German immigrants to America are most probably the root of the spread of the American Christmas Tree, but not the carriers. That honor appears to go to commercial literature in the form of holiday Gift Books. Just know a paradox exists for both the American Christmas Tree and Santa Claus. They both entered society through the avenues of commerce in the name of pre-commercial folklore.
Most of the information I share in this article comes from the incredible research done by Stephen Nassenbaum in his Pulitzer Prize finalist work — The Battle for Christmas. If there’s a Christmas history book I’d recommend (besides mine), it’s this one!
Know at the outset that we have no documented historical account that describes how the Christmas Tree came to America, only legends, which is the same case for all the myths surrounding how the Christmas Tree “became” Christian. The origins of the Christmas Tree is shrouded in mystery. Please refer to my “Where Christmas Tree Comes From” article (https://santatizing.wordpress.com/2012/11/29/where-the-christmas-tree-comes-from/) to see this mystery revealed.
One legend tells us that Hessian soldiers brought the Christmas Tree to the United States of America during the American Revolution, but Stephen Nassenbaum says it dates the Christmas Tree coming to America event too early. Another myth is about the legend of Queen Victoria and her handsome German Prince Albert. Nassenbaum reveals that this legend dates the real event too late. Probably the most famous legend of all speaks of the first American Christmas Tree was set up in Massachusetts in 1835 by Charles (aka Karl) Follen. The specificity of the details of this account may lead you to believe that it’s true, but let’s take a magnifying glass to it.
Karl Follen was a German immigrant who in 1830 became a minister in the Unitarian Church. He was a U.S. citizen as well as the first Harvard professor of German literature. Follen had formed close ties with the liberal Unitarian establishment that dominated Harvard and Boston at the time. The source of how the Christmas Tree came to America legend was a popular book written by a famous visitor of Mr. Follen – Harriet Martineau – from an English Unitarian family. She wrote how she witnessed Follen’s tree while touring New England. In many important ways, Martineau’s origins story was misleading. It presented that she came upon this Christmas Tree coming to America event accidently in her travels when in reality Martineau and Follen were very close personal friends. They had actually planned their holiday reunion and the setting up of little Charley’s Christmas Tree. Not that important in the long run, yet we need to consider why Martineau took great pains to conceal all this in her published accounts. If a person is willing to mislead you on how they got some information, can you trust the information they share?
Credible evidence of Christmas trees showing up in the United States dates no earlier than the 1810s, which was also the very decade when St. Nicholas was introduced to New York City. In 1819 (possibly 1812 – notice the confusion of dates), an immigrant artist from Germany drew a picture of a tree that he saw during a tour of the Pennsylvanian Dutch countryside. His visual record was preserved in a sketchbook, and was first verbally referenced in 1821 in a Lancaster resident’s diary.
Why didn’t Christmas Tree appear earlier? Stephen Nassenbaum unveils that Christmas Trees, in general, were a relatively new custom in Germany too, except as a minor tradition. For both Christmas Trees and Santa Claus, a small group of influential individuals suddenly began to make much to do out of what had previously been a minor tradition. For Santa Claus, it was the Knickerbockers. For the Christmas Tree, it was Unitarians.
The minor custom of the Christmas Tree can be traced back to the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg where it seemed to develop by the beginning of the 17th century (1605). It was largely through Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and his literary colleagues that the Christmas Tree spread from Alsace to other parts of Germany. It was touted to be a fashionable new ritual that was perceived to have already been an ancient and authentic folk tradition from the get go. Christmas Trees were adopted by the elite in Berlin only in 1810s – the same time it seems to first appear in America. And just like in the United States, the Christmas Tree became a truly national practice in the 1830s.
Yes. The American Christmas Tree probably first appeared in rural Pennsylvania, but that’s not the whole story in its journey to superstar status. Like Paul Harvey used to say, “And now for the rest of the story,” we turn the page back to the channel through which the Christmas Tree ritual was mainly diffused – commercial literature. In my “Yuletide Tradition – Kids in Charge” article (https://santatizing.wordpress.com/2012/11/27/yuletide-tradition-kids-in-charge/), I speak of “If you pay close enough attention to Christmas history, you can literally see the winter holiday season behave like a toggle switch when the extremes of disorder and materialism are reached. It toggles from disorder to materialism, back to disorder, back to materialism and so forth.” This time – the early 1800s – is one of those times when the switch was flipped in American society, because the maximum tolerance for disorder was hit, so society began to steer the Christmas Ship toward materialism instead. In our day, the max of materialism is now causing American society (in general) to swap more disorder for its previously emphasized materialistic leanings, unless one opts out of this earthly system. Shopping is still a hallmark of Christmas, but many people are taking another look at Christmas presents by either: refusing to participate, re-focusing to solely give to charitable contributions or de-emphasizing Christmas gifts altogether in order to tap into the true meaning of the season (more on that subject later).
Americans learned about the Christmas Tree custom through reading about it, not by personally witnessing them. Who were these writers who introduced the Christmas Tree into American culture? Like the Knickerbockers, who devised Santa Claus, there writers were refined and cultured. But unlike the Knickerbockers, they were part of an emerging middle class (not aristocrats). These writers also lived in New England and Philadelphia, not New York City – our capital of commerce. Their church of choice was Unitarian rather than the Knickerbockers brand of Episcopalian.
Stephen Nassenbaum rightly suggests that the introduction of the Christmas Tree represented an effort to cope with the problems posed by the child-centered Christmas. It was the Unitarians child-rearing policy that placed children at the center of the domestic universe. This, combined with the knowledge that Christmas had long been an occasion in which self-control was momentarily suspended and indulgence ruled, resulted in Unitarian families demonstrating their affection for their children with a lavish orgy of gift-giving. Sound familiar? Even those anxious about the dangers of indulgence, momentarily postponed their unease to embrace this festival of feelings.
Harriet Martineau’s close personal friend and the person that she elevated as the spear header of the Christmas Tree ritual in America – Charles Follen – believed that children were intrinsically perfect creatures. Follen was a follower of the Swiss reformer Pestalozzi, who propagated the belief that children were the actual center of the household, not only during Christmas, but the whole year long. I get tired just thinking about it. Pestalozzi believed children’s behavior was to be the model for adults to imitate. Basically, adults needed to become like children. There is some truth in this concept as the “When I Was in Kindergarten” poem illustrates. And Christians are even taught in Matthew 18 that they must become like a child to enter the kingdom of heaven having an unconditional trust that God’s taking care of everything and everyone. We are also supposed to humble ourselves like a child in being teachable, but the continual set up of repeating childhood memories or child-like tendencies can throw people into an immature cycle of nostalgia. Nostalgia can hinder or stunt the maturation process much like an alcoholic becomes emotionally stunted due to their compulsion to escape reality through an inebriated fog.
The spirit of Christmas encourages an inner transformation in people’s mind. It’s an inner space which seeks to repeat the holiday pleasures from one’s childhood. Stephen Nassenbaum states: I’m not sure exactly what was/is “innocent” about childlike joy receiving Christmas presents, but its connection with material expectations surely was (and remains troubling) – despite the efforts of parents to disguise the nature of the gifts by attributing them to a transcendent figure such as St. Nicholas or even (as Pestalozzi and German culture had it) the Christ Child himself. Perpetuating the Christ Child myth as a deliverer of presents serves to not only justify or wash all material sins, but also sanctifies in people’s minds this annual service.
The Christmas Tree ritual was introduced to the American reading public, and was designed to render children as passive and grateful participants. Unfortunately, the Christmas Tree ritual appears to have another lingering effect – a hidden one. Both the Christmas Tree and Santa Claus manipulates children’s behavior and feelings.
In the same year that Martineau was said to witness Follen’s Christmas Tree, Catherine Sedgwick (a friend of Martineau, a popular author and the Unitarian daughter of a Massachusetts congressman) published a story entitled “New Year’s Day” where a Christmas Tree played a small but clear part. This was the time when the main holiday focus was shifting from the uproar of New Year’s to the supposed tranquility of Christmas (subject for another time). Since Martineau’s account of the Follens was not published for another two years, Sedgwick’s fictional family gets the honors for introducing the Christmas Tree ritual into American literature. Sedgwick’s fictional family weren’t Germans, but Yankees living in New York City. But their fictional tree was set up at the request of a young German maid – Madeline. But the German maidservant Madeline was not the one who spread the idea of the Christmas Tree through the American culture, but a Yankee patrician (person of high birth). We can see some tattletale marks of confusion and deception here. Catherine Segwick’s popular Gift Book called “The Token” was read by the middle-class when it went on sale for the 1835 holiday season. Ironically, literary annual (i.e. Gift Books) were part of the new commercial world that Catherine Sedwick was hypocritically criticizing from within. Readers assumed that they were learning about the Christmas Tree from the folk character Madeline, but in fact the legend was transmitted through the latest holiday season commodity – a Gift Book that was purchased at a fashionable shop. The spear header of a revised version of St. Nicholas (i.e., Santa Claus) — John Pintard — who was a merchant himself would have approved.
~ Robin Main
Copyright Nov. 30, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
Most references to the things I write on this blog can be found in my book SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/).
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