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The husband of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, gets the credit for making Christmas trees fashionable, as he famously set one up in Windsor Castle in the late 1840s. Yet there are reports of Christmas trees appearing in the United States years before the royal Christmas tree made a splash in American magazines.
One classic yarn is that Hessian soldiers had been celebrating around a Christmas tree when George Washington caught them by surprise at the battle of Trenton.
The Continental Army did cross the Delaware River to surprise the Hessians on Christmas night 1776, but there is no documentation of a Christmas tree having been present.
Another story is that a Hessian soldier who happened to be in Connecticut set up America's first Christmas tree in 1777. While that's accepted local lore in Connecticut, there also doesn't seem to be any documentation of the story.
A German Immigrant and His Ohio Christmas Tree
In the late 1800s a story circulated that a German immigrant, August Imgard, had set up the first American Christmas tree in Wooster, Ohio, in 1847. The story of Imgard appeared often in newspapers as a holiday feature. The basic version of the tale was that Imgard, after arriving in America, was homesick at Christmas. So he cut down the top of a spruce tree, brought it indoors, and decorated it with handmade paper ornaments and small candles.
In some versions of the Imgard story he had a local tinsmith fashion a star for the top of the tree, and sometimes he was said to have decorated his tree with candy canes.
There actually was a man named August Imgard who lived in Wooster, Ohio, and his descendants kept the story of his Christmas tree alive well into the 20th century. And there is no reason to doubt that he decorated a Christmas tree in the late 1840s. But there is a documented account of an earlier Christmas tree in America.
First Documented Christmas Tree in America
A professor at Harvard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Charles Follen is known to have set up a Christmas tree in his home in the mid-1830s, more than a decade before August Imgard would have arrived in Ohio.
Follen, a political exile from Germany, became known as a member of the abolitionist movement. The British writer Harriet Martineau visited Follen and his family at Christmas 1835 and later described the scene. Follen had decorated the top of a spruce tree with small candles and presents for his son Charlie, who was three years old.
The first printed image of a Christmas tree in America seems to have occurred a year later, in 1836. A Christmas gift book titled A Strangers Gift, written by Herman Bokum, a German immigrant who, like Charles Follen, was teaching at Harvard, contained an illustration of a mother and several small children standing around a tree illuminated with candles.
Earliest Newspaper Reports of Christmas Trees
The Christmas tree of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert became known in America in the late 1840s, and in the 1850s reports of Christmas trees began appearing in American newspapers.
A newspaper report described "an interesting festival, a Christmas tree," which was viewed in Concord, Massachusetts on Christmas Eve 1853. According to the account in the Springfield Republican, "all the children of the town participated" and someone dressed as St. Nicholas distributed presents.
Two years later, in 1855, the Times-Picayune in New Orleans published an article noting that St. Paul's Episcopal Church would be setting up a Christmas tree. "This is a German custom," the newspaper explained, "and one that has been of late years imported into this country, to the great delight of the young folks, who are its especial beneficiaries."
The article in the New Orleans newspaper offers details indicating that many readers would be unfamiliar with the concept:
"A tree of evergreen, in size adapted to the dimensions of the room in which it is displayed, is selected, the trunk and branches of which are to be hung with brilliant lights, and laden from the lowest bought to the topmost branch, with Christmas gifts, delicacies, ornaments, etc., of every imaginable variety, forming a perfect storehouse of rare presents from old Santa Claus.
What indeed can be more gratifying to children than to take them where their eyes will grow big and bright, feasting on such a sight on the eve of Christmas."
A Philadelphia newspaper, The Press, published an article on Christmas Day 1857 which detailed how various ethnic groups had brought their own Christmas customs to America. It said: "From Germany, in particular, comes the Christmas tree, hung all round with gifts of all sorts, interspersed with crowds of small tapers, which illuminate the tree and excite general admiration."
The 1857 article from Philadelphia whimsically described Christmas trees as immigrants who had become citizens, stating, "We are naturalizing the Christmas tree."
And by the time, an employee of Thomas Edison created the first electric Christmas tree in the 1880s, the Christmas tree custom, whatever its origins, was permanently established.
There are a number of unverified stories about Christmas trees in the White House in the mid-1800s. But it seems the first documented appearance of a Christmas tree wasn't until 1889. President Benjamin Harrison, who always had the reputation of being one of the less interesting presidents, was nonetheless very interested in Christmas celebrations.
Harrison had a decorated tree placed in an upstairs bedroom of the White House, perhaps mostly for the entertainment of his grandchildren. Newspaper reporters were invited to see the tree and wrote fairly detailed reports about it.
By the end of the 19th century, Christmas trees had become a widespread tradition throughout America.