December 23, 2019

The First Illustration of A Christmas Tree

My brain is fogged with eggnog but here is a very brief pre-Christmas post. 

Christmas trees have their origin in Germany, probably in the city of Strasbourg, and it seems likely that German immigrants in Pennsylvania were the first Americans to decorate Christmas trees. The earliest known drawing of an American Christmas tree is by a German-born artist named John Lewis Krimmel. Krimmel's drawing dates to 1812 or 1819, when he was touring the Pennsylvania countryside. Krimmel's drawing was not published, though, and was only discovered many years later.

The first published American illustration of a Christmas tree was this one:

From the American Antiquarian Society.

It appeared in The Stranger's Gift by Herman Bokum, which was published in Boston in 1836. Bokum was a German immigrant who taught at Harvard; the book describes his travels through America and was promoted as a book that could be given at Christmas.

Although Christmas trees originated in Germany they were actually popularized in America by New England Unitarian authors like Catharine Maria Sedgwick and Margaret Fuller. According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, these writers felt that ceremonial gift-giving around the Christmas tree could teach children patience and charity. Fuller, Sedgwick and other reform-minded writers were very popular in the early 19th century and their stories about Christmas trees were read by thousands. 

Fast forward two-hundred years, and Christmas trees are now a ubiquitous part of the holiday in America. Are patient and charitable children? Only Santa Claus knows for sure... Enjoy your holiday!

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