.



Christmas tree in tramp art fenced tree holder on a twig plant stand, circa 1875-1900.




Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Found in Pennsylvania
Circa: 1875-1900.
Materials: Chip carved and stained wood.
Size: 14” w x 14 “d x 6 ¼” h.

What a find! It is a tramp art Christmas tree holder enclosed in a fenced garden.

The maker constructed a basic wooden frame, and secured a circular wooden tree holder in the center of the platform. An ‘X’ patterned fence was applied to the frame between the end posts. Pieces of wooden cigar boxes were chip carved and applied in three layers to decorate the end posts and the frame of the holder. The overall effect is quite successful. The completed piece was stained with a dark walnut finish.

The Beidermeir era introduced the glorious candle lighted tree trimmed with colorful baubles, candies, gilded fruits and nuts, cookies, garlands of red cranberries, and sometimes toys. Flickering candles added to the wonder and magic of the Christmas tree.

The folk custom of placing an evergreen tree in a fenced Christmas garden, also known as a ‘Garden of Eden’, and was brought to the new world by German immigrants from Bavaria. This seasonal tradition found its way into homes in Pennsylvania, regions of Maryland and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, wherever German immigrants settled.

Christmas trees with gardens are documented in 18th century German wood block prints. In Pennsylvania, about 1819, John Lewis Krimmel sketched a table top tree with a fenced garden. The fence surrounding the garden symbolized the ‘Garden of Eden’, from the Biblical story of Adam and Eve.


John Lewis Krimmel sketch of a family gathered around a table top Christmas tree with a fenced (‘Garden of Eden’), circa 1819. Collection of the Winterthur Museum, Garden, and Library.

Constructing the Christmas garden or underground was often a family project, assembled the week before or on Christmas Eve. Children eagerly awaited the trip to the mountains to cut the tree, gather soft green moss, knurled twigs, and stones to be used as landscaping materials.

In the garden under the tree, a scene was created with toy animals, buildings, figures, wagons or carts. Often a ‘crib’ or ‘creche’ depicting the Holy family was included in the scene. Fathers, grandfathers, uncles, mothers, and sometimes the children, participated in the creation of miniature villages and farm scenes. In the construction of elaborate undergrounds, forms were built up in the shape of mountains and covered with live moss. Small mirrors became ponds for tiny ducks and swans. The landscape was made as realistic as possible using natural materials to simulate a realistic landscape.

As young children, my sister and I were intrigued with the elaborate fenced Christmas garden that our great aunts placed under their table top tree. The animals, chickens, ducks, figures, houses, bridge and fence, were given to them by a next door neighbor, Miss Katy Sargess. Prior to the Civil War, Katy’s father, a glove maker, emigrated from Germany, and settled in Boonsboro, Maryland. The Sargess family brought the Garden of Eden tradition with them when they came to Maryland.

That tradition was shared with and adopted by our family (English and Scotch). We always had an underground under the Christmas tree, complete with an electric train. To this day, I put together an underground, complete with a working antique Ives electric train, lighted houses, train station, street lights, a park, a military parade, farm animals, and people.

By whatever name, a ‘Garden of Eden’, Christmas garden, or underground, this custom remains a traditional part of Christmas in my household.

TabletopTabletop Christmas tree illustrated in a German ABC book. Bilderbruck, circa 1850-1855.





IllustratedToysIllustration from An Illustrated History of Toys by Fritzsch.Bachmann. King Nutcracker under the Christmas tree, about 1850. Drawing from Konig Nussknacker und der arme Reinhold by Heinrich Hoffman.


Maker: Unknown.
Origin: Purchased at a farm sale in Frederick County, Maryland.
Circa: 1875-1900.
Materials: Cardboard and glazed colored papers.
Size: Vary in size from 5 ½” to 3 ½”.

The person who snipped these colorful paper ornaments was familiar with the technique of paper cutting known as scherenschnitte. A skilled hand cut these attractive designs from glazed colored papers; then glued them to cardboard forms covered with contrasting glazed paper.

Paper ornaments were fashionable tree trimmings during the last quarter of the 19th century. Folk artists designed and cut original designs. For those who were not artistic, ladies’ magazines, Godey’s and Petersons, offered patterns and descriptions for construction of paper creations to be made for the Christmas tree.

starornament heartOrnamentHandmade Christmas ornaments circa 1875-1900.







Maker: Elizabeth LeVan and her husband.
Origin: Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.
Circa: 1940-1950.
Materials: The figures have carved wooden painted heads, hands& feet, attached to wire bodies, with silk and cotton clothing. The animals are painted carved wood. Stable is stained wood with corrugated cardboard roof. and the palm trees are wood and construction paper.
Size: People figures vary in size from 4 ¼”H to 6 ¼”H. The large camel 7 ½”H.x 8” L and smaller camel 5 ½” H x 6 ½”L, donkey is 5” H x 6 “L. Stable is 7 ½”D x 12” L.
Provenance: The crèche was purchased from an antiques dealer who bought the crèche at the LeVan household auction. The pieces were packed in the original corrugated storage box. The label was addressed to Mrs. Elizabeth LeVan, 138 Cleveland Avenue, Waynesboro, PA, 17268. Mrs. LeVan had repurposed a box in which she had received items from a store at 926 Court Street, Reading, PA 19601.

nativityChristmas crèche made by Elizabeth LeVan and her husband, 1940-1950.

Handmade American crèche figures clothed in fabrics are unusual. These figures have bendable wire bodies and limbs. The heads, arms and hands, and the feet or boots are carved and painted wood. The clothing is machine stitched from delicate silks and cotton fabrics.

These handmade folk art pieces express the beauty and significance of the first Christmas.

It is fair to assume that the LeVans had seen early Neopolitan or Bavarian crèche figures, like those illustrated in this article.

The words crèche, crib, nativity, manger, precepio, are one, and the same. The tradition of the Christmas crib is as old as the tradition of celebrating Christmas, established by Pope Leberius in 354. At Greccio, Italy, in 1223, St. Francis of Assisi recreated the birth of Christ using live actors and animals. This firmly established the crèche as a symbol of Christmas.

Through the ages, the drama of the nativity scene has captured man’s imagination. Artists have portrayed it in various mediums. Each succeeding age has retold the birth of Christ in terms of the time in which they lived, depicting the characters in contemporary dress and local surroundings. Each nativity is a personal interpretation of this important event.

In Italy and Bavaria, the crib reached its’ greatest popularity and widespread use. Artists created opulent Baroque cribs. They elaborated on the simplicity of the scene with multitudes of village street vendors, peasants, hosts of angels, cherubs, and entourages of nobility, shepherds, animals, and the three Kings. The Holy family almost became lost among the vast numbers of figures included in the settings.

nativity2These exquisitely detailed Italian precepio (crèche) figures were made by artists on the street of the figure makers, in Naples, Italy. Some of the figures in the scene date from the 18th century, others from the 19th century. Elaborate settings for the Holy family and other figures, included in the scene were traditionally handled in a manner similar to paintings by the old masters. The wooden animals are 21st century German and Italian carvings.

In America, early Moravians settlers in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania celebrated Christmas by building a ‘Putz’ or Nativity scene in their homes. The Moravian ‘Putz’ is comprised of an elaborate backdrop for the Holy family that includes green moss, wood branches and evergreens. The three kings, shepherds, angels and animals are also included in the elaborate scenes.


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