First Christmas Tree in America - This is the earliest known drawing of a Christmas tree in America. It is by folk-artist Lewis Miller and executed around 1850.
This is the earliest known drawing of a Christmas tree in America. It is by folk-artist Lewis Miller and executed around 1850.
The first Christmas
tree in America: when did it happen, where did it happen? Does it have religious connotations? The first documented research done by Alfred Shoemaker found that the first Christmas tree was written by Matthew Zahn Thursday, December 20, 1821. Matthew writes:

"Sally and our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick's saw mill."
One theory is that trimmed Christmas trees were used during the American Revolution by Hessian prisoners, a theory put forth by Arthur Sowder, a forester for the Department of Agriculture. There has been no documentation to support this theory. Pennsylvania wins the distinction of being the first state to decorate with a Christmas tree because of its German immigrants and Moravian customs.

Another whimsical reference appeared in the York Gazette on December 23, 1823:

Society of Bachelors. The Elections o'er, Old Gregg is beat, And Shulze has got the Chair of State. A meeting will be held at the Hall Mud Island, on second Christmas eve, the political Contest for Governor is at the end it is hoped that all will be unanimity with the members. The Old Maids have determined to present us with at least on Cart load of Gingercakes the society in turn therefore intend fixing a Krischtkintkle Bauhn [literally Kriss Kringle Tree in Pennsylvania Dutch] for the amusement of such as many think proper to give them a call. Its decorations shall be superb, superfine, superfrostical, shnockagastical, double refined, mill' twill'd made of Dog's Wool, Swingling Tow, and Posnum fur, which cannot fail to gratify taste.

By Order B......J...... president N.B. No smoking allowed in the Saloon, Admittance, Free gratis, for nothing at all.
A well know scientist and scholar from Lancaster County, Simon Snyder Rathvon, remembered that he erected a Christmas tree with a Donegal family during the winter of 1822 and 1823. He noted:

"The tree on this occasion was a low cedar bush which 'we boys' had 'spotted' when we were walnuting as early as the beginning of the previous November. The head of family was an Irish descent, but had married into a family of 'Pennsylvania Dutch,' and had accommodated himself to their peculiar ways, and when necessary spoke their peculiar language. Only one of the older boys, the housemaid and myself, in addition to the old folks, participated in the preparation of the tree."
Further evidence of Christmas trees in the 1820's in Pennsylvania was published in the Saturday Evening Post, December 20, 1825:

There are visible trees [through windows] whose green boughs are laden with fruit, richer than the golden apples of the Hesperides, or the sparkling diamonds that clustered on the branches in the wonderful cave of Alladin.
The term "Christmas Tree" was first used in 1830 in the Dictionary of Americanisms published in 1838. On December 14, 1830, the York Republican and the Anti-Masonic Expositor published the following:

The Dorreas Society of York. This is an Association of Ladies, which was formed about ten or eleven years since, for the truly charitable purposes of clothing the poor widow and the friendless orphan.

The Society has therefore made preparation for a FAIR, which will be held in the front of the house lately occupied by Genl. Spangler.

We are particularly requested to invite our country friends, as the goods will be sold low, and comprise the greatest variety of fancy articles, as well as the exhibition of a famous CHRISTMAS TREE. The fair will open day before Christmas, closed in Christmas Day, and open in the evening, and from thence until the articles are disposed of.
The York Republican December 21, 1830 published what it would cost to view the first public Christmas Tree:

"Tickets will be sold for 6 1/4 cts. which will admit the bearers to the 'Christmas tree!' during the time it remains for exhibition."
In American literature the earliest description of a Christmas Tree appeared in the Token and Atlantic Souvenir in 1836 written by Miss Sedwick and titled "New Years Day:"

"Lizzy Percival's maid Madeline, a German girl, had persuaded her young mistress to arrange the gifts after the fashion of her father land, and accordingly a fine tree of respectable growth had been purchased in market, and though when it entered the house it looked much like the theatrical representation of 'Birnam woods coming to Duniane,' the mistress and maid had continued, with infinite ingenuity, to elude the eyes of the young Arguses, and to plant it in the library, which adjoined the Drawing Room, without its being seen by one of them.

Never did Christmas tree bear more multifarious fruit; for St. Nicholas, that most benign of all the saints of the calendar, had through the hands of many a ministering priest and priestess, showered his gifts. The sturdiest branch drooped with its burden of book, chess men, puzzles, etc. for Julius, and strippling of 13, dolls, birds, beasts, and boxes were hung on the lesser limbs. A regiment of soldiers had alighted on one bough, and Noah's ark was anchored to another, and to all the slender branches were attached cherries, plumbs, strawberries and fine peaches, as tempting and at least as sweet as the fruits of paradise.

Nothing remained to be done, but to label each bough. Miss Percival was writing the names, and Madeline walking round and round the tree, her mind, as the smile on her lip and the tear in her eye indicated, divided between the present pleasures and the recollection of bygone festivals in the land of her home, when both were startled by the ringing of the bell.
Another reference of Christmas trees in the 1830's was published in the Easton Sentinel December 30, 1836:

"We have heard some matter of fact Misanthropes denounce the extraordinary dinners - the exchanging of presents - the passing of the compliments of the season and the indulgence and relaxation which every one feels privileges to enjoy, together with Christmas trees and New-Years firing, as idle and unmeaning ceremonies, fit only for children and even then without reason or meaning."
Yet another mention of Christmas trees happened in the Lancaster Union December 27, 1836:

"The Holidays. Well St. Nicholas has been before us - the old wag! Our young friends have already had the 'Merry merry Christmas,' and those if them who are caught napping, by our unfortunate omission to announce his Saintship's coming, but hung up their stockings, by the fireplace according to custom, are now revelling on the gingercakes, nuts, fruits, and candies, which were so mysteriously put in them. Well, as there is an end to every stocking, so must there soon be to the stock in it; - and when the Christmas trees have all been wondered at and the matzebaums have lost their novelty and their paint, 'St Claus' and his tiny chariot and horses will have ceased whirling through the brains of our little readers, and we shall then wish them a Happy New Year, and trunks full of sweet things - which is more than the old fellow gave them."
First Christmas Tree in America Picture
In the 1840's, the Christmas tree began to appear regularly each Christmas season. The entrepreneurs began to charge admission regularly for the viewing of the Christmas tree. In 1842, the Christmas tree was used in a school function in Philadelphia. Eventually after some heated opposition to the use of Christmas trees in Sunday School functions, the tree became an important part of Christmas Festivals.

Christmas trees were not a part of the lexicon in the earliest establishment of the Episcopalian and Catholic Churches. Instead, the Christmas decorations were known as "Evergreens." As far back as Christmas Day in 1749 at the Catholic Church in Philadelphia, "pews and altar were decorated with branches and mountain laurel." Dr. William Muhlenberg initiated in 1847 the use of Christmas trees into New York City's Sunday School.

The very first use of a Christmas tree in other states outside of Pennsylvania were Massachusetts in 1832, Illinois in 1834, Ohio in 1835, New York in 1840, and Texas and Mexico in 1846. By the 1850's the Christmas tree had become a staple for the celebration of Christmas both in Pennsylvania and other parts of America.

When you and your family gather around the Christmas tree this year, take a minute to remember the joy and happiness our colonial friends experienced when they saw their first Christmas tree.

Source: Text by Bryan Wright

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