Back When America Hated Christmas Trees?
By H. Shive
Americans before 1850 never used Christmas trees! Only German immigrants used Christmas trees and only in the privacy of their homes.
Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Abe Lincoln lived their entire lives without a Christmas tree!
In 1851, the first publicly displayed Christmas tree in America was presented by a German immigrant and Lutheran pastor named Henry Schwan in Cleveland, Ohio. The uproar was immediate! Citizens in Cleveland protested! They hated the tree. It was called a “pagan throwback.”
America – as a whole – would not embrace the Christmas tree until the 20th century.
The Christmas tree was a custom brought to America by German immigrants, and - like most immigrant customs - it made the natives wary.
Christmas Tree Origin
The ancient Europeans used evergreens to celebrate the winter solstice. The fact that evergreens are still vibrant when all other plants are leafless made the ancients ascribe magical properties to these plants. Trees - including evergreens and the oak - were worshiped by the Celts and ancient Germans. Incidentally, mistletoe (an evergreen that grows on oaks) was used in fertility rites – hence the custom of kissing under the mistletoe.
But all accounts agree that Christmas trees are German in origin! Early Church saints and popes tried to destroy the practice…and failed. By medieval times, the Germans were cutting only small fir trees (due to Europe’s chronic lumber shortage) and those small trees were kept on tables with fruits and candies hanging from the branches.
British Christmas vs German Christmas
European Christmas celebrations were boisterous affairs (maybe too boisterous) – filled with drinking and carousing. So when the Puritans took control of England, they waged a war on Christmas!
To the Puritans, Christmas traditions had obvious pagan roots, were excuses for debauchery, and had no biblical origin. Christmas decorations were banned and destroyed. Puritans fined those who celebrated Christmas – even fined businesses that were closed on Christmas Day!
Puritans controlled England and the early American colonies for 50 years. When the Puritans left, Christmas returned, granted with a more subdued tone.
British Christmas and early American Christmas were low-key affairs. Holly, wreaths, and mistletoe were still there. But no Christmas trees!
Christmas was a working day. Interestingly, the U.S. Congress met on Christmas Day for business from 1789 to 1855!
American Tree Haters?
Henry Schwan’s first public tree in Cleveland changed everything. Christmas trees could now be in the public’s eye!
And the public fell in love...eventually.
In 1851, the first Christmas tree lot was established in Washington Market in New York City.
The rest is history.
The “New” American Tradition
Some say Franklin Pierce was the first President to use a Christmas tree. Even if he did, the tradition did not take hold.
However, Benjamin Harrison was more likely the first President to use a Christmas tree in the White House. This time the tradition stuck.
Calvin Coolidge was the first President to make the lighting of the White House Christmas Tree an annual Presidential tradition.
According to The Christmas Encyclopedia, around the year 1900, only one in five American family homes featured a Christmas tree. By 1930, the practice was universal.
So maybe there is magic in an evergreen tree. At the very least, the tradition has a magical stamina!
Crump, William D. The Christmas Encyclopedia. McFarland & Company, 2001.
Forbes, Bruce David. Christmas: A Candid History. University of California Press, 2007.
Hello! My name is Heath Shive, content manager at ScholarFox. I'll be the author of most of the blog posts. I'm a former geologist and currently a freelance writer. The world is complex and seemingly crazy. Good! Because when you love to learn, you'll never be bored.