The History of Christmas Trees – How Did the Tree Come to America

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Long before the advent of Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special meaning for people in the winter. Just as people today decorate their homes during the festive season with pine, spruce, and fir trees, ancient peoples hung evergreen boughs over their doors and windows. In many countries it was believed that evergreens would keep away witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and illness.

Nordic Christmas with candles and candle holders on the tree – a studio photograph from the late 1800s or early 1900s.

There is no evidence that the modern custom of a Christmas tree originated in paganism. The Romans did decorate their houses with greens and lights and exchanged gifts. Late in the Middle Ages, the Germans and Scandinavians placed evergreen trees in their homes or outside their doors to show their hope in the forthcoming spring. The modern-day Christmas tree evolved from these early German traditions.

The tradition was introduced to North America in the winter of 1781 by Hessian soldiers stationed in the Province of Québec (1763–1791) to garrison the colony against American attack. General Friedrich Adolf Riedesel and his wife, the Baroness von Riedesel, held a Christmas party for the officers at Sorel, delighting their guests with a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.

A Christmas tree for German soldiers in a temporary hospital in 1871.

The Christmas tree became very common in the United States in the early nineteenth century. The first image of a Christmas tree was published in 1836 as the frontispiece to The Stranger’s Gift by Hermann Bokum. The first mention of the Christmas tree in American literature was in a story in the 1836 edition of The Token and Atlantic Souvenir, titled “New Year’s Day”, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, where she tells the story of a German maid decorating her mistress’s tree. Also, a woodcut of the British Royal family with their Christmas tree at Windsor Castle, initially published in The Illustrated London News December 1848, was copied in the United States at Christmas 1850, in Godey’s Lady’s Book. Godey’s copied it exactly, except for the removal of the Queen’s tiara and Prince Albert’s moustache, to remake the engraving into an American scene. The republished Godey’s image became the first widely circulated picture of a decorated evergreen Christmas tree in America. Art historian Karal Ann Marling called Prince Albert and Queen Victoria, shorn of their royal trappings, “the first influential American Christmas tree”. Folk-culture historian Alfred Lewis Shoemaker states, “In all of America there was no more important medium in spreading the Christmas tree in the decade 1850–60 than Godey’s Lady’s Book”. The image was reprinted in 1860, and by the 1870s, putting up a Christmas tree had become even more common in America.

First published image of a Christmas tree, frontispiece to Hermann Bokum’s 1836 The Stranger’s Gift.

The Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle published in The Illustrated London News, 1848.

Several cities in the United States with German connections lay claim to that country’s first Christmas tree: Windsor Locks, Connecticut, claims that a Hessian soldier put up a Christmas tree in 1777 while imprisoned at the Noden-Reed House, while the “First Christmas Tree in America” is also claimed by Easton, Pennsylvania, where German settlers purportedly erected a Christmas tree in 1816. In his diary, Matthew Zahm of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, recorded the use of a Christmas tree in 1821, leading Lancaster to also lay claim to the first Christmas tree in America. Other accounts credit Charles Follen, a German immigrant to Boston, for being the first to introduce to America the custom of decorating a Christmas tree. August Imgard, a German immigrant living in Wooster, Ohio, is said to be the first to popularize the practice of decorating a tree with candy canes. In 1847, Imgard cut a blue spruce tree from a woods outside town, had the Wooster village tinsmith construct a star, and placed the tree in his house, decorating it with paper ornaments, gilded nuts and Kuchen. German immigrant Charles Minnigerode accepted a position as a professor of humanities at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1842, where he taught Latin and Greek. Entering into the social life of the Virginia Tidewater, Minnigerode introduced the German custom of decorating an evergreen tree at Christmas at the home of law professor St. George Tucker, thereby becoming another of many influences that prompted Americans to adopt the practice at about that time. An 1853 article on Christmas customs in Pennsylvania defines them as mostly “German in origin”, including the Christmas tree, which is “planted in a flower pot filled with earth, and its branches are covered with presents, chiefly of confectionary, for the younger members of the family.” The article distinguishes between customs in different states however, claiming that in New England generally “Christmas is not much celebrated”, whereas in Pennsylvania and New York it is.

Glade jul by Viggo Johansen (1891).

When Edward H. Johnson was vice president of the Edison Electric Light Company, a predecessor of Con Edison, he created the first known electrically illuminated Christmas tree at his home in New York City in 1882. Johnson became the “Father of Electric Christmas Tree Lights”.

The lyrics sung in the United States to the German tune O Tannenbaum begin “O Christmas tree…”, giving rise to the mistaken idea that the German word Tannenbaum (fir tree) means “Christmas tree”, the German word for which is instead Weihnachtsbaum.

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