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The First Christmas Tree in America

Tracing the history of the Christmas tree from its pre-Christian origins to its first appearances in America.

Like many events in American history, the date and location of the first Christmas tree is the subject of heated debate.  

The city of Windsor Locks, Connecticut is one of several U.S. cities that claim to be the home of the first Christmas tree in America. As chronicled in Windsor Locks, a book by Leslie Matthews Stansfield, Hendrick Roddenmore, a Hessian solder working as a hired-hand, decorated a Christmas tree in the town in 1777. Easton, Pennsylvania and Lancaster, Pennsylvania also claim to be the site of the first Christmas tree in the country. In addition, some historians suggest that Hessian soldiers fighting for the British during the Revolutionary War set up Christmas trees in their encampments.

However, while historians may not agree on the exact date or location of the first Christmas tree, they do agree that the tradition was brought to this country by German immigrants in the late 18th or early 19th century. The tradition was already widely practiced in Germany as far back as the 16th century.

The Christmas tree’s origins are pre-Christian. Germanic Tribes celebrated the longest day of the year with lighted trees (i.e., Tannenbaum). Tradition credits Saint Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, with merging the Germanic tribes’ tradition of worshiping evergreen trees with more Christian practices. Due to their pre-Christian origins, until the mid 1800’s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

Charles Follen, Harvard first German professor, is often credited with bringing the tradition of the decorated Christmas tree to New England. According to the Harvard University Gazette, the professor unveiled his Christmas tree at a party at his Cambridge, Massachusetts home in 1832. Harriet Martineau, an English journalist who was visiting Boston at the time, wrote that the tree was set in a tub and its branches hung with small dolls, gilded eggshells, and paper cornucopias filled with candied fruit. The tree was illuminated with numerous candles. While Follen was not the first to have a Christmas tree in America, he is widely credited with helping spread the custom to the rest of the country.

Another American first happened in 1847. This was the years that a German immigrant, August Imgard, decorated the Christmas tree in his Wooster, Ohio home with paper ornaments and candy canes. This is the first historical reference to the candy cane being used to decorate a Christmas tree in America. The candy canes that Imgard used were nothing like those common today. They were all white. It wasn’t until the turn of the century that the red and white stripes and peppermint flavors became the norm. Today, Americans buy between 30 million real Christmas trees and 1.76 billion candy canes each Christmas season.

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