Rev. Charles Follen & the Christmas Tree in America

 

Background: Massachusetts and Christmas

Celebrating Christmas didn't come easily to Massachusetts.

As early as 1659, the colony declared it a crime to observe December 25th except in church. The Revolution came and went; the separation of church and state became a reality in Massachusetts in 1832; and still the Commonwealth held out, outlawing Christmas until the middle of the nineteenth century.

 

And as late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could still remark, "We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so."

Nevertheless, secular celebration did make inroads in the 1820s and 1830s. In Massachusetts, whether or not you celebrated a "cheerful, hearty" Christmas had mostly to do with which side of the Congregational and Unitarian fences your family lived on, and what generation you belonged to.

Take Concord, for example. Both lifestyles coexisted around 1830. Future senator George Hoar recalled, "Little account was made of Christmas. The fashion of Christmas presents was almost wholly unknown."

In the same town, the Thoreau family represented a vanguard generation, primarily Unitarians of progressive beliefs, who practiced a joyful celebration of Christmas as a family tradition. Henry David Thoreau was a little boy when (according to his brother) the future philosopher and his siblings would hang their stockings at the fireplace, fully expecting Santa Claus to arrive by the chimney, leaving fruits and sweets. (Santa, by the way, was "a very good sort of sprite, who rode about in the air upon a broomstick.")

Santa on a broomstick? Clearly, the secular Christmas of the 1830s was far from standardized. It was only in 1833 that Clement C. Moore dramatized Santa's sleigh and reindeer in "A Visit from Saint Nicholas" ("The Night Before Christmas"). Thomas Nast's cartoons, which finally standardized a roly-poly Santa, didn't appear till 1884.

In a very engaging and spirited book, The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum traces the evolution of America's traditional Christmas celebration. His chapter, "Under the Christmas Tree: A Battle of Generations," examines the Rev. Charles Follen's legendary 1835 introduction of the candle-lit, gift-bearing tree - and places it in the broader cultural context of nineteenth-century social transitions. As it turns out, Rev. Follen's anti-slavery activism played a part, too.

 

Your webkeeper heartily recommends reading Prof. Nissenbaum's rich narrative for yourselves; we can only summarize a small portion in the next web pages.

Next: The First Christmas Tree | Thoreau Index | Calliope Home