How the Christmas tree came to New England

Hey, it’s Christmas day, and for the last hour you’ve been sitting and watching your cat rip ornaments off your Christmas tree. Suddenly you ask yourself, “But wait, how is it that the German custom of Christmas trees got imported to North America?” Well, different people brought it to different regions, but here in New England it was a Unitarian, Charles Follen (1796-1840), who introduced the huge green cat toy custom of the Christmas tree to us.

Follen was born in Germany, was a professor there for awhile but was too radical for the political authorities. He fled to escape political persecution, and arrived in the United States in 1824. By 1829 he was a professor at Harvard. Harriet Martineau, a prominent British Unitarian, visited him at his house in Cambridge, and she wrote this account of the first Christmas tree in New England (although as you will see, it was really a New-Year’s-Eve tree):

“I was present at the introduction into the new country of the spectacle of the German Christmas-tree. My little friend Charley [Follen], and three companions, had been long preparing for this pretty show. The cook had broken her eggs carefully in the middle for some weeks past, that Charley might have the shells for cups; and these cups were gilt and coloured very prettily. I rather think it was, generally speaking, a secret out of the house; but I knew what to expect. It was a New-Year’s tree, however; for I could not go on Christmas-eve; and it was kindly settled that New-Year’s-eve would do as well.

“We were sent for before dinner; and we took up two round-faced boys by the way. Early as it was, we were all so busy that we could scarcely spare a respectful attention to our plum-pudding. It was desirable that our preparations should be completed before the little folks should begin to arrive; and we were all engaged in sticking on the last of the seven dozen of wax-tapers, and in filling the gilt egg-cups, and gay paper cornucopia; with comfits, lozenges, and barley-sugar. The tree was the top of a young fir, planted in a tub, which was ornamented with moss. Smart dolls, and other whimsies, glittered in the evergreen; and there was not a twig which had not something sparkling upon it. When the sound of wheels was heard, we had just finished; and we shut up the tree by itself in the front drawing-room, while we went into the other, trying to look as if nothing was going to happen. Charley looked a good deal like himself, only now and then twisting himself about in an unaccountable fit of giggling.

“It was a very large party; for besides the tribes of children, there were papas and mamas, uncles, aunts, and elder sisters. When all were come, we shut out the cold: the great fire burned clearly; the tea and coffee were as hot as possible, and the cheeks of the little ones grew rosier, and their eyes brighter every moment. It had been settled that, in order to cover our designs, I was to resume my vocation of teaching Christmas games after tea, while Charley’s mother and her maids went to light up the front room. So all found seats, many of the children on the floor, for ‘Old Coach.’ It was difficult to divide even an American stage-coach into parts enough for every member of such a party to represent one: but we managed it without allowing any of the elderly folks to sit out. The grand fun of all was to make the clergyman [i.e., Charles Follen] and an aunt or two get up and spin round. When they were fairly practised in the game, I turned over my story to a neighbour, and got away to help to light up the tree.

“It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze; and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll’s petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze; and no harm ensued. 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. The first symptom of recovery was the children’s wandering round the tree. At last, a quick pair of eyes discovered that it bore something eatable; and from that moment the babble began again. They were told that they might get what they could without burning themselves; and we tall people kept watch, and helped them with good things from the higher branches.

“When all had had enough, we returned to the larger room, and finished the evening with dancing. By ten o’clock, all were well warmed for the ride home with steaming mulled wine, and the prosperous evening closed with shouts of mirth. By a little after eleven, Charley’s father and mother and I were left by ourselves to sit in the New Year. I have little doubt the Christmas-tree will become one of the most flourishing exotics of New England.”

[Retrospect of Western Travel, Harriet Martineau (London: Saunders and Otley, 1838), volume III, pp. 182-184. I added several paragraph breaks for onscreen readability.]

And that is how the Christmas-tree (which was actually a New-Year’s-tree), was introduced to New England.

Not long after that, Charles Follen lost his professorship at Harvard because of his radical abolitionist views. Influenced by William Ellery Channing, Follen then became a Unitarian minister. He served for many years in East Lexington, Massachusetts, at what is now known as the Follen Community Church — it’s still a Unitarian congregation, they still meet in the octagonal meetinghouse that Follen designed for them, and every year they sell Christmas trees out in front of the church.

OK, now you can go back to watching your cat rip the ornaments off your Christmas tree.