Rev. Charles Follen & the Christmas Tree in America


Conclusion: Abolitionists - And Another First Christmas Tree

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

It was amid these trying circumstances that Harriet Martineau stopped at Boston to spend New Year's with the Follens at the end of this difficult year, 1835. Both of them were under heavy pressure; Martineau had lost her journalist's credibility for embracing American abolitionism, and Charles Follen now faced an uncertain future, jobless again thanks to his principled convictions.

"The visit would be a time for mutual commiseration, and also a chance to plan a strategy for what would be (it was now clear) the abolitionist focus of the rest of Martineau's American visit. (The Follens had postponed setting up little Charley's Christmas tree until New Year's Eve in order to accommodate Martineau's schedule.)"

Mindful of her readers, Harriet Martineau carefully avoided linking abolitionism to the story of little Charley's Christmas tree. She didn't even identify the Follen family by name. Yet clearly, "Martineau's experience of what she believed to be the introduction of the Christmas tree into America was actually embedded in a thick matrix of political controversy. Little Charley's Christmas tree was a carefully planned moment of domestic peace in the midst of crisis and scandal."

"It is no coincidence that radical abolitionists were in the vanguard of the new child-centered Christmas," our historian continues. "The Garrisonians held an annual Antislavery Fair to raise money for the cause - invariably, on the days just before Christmas."

"In fact, the very first of these Antislavery Fairs displayed an 'evergreen shrub' that bore another witty message: 'Persons are requested not to handle the articles, which, like slavery, are too "delicate" to be touched.' (This was a sarcastic reference to the reluctance of most respectable Americans to discuss the slavery issue.)"

"Humor aside, if any of the articles for sale at the 1834 fair were actually attached to this evergreen shrub (or placed around it), then it would have the honor of being the first public Christmas tree displayed in the United States."

Our historian next considers the legend of the first tree in a broader cultural context - the emerging problem of a "child-centered consumer Christmas," the struggles over education and discipline in the emerging middle-class family... There is much, much more to American society's "battle for Christmas" during Charles Follen's time. It's all in Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (1996, 1997).

P.S. Wasn't it just a few years later in London that a 31-year-old Unitarian writer published a short story popularizing the idea of a modern, child-centered holiday?

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