Can New England Claim the First American Christmas Tree?
Welcome to the December 2013 edition of “Jud’s New England Journal,” the rather curious monthly musings of Judson Hale, the Editor-in-Chief of Yankee Magazine, published since 1935 in Dublin, NH.
After considerable investigating, I believe I’ve come up with the answer.
About a week ago, while watching from my office window as the firemen put up lights on the town Christmas tree here in Dublin, New Hampshire, I wondered if perhaps New England could lay claim to the very first Christmas tree. Well, the first American Christmas tree. (It’s well established that the evergreen tree was always part of holiday celebrations started over 400 years ago in Germany.) So I began rummaging around in our library.
I soon found references to the fact that Hessian mercenaries put up Christmas trees at their campgrounds while they were over here during the Revolution. But that didn’t prove the point. I felt the first Christmas tree would have to be part of a regular New England home at Christmas.
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 re-named 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 didn’t quite do it.
As I continued to search, I began to suspect that 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 States 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,” “Oh, 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…
Then, as I was about to give up, a wonderful discovery! The first American house to celebrate Christmas with a decorated tree was in Connecticut – and long before Minnegerolde or Fort Dearborn. In a book published by the Windsor Locks, Connecticut, Historical Society, 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 during the 1770s and 1780s, Hendrick Roddmore put up a decorated Christmas tree in the Denslow house.
So I’m pretty well content that the Denslow home Christmas trees were the first genuine American Christmas trees.
That is, until someone proves otherwise.
Merry Christmas, everyone.