Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree
We usually think of the Christmas Tree being a Victorian invention, being introduced by Prince Albert from his native Germany c.1840. The Christmas Tree, however, has a longer and far more meaningful history than that, however, one linked with education reform, Abolition and the reinvention of Christmas by a religious denomination who saw Christmas not as the birth of the Son of God but as a family-centred holiday to focus on family and community.
The Christmas Tree began as a local, minor custom in Germany but was popularised in 1770s Strasburg by the author Woerthe and by 1810 the Christmas Tree was almost universal in Germany. Goethe saw the Christmas Tree in romantic and nationalist terms: it was the symbol of the ‘Old Germany’ and was an ‘authentic custom’ of the ‘soul of Germany’, the ever green forest of pines which had eaten up Varus’ legions, and in the context of the day, were defence against the invading French armies of Napoléon I. The introduction of the Christmas Tree outside of Germany was due to German immigrants to the United States of America and one immigrant drew one in his sketchbook in 1810, and Hessian soldiers fighting against the Americans during the War of Independence (1777-1781) are reputed to have set up their own Christmas Trees. But it was Charles Follen (1795-1840), a German immigrant who did the most of popularise the custom of the Christmas Tree amongst non-German immigrants in the USA and also in Britain. Born in Darmstadt, Follen came of age under the influence of the Napoleonic Wars and their repressive aftermath. He and his generation saw French domination come to an end, only to be replaced by a resumption of aristocratic rule instituted by the Congress of Vienna. Idealistic youths like Follen found the situation intolerable and expressed their displeasure by organizing themselves into revolutionary student organizations and agitating for reform. When the movement split into two factions, Follen, a very vocal student leader, remained solidly with the more radical group, calling for the overthrow of the government, by violent means if necessary.
In the midst of this turmoil, Follen managed to earn a law degree from the University of Giessen and soon afterward became a lecturer at the University of Jena, but his revolutionary past caught up with him. He moved to Basel, then Paris, and finally fled to America.
Follen graduated from Harvard in 1825, and through friendship with the great Unitarian theologian William Ellery Channing (1780-1842) was inducted as a Unitarian Minister in 1836. During his induction address he stated:
[May] this church never be desecrated by intolerance, or bigotry, or party spirit; more especially its doors might never be closed against any one, who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity; within its walls all unjust and cruel distinctions might cease, and [there] all men might meet as brethren.
At a Christmas dinner-party, ostensibly to gain support for the Abolitionist movement, in 1832 he introduced a ‘great novelty’, a Christmas Tree. He did so wishing to recreate the magic and beauty of a decorated tree for his young son, went out into the woods near his home and cut down a small fir. 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.
Harriet Martineau (1802-1876), the much-travelled sister of the British Unitarian Minister and Theologian, Rev James Martineau (1805-1900), was in Boston in 1832 and was invited to Follen’s dinner party. She describes the unveiling of the tree at the Follens' Christmas party:
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.
Follen would later bring a Christmas Tree every year into his family home and also introduced the custom to his pupils. He encouraged all members of his family to help with decorating the Tree; Follen recounted how ‘It was in their [the Children’s] eyes…that he saw the best Christmas Tree’. In one year he ‘deferred the lighting of the Tree’ to New Year as various friends, including Harriet Martineau, could not be with them for Christmas.
When she returned home, Martineau encouraged the introduction of the Christmas Tree into English celebrations of Christmas through a story she wrote in 1835. Here she conjured up an idealised picture of a charity-filled Christmas, the family united around the Christmas Tree they had all helped to decorate. Her previous ‘Christmas’ stories, had raised public attention to the urban poor. They were a call for social change, and she believed that poverty and slavery could be overcome by ‘true Christian principles and practice’. In the same year (1835) the American Unitarian author Catharine Sedgwick - member of the intellectual circle of Follen and Martineau - wrote about a Christmas Tree which had been set up as an act of benevolence for an immigrant German serving girl by her employers. The Rev. James Martineau in London continued this theme of family; in 1836 he wrote that Christmas was about ‘the joyous gathering of families around the hearth, the picture of the great reunion in Heaven’, a theme he would return to in 1847. The Unitarian Minister, Rev Edmund Hamilton Sears (1810-1876) in his 1849 carol It came upon the Midnight Clear stressed ‘Peace on Earth, goodwill to Men, from Heaven’s all-Gracious King’ and liberation to those who suffer under ‘life’s crushing load’ rather than the birth of Jesus. So too did Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) in his 1864 poem to peace, I heard the bells on Christmas Day written during the American Civil War.
Romantics like the educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi (1749-1827) stressed that Christmas was a holiday in which adults could learn from the Christ child and teach their own children how to be pure, innocent human beings. Louisa May Alcott (1832-1888) wrote about such perfectly generous children in Little Women, when the girls give all their Christmas to a poor family in town. Charles Dickens’ novel A Christmas Carol evokes an idealised Christmas and one that is very Unitarian – if not secular, as neither God nor Jesus make an appearance. Dickens wrote scathingly about the social condition of his day and what does appear in Christmas Carol is the idea of a family Christmas of charity, helping the poor and above all the idea that any one can change; even the most miserable of scrouges.
The Christmas Tree also took on political connotations: Follen was an Abolitionist and the Christmas Tree was seen as a symbol of the Abolitionist movement and of Radical politics. Martineau explicitly linked the Christmas Tree with Abolitionist sympathies; for her the Christmas Tree represented benevolence toward the weak, charity toward the poor and support for the outcast and downtrodden. There were important similarities between the antislavery sentiment and the new attitude toward children that is found in the second strain of literature that led to the Christmas Tree. Abolitionists and educational reformers shared a joint empathy for people who were powerless to resist the wrath of those who wielded authority over them –- slaves and children, respectively. Both types of reformers had a particular abhorrence or the use of the lash as a form of punishment. Follen’s uncompromising Abolitionist principles lost him his job as pastor of All Souls Church in New York City, and his outspoken stand against slavery at a time when abolition was still highly controversial, even in liberal Massachusetts, ended his teaching career. Harvard did not renew his professorship in 1835, but did offer to employ him as a German instructor, at a reduced salary. Supporters, including his wife and the Quaker Abolitionist poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892), later said that it was his outspoken views that cost him his Harvard position.
To Unitarians, the Christmas Tree was a unifying factor, to bring the whole family together across generations as up until that time, those families who had celebrated Christmas as a religious festival would have done so in Church where children may not have been actively involved, and certainly with very little frivolity in case it be interpreted as either ‘Catholic’ or ‘Pagan’. Many of the Christmas stories written by Unitarian writers placed them in the context of a family Christmas, often of a man looking for peace from his beleaguered life in the private sphere of his home, spending time with children. This was part of an emerging set of middle class and intellectual values that focused on the family, children and inspired the family centred Christmas. Therefore, by the 1840s, largely under the influence of Unitarian writers, Christmas became a feast for children and family. The symbol for that feast was the Christmas Tree. The Christmas myth was seen not as a religious truth, but instead as the archetypal holy family that all families could emulate, with a perfect child, strong loving mother and a father who found comfort in a politically and professionally stressful world within the privacy of his faith and his family.