Can New England Claim the First American Christmas Tree?
Not long ago, while watching from my office window the fireman putting up lights on the town Christmas tree here in Dublin, New Hampshire, I began wondering if perhaps New England might lay claim to the very first Christmas tree. Well, the first American Christmas tree. (It is well established that the use of the evergreen tree as part of the Christmas celebration started more than 400 years ago in Germany.) So, I began to rummage around our library here to establish, if I could, that it was New England that first celebrated an American Christmas with a decorated tree.
I soon found a number of references to the fact that Hessian mercenaries put up Christmas trees at their army campgrounds while they were over here during the Revolution. But that didn’t prove the point. The first Christmas tree would have to be part of the regular New England home at Christmastime.
Then I found an old advertising brochure that said a German named Charles Minnegerode introduced the Christmas tree custom to Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1812. Darn! Virginia is always claiming “firsts” that truly belong to New England. Minnegerode’s tree was described as “splendidly decorated with strings of popcorn, gilded nuts, and lighted candles.”
The first Christmas tree retail lot, the same brochure indicated, was established in 1851 by a Pennsylvanian, one Mark Carr, who hauled two ox sleds loaded with Christmas trees from the Catskills to the sidewalks of New York City.
In a book that explained how (but not why) Fort Dearborn, Illinois, was renamed Chicago, meaning “smelly onion” or some such in the local Indian language, there was a reference to the fact that the American soldiers were observed hauling coniferous trees to their barracks in Fort Dearborn just before Christmas in 1804. Likely some of those soldiers were New Englanders, but that still wasn’t enough.
As I continued to search, I began to suspect I might have to be content with the fact that New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce was the first president to set up a Christmas tree in the White House and that Vermont’s Calvin Coolidge was the first to establish the National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony on the White House lawn.
And to anyone still doubting New England’s role in the American Christmas celebration, I could point out that the first United State Christmas celebration (north of Florida) occurred on St. Croix Island, Maine, in 1604; and that one Louis Prang of Roxbury, Massachusetts, was the first American to print and sell Christmas cards. Furthermore, Bay Staters (i.e. those from Massachusetts) wrote “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” and even “All I want for Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth,” while “We Three Kings” was written by a Vermonter.
Still, that first American Christmas tree had to be somewhere…
Then, just before I was about to give up, a dramatic and historic discovery! The first American house to celebrate Christmas with a decorated tree was in Connecticut! In a delightfully written book published by the Windsor Locks (Connecticut) Historical Society in 1978, I found a well-documented account of how a Hessian soldier by the name of Hendrick Roddmore, captured in Bennington, Vermont, in 1776, went to work on the farm of one Samuel Denslow of Windsor Locks. Each Christmas for the subsequent 14 years he lived with the Denslow family, Hendrick Roddmore put up and decorated a Christmas tree at the Denslow farm.
I am peacefully content that the Denslow farm Christmas tree was the first genuine American Christmas tree.
That is, until someone proves otherwise.
Merry Christmas, everyone.