Rev. Charles Follen & the Christmas Tree in America

The (More or Less) First American Christmas Tree

Text in plum-colored letters is (slightly abridged) from Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (NY: Knopf, ch. 5). Permission requested.

"Legend has it that Charles Follen, a German-American professor at Harvard, introduced America's first Christmas tree. The source of that legend is a popular book written by a very famous British visitor to the United States, a woman named Harriet Martineau, who happened to witness the Follens' tree while she was touring New England. As Martineau wrote, 'I was present at the introduction into the new country of the German Christmas-tree.'"

"Though this was not the first American Christmas tree, it is certainly true that Charles Follen set up a Christmas tree in Martineau's presence for his son and namesake, an endearing 5-year-old whom everybody called 'little Charley.'"

When Martineau arrived, Follen and his wife Eliza were fastening little candles to the tree, actually the cut-off tip of an evergreen, and hanging toys and sweets from the branches before little Charley and his playmates got home.

"Finally, the double doors were thrown open and the children poured in, their voices instantaneously hushed. 'Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested,' wrote Martineau. 'Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy.'"

The children proceeded to the sweets, the adults guiding the little hands around the bright candle flames. "Martineau concluded her account by predicting that the Christmas tree ritual would surely become an established American tradition."

According to Nissenbaum, "Harriet Martineau's story of little Charley Follen's Christmas tree was accurate enough, even if this was not the first American Christmas tree. But in an important way the story was misleading."

"Martineau's evening with the Follens was anything but an accident of travel, and it hardly took place as part of the ordinary New England seasonal cycle… Harriet Martineau had gone to visit the Follens that evening to chart their mutual plans at a moment of crisis, a crisis that was forcing them to make a difficult choice between their personal principles and their professional careers. The issue that precipitated the crisis was nothing less than the movement to abolish slavery in America."

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