December 22, 2014

America's First Christmas Tree?

The Christmas tree is an old, possibly even ancient, Germanic tradition. But how did it get to America?

Historians know that the wife of England's King George III brought the tradition to England. She was German nobility, and decorated the British royal home with fir trees at Christmas-time. Queen Victoria, who was George's granddaughter, popularized the tradition in England after she married Germany's Prince Albert. By the mid-nineteenth century Christmas trees were well-known throughout Britain.

It would make sense if the Christmas tree arrived in the United States from Victorian England, but that may not be the case. The tradition may have been brought here by a radical German reformer - who was also a gymnast.

Karl Follen was born in 1796 to well-off German family. Follen studied theology, but was also a political radical who supported the agenda of the French Revolution. After fleeing Germany (he was accused of assassinating a conservative politician) Follen went to France, where he met the Marquis de Lafayette. The Marquis, who pops up in so many surprising places, helped Follen move to America.

Charles Follen, 1796 - 1840.
Follen changed his first name from Karl to Charles, and in 1825 got a position teaching German at Harvard University. Oddly, Follen also introduced the sport of gymnastics to New England and supervised the first college gymnasium in the United States. The gymnasium was at Harvard.

Before we get to the Christmas tree, just a brief note about the whole gymnastics thing. The sport of gymnastics was created in Germany by Friedrich Ludwig Jahn (1778 - 1852), who created it as a way of improving morale among German men after their defeat by Napoleon. At first Jahn was supported in his efforts by the German nobility, but they soon learned he was a radical political reformer who wanted a unified German state. Jahn fled Germany, but not before teaching gymnastics to a generation of German men, including Follen.

OK, now on to the Christmas tree. While teaching at Harvard, Follen met local Transcendentalist writers like Longfellow and married Eliza Cabot, a member of Boston's wealthy Cabot family. But despite his success Follen remained a political reformer at heart, and became involved in the movement to abolish slavery.

In 1835, an English journalist and fellow abolitionist named Harriet Martineau visited the Follen's Cambridge home on Christmas Eve. She had come to discuss politics with Charles Follen, but while there she witnessed the Follens set up a Christmas tree for their son Charley:

The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls and other whimsies glittered on the evergreen and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it... I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy....

I have little doubt that the Christmas tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England. 

Martineau was right, but sadly Follen never lived to see the Christmas tree tradition spread widely. He was denied tenure at Harvard because of his radical views and moved to Lexington, Massachusetts where he became a Unitarian preacher. He also traveled to lecture about the abolitionist movement. On January 13, 1840 the ship carrying Follen back to Massachusetts from a New York lecture caught fire and sank. Follen was among the many passengers who drowned.

Follen Community Church in Lexington

I don't want to end a Christmas post on a sad note, so I'll note that Follen's church in Lexington still stands today. To carry on his work, each year the church sells Christmas trees and donates the profits to social outreach programs.

Was Charles Follen's tree really the first Christmas tree in America? It's hard to say. I suppose there may have been earlier trees that were undocumented, but Follen's story is an inspiring one, and sometimes that's what we need at Christmas.

I got the information for this post form Amy Whorf McGuiggan's Christmas in New England and Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas.

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