history of the phrase ‘(all) dressed (up) like a Christmas tree’

CONTENTS
MEANING OF (ALL) DRESSED (UP) LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE
THE VARIOUS MEANINGS OF LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE
EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF (ALL) DRESSED (UP) LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE

 

MEANING OF (ALL) DRESSED (UP) LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE

 

The phrase (all) dressed (up) like a Christmas tree and variants mean over-elaborately or ostentatiously dressed—synonym: (all) dressed (up) like a dog’s dinner (cf. also meaning and origin of the phrase ‘all dressed up with nowhere to go’).

 

THE VARIOUS MEANINGS OF LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE

 

First recorded in 1829, the term Christmas tree denotes a small evergreen tree, set up in a room, decorated with lights, tinsel and other ornaments at Christmas.

Since the second half of the 19th century, the phrase like a Christmas tree has been used to designate:
– something or someone that is over-ornated, over-elaborated, over-loaded, over-dressed;
– heterogeneousness, disparateness;
– artificiality.

The earliest of those uses that I have found is from Men, Gents, and Gentlemen, the account of a lecture delivered by the Rev. N. Haycroft, published in the Daily Bristol Times and Mirror (Bristol, England) of Tuesday 29th August 1865:

The rev. gentleman was received with applause. He said that in defining men, as they existed in civilised countries, they might be divided into three classes—men, gents, and gentlemen. By men they must understand the raw material of human nature—mind unstored and uninstructed, capable of being moulded to evil or cultured to good; with social instincts which might prove a bane or blessing to the individual himself, or tend to convert society into a pandemonium or make it a paradise. Men were the raw materials of society, and the question was, what could be done with them? The term man was not improperly applied to those who possessed noble feelings beyond their fellows. The gentleman was the raw material improved and developed—the marble chiselled to perfection. A gent was the same block of marble from which unskilful hands had produced only a grotesque and ridiculous character of a man (applause). A gent was a man, like a Christmas tree, profusely adorned with pretty things for the amusement of children, but the beauty of the tree was lost in its embellishment (cheers). The gent was a degenerated man, while the gentleman was a polished man.

The second-earliest of those uses that I have found is from the description of a penny concert in Dresden, Germany, published in The Royal Cornwall Gazette, Falmouth Packet and General Advertiser (Truro, Cornwall, England) of Saturday 4th December 1875—the following is about “an exuberant bandmaster”:

He is decorated like a Christmas tree, upholstered with the richest braids and trimmings.

In the following passage from Backward Ho!, published in the New Quarterly Magazine (London: Ward, Lock, and Tyler) for October to January 1876, Frances Power Cobbe contrasts the artificiality represented by the Christmas tree with natural beauty:

It has been the character of every fresh outburst of religious life in the world to originate for itself some appropriate rites, some fresh sacrifices, sacraments, or prayers—flowers which, like every living plant, it “bears after its kind.” But instead of blossoming into new and natural beauty, Ritualistic religion is decorated like a Christmas Tree, with an infinite quantity of artificial flowers, candles, crackers, and toys.

The following use of like a Christmas tree is from the 14th instalment of Strategy and Tactics Connected, by ‘I. W. H.’, published in Sheldrake’s Aldershot and Sandhurst Military Gazette (Aldershot, Hampshire, England) of Saturday 10th April 1880:

Physical superiority—Physical superiority is at first in peace time a matter for the Government. Only take recruits that have a good physique, keep up a sufficient number, supply them with the best of arms, and good equipment of a practical kind. British cavalry sadly want a smaller valise and less equipment. A cavalry general said that a British Dragoon in marching order was hung about like a Christmas tree.

The phrase also refers to soldiers in Wit and Humour (quoting Funny Folks), published in The Derby Mercury (Derby, Derbyshire, England) of Wednesday 1st October 1884:

By the time one of the Egyptian braves is fully attired in the new kit, and has got all his accoutrements on, he looks more like a Christmas tree, with all the prizes hanging to it, than anything else.

On Saturday 12th March 1892, The Barnsley Chronicle (Barnsley, Yorkshire, England) gave an account of a meeting of the Barnsley Women’s Liberal Association, during which Lawrence Gane, Q.C., Liberal M.P. for East Leeds, declared:

Some said both political parties were alike, but the Conservative party was like a Christmas tree, bearing what was put upon it by other hands; the Liberal party like the sturdy tree bearing its fruit for the healing of the nations. (Applause.)

On Saturday 1st April 1893, The Derbyshire Times (Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England) reported on a meeting held at Matlock Bath, Derbyshire, to denounce the Government of Ireland Bill 1893 (known as the Second Home Rule Bill); during this meeting, Dunbar Barton (1853-1937), Q.C., Unionist M.P. for Mid-Armagh, used the phrase to criticise the heterogeneousness of “the so-called safeguards or securities in the Bill”:

They told them there were safeguards, but they were really a collection of curiosities. (Laughter and cheers.) These had been taken from all parts of the world—from one of the colonies of Australia, and an extraordinary clause taken out of the United States, and the finance was taken from that very discreditable quarter of the globe, the Argentine Republic. (Laughter.) It was like a
                                                         CHRISTMAS TREE;
hung round with nick-nacks and fandangoes from every quarter of the globe. (Laughter.)

One Colonel C. F. Colville used the phrase in a speech he delivered during the annual Primrose League Fête, held at Wistow Park—as published in the Leicester Chronicle and the Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, Leicestershire, England) of Saturday 1st July 1893:

The present Government, he contended, had not done its duty, and had not given satisfaction to all classes of the community. It had done a few things, but it had left undone a great many things. It came into power bespattered and plastered like a Christmas tree with little candles and gaudy baubles—smothered with promises made to obtain votes.

The following is from The Evolution of the Blue Jacket, by Vice-Admiral Philip Howard Colomb (1831-1899), of the Royal Navy, published in The North American Review (New York: Lloyd Bryce) of September 1895:

A story is told of a certain “Bill” standing at the corner of a street in Natal during the Zulu war, when a certain general just landed, covered with medals and orders, and equally hung with soldierly knicknacks [sic], the whistle, the field glass, the compass, the note book, etc., passed near “Bill” and his companion “Jack.”
“Who’s ’im, Jack?” asked Bill.
“Dunno,” said Jack, “seems to be one o’ them new generals just come ashore.”
“H’m,” returned Bill, preparing to put his pipe in his mouth again, “looks like a bloomin’ Christmas tree!”

The phrase refers to bicycles in Mr. Wheeler’s column, published in The People. A Weekly Newspaper for All Classes (London, England) of Sunday 14th March 1897:

Still I am receiving letters upon the subject of Easter touring, and again I must suggest that it is too early yet to fix upon a route to lay down rules in the matter of machines and suitable baggage. With regard to the latter, there are those who can content themselves with the smallest of small brown paper parcels, tied with a piece of string to the handle-bar. I may add I have seen men start upon a week’s tour with no further encumbrances than a toothbrush and a repair outfit. Everyone to his taste, however. Perhaps this maniac in search of lightness is not more to be pitied than he who goes forth upon a bicycle fitted like a Christmas tree, and weighted down with every kind of luggage-carrier yet invented.

 

EARLIEST OCCURRENCES OF (ALL) DRESSED (UP) LIKE A CHRISTMAS TREE

 

The phrase (all) dressed (up) like a Christmas tree seems to have appeared quasi simultaneously in Britain and in the United States of America, in the early 1900s.

The earliest occurrence that I have found is from the Manchester Evening News (Manchester, Lancashire, England) of Tuesday 31st March 1903—however, dressed up like a Christmas tree does not refer to a person, but to an armoured waggon:

THE HERO OF MAFEKING.
HOW HE BLUFFED THE BOERS.

Speaking yesterday at a luncheon given in his honour by the Liverpool Junior Reform Club, General Baden-Powell* told how he bluffed the Boers at Mafeking. […]
[…]
It is hard to remember all the things they did, but the whole thing was “bluffing” the Boers. An armoured waggon for use in the bush was dressed up like a Christmas tree, but one day they rigged up a dummy, the gun consisting of an old piece of stovepipe carefully adjusted with a bootlace. After shelling it with artillery the Boers attacked it on three sides, but finding it was dummy they could not be induced to make another attack, so of course a real gun was mounted and the waggon was used as a regular fort.

(* Robert Stephenson Smyth Baden-Powell (1857-1941), English soldier and founder of the Boy Scout movement, became a national hero after his successful defence of Mafeking (1899-1900) in the Boer War.)

The second-earliest occurrence that I have found is from The Buffalo Commercial (Buffalo, New York, USA) of Tuesday 12th December 1905, which published an article in which “the manager of one of the most successful of the year’s plays” explained why “business at the New York playhouses is poor”:

“Year by year, season by season, it has become the thing to appear in one’s best bib and tucker, until now what do you find? Why, the average man or woman is actually ashamed to be seen in a Broadway playhouse nowadays unless he or she is dressed up like a Christmas tree. Seven out of every ten men you find in our house at night wear evening dress, and all the women on the orchestra floor and in the boxes wear handsome gowns. If a woman doesn’t own half a dozen presentable outfits of evening attire she cuts the theatre. Where she went two or three times a week a couple of years ago she goes only once in two weeks now. That’s what has caused the dropping off in box office receipts.”

The phrase occurs in a theatrical review published in The Entr’acte and Limelight: Theatrical and Musical Critic and Advertiser (London, England) of Friday 14th September 1906:

Mr. Frank Parker has certainly eclipsed all his former efforts in the new Hippodrome thriller, “The Earthquake.” This gentleman is certainly a genius, and as a producer stands miles above all others. The person, however, responsible for the costumes has evidently never been nearer San Francisco than Charing Cross Road. American policemen do not wear uniforms which might claim even distant relationship with those worn at the Hippodrome.
Nor do the good citizens of San Francisco were [sic] such comedy bow ties or nigger-minstrel clothes. The shoeblack has evidently moved from London to the States, while the firemen wear brassshoulder protectors also unknown in America. The person who is supposed to represent a Yankee police inspector is dressed like a Christmas tree. He would make an American police official take to the tall grass.

Finally, the following is from The Butte Miner (Butte, Montana) of Sunday 29th September 1907 (quoting the Denver Times)—Johanna Emilia Agnes Gadski (1872-1932) was a German soprano:

“Last night was an opulent one for the throng of music-lovers—and some others—who completely filled the big Trinity church on the occasion of Mme. Gadski’s song recital.
“Mme. Gadski has a most effective personality. Last night she was dressed like a Christmas tree, in a gown of green foliage-like stuff, with a glitter of gems and the festoonery of a snowy boa to add to the resemblance.”

 

The following cartoon and explanation are from an article about the cartoonist William Handford, published in the Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) of Thursday 25th October 1973:

'Jealousy' by William Handford - Liverpool Echo (Liverpool, Lancashire, England) - 25 October 1973

Of the Third Reich’s Hermann Goering it was said that he was “covered with medals like a Christmas tree.” Handford called this wartime cartoon simply “Jealousy.” It was shown at the World’s Fair in San Francisco.

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