Ideas

The secret origins of the civic Christmas tree

Amid the holiday wars, a look back at the surprisingly inclusive roots of America’s glorious public trees

Martin Gee/Globe Staff

Pity America’s big, public Christmas trees. They’ve been buffeted by controversies involving Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jerry Falwell. They have been argued over on the floor of the Michigan Senate. In 2005, an irate logger got so angry about the one on Boston Common that he told reporters he wanted to feed it into a wood chipper.

To its supporters, a public Christmas tree is a towering gesture of warmth and optimism in a chilly season. To detractors, it’s an unwelcome monument to religion in a public space that alienates people who don’t celebrate Christmas. The two sides have been clashing over the politics of public trees for more than 25 years; at this point, this debate has become almost as much a part of the annual Christmas ritual as the trees themselves.

Most recently, the debate broke out when Governor Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island insisted on using the phrase “holiday tree” to describe the elaborately lit, 17-foot-tall spruce standing in the State House in Providence. Chafee’s office received thousands of phone calls from around the country; for days afterward, he found himself on the receiving end of spirited criticism from Christian leaders, talk radio hosts, and lawmakers accusing him of trying to chip away at a beloved American symbol.

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For many onlookers, underlying the whole conversation is a lament: why a town tree, a long and intimate tradition with connotations of hearth and family, should have become a political object at all.

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But according to researchers who specialize in the history of Christmas, there is little reason to think it was ever any other way. As tempting as it might be to imagine the Christmas trees we see today in public parks and central plazas as a quaint relic of small town life--a holdover from a time when the inhabitants of tightly knit villages joined hands around a modest shrub and soaked up the spirit of the season--it turns out that our modern public trees have politics woven right into their roots.

Not politics in the way that anyone involved in today’s debate would recognize, though: Historians say public Christmas trees were introduced in American cities a century ago thanks in large part to a secretive coalition of Progressive-era social reformers. These were wealthy individuals, concerned about the health of American society in the industrial age, and convinced that large Christmas trees were one key to curing it of its ills. Using a discreet “word-of-mouth campaign among leading businessmen, politicians, and publicists,” as historian William Waits puts it in his book, “The Modern Christmas in America,” these civic-minded idealists tried to recast Christmas as an essentially public holiday that could unite people of different ethnicities and social classes behind a single shared tradition.

The vision first came to life in December of 1912, when large trees went up in Boston, Hartford, and New York, and extensively choreographed festivals, complete with singing and general merrymaking, were held to mark the winter holiday. On Christmas Day that year, the Boston Daily Globe reported that 10,000 people had gathered the night before around the “great brilliantly lighted” tree that had been installed at Boston Common, and that Mayor John F. Fitzgerald had led the crowd in a performance of “My Country ’Tis of Thee.” The following year, more than a hundred towns and cities put up their own community trees; soon, the practice was a nationwide phenomenon.

Today the Progressive reformers who helped popularize community Christmas trees have been largely forgotten, but the idea they promoted--that Christmas can be as much about civic pride and local identity as it is about religion and family--has endured. And while the debate has shifted since the 1910s, and our ideas about religious tolerance and the role of government have changed significantly, it’s worth remembering, as we await the next round in the Christmas Wars, that the original motivations for the civic tree were neither exclusionary nor particularly religious--in fact, quite the opposite.

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By the early 1910s, when community Christmas trees began to emerge, Americans had been celebrating the birth of Jesus around a decorated tree for about 80 years. The practice, borrowed from Northern Europe, became hugely popular here over the course of the 19th century--so popular, that according to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, author of the book “The Battle For Christmas,” there weren’t always enough trees to go around. Said one newspaper article from 1881 on the rise of tree-stealing in the Northeast: “There are plenty of New Yorkers living on fine estates on Long Island who can explain how very little time a party of country boys require to strip a yard of its growing shrubbery, and how quickly the stolen trees can be carried away and concealed.”

As the demand for Christmas trees grew, going out into the wild and cutting them down en masse became big business. In 1892, a party of caribou hunters from Boston discovered a forest of glorious pines during a stop in Penobscot Bay. According to a newspaper story cited by Neil Prendergast, a cultural historian at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point who researched the history of Christmas trees in America for his doctoral dissertation, the hunters chopped down something like 600 trees, loaded them onto their ship, and lugged them back to Boston. Just five years after that serendipitously lucrative voyage, a magazine called The Lumberman reported that between 500,000 and 750,000 Christmas trees were being removed from the Maine woods annually and that the number was expected to double within three years.

By 1900, millions of Americans were bringing Christmas trees into their homes for the holidays. Parents dressed them with little candles and shiny ornaments, and kids looked for candy and toys in between their branches. According to Penne Restad, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Christmas in America,” they became an emblem of homey Christmas cheer, and a central component of what had evolved into a deeply domestic, family-centered holiday.

But while middle-class families enjoyed their comfortable, cozy Christmases at home, something else was happening in America: Once unimaginable advances in technology were giving rise to new industries. Millions of new immigrants were pouring in from Europe. Cities were becoming crowded and diverse. As the country changed, social reformers began to fear that the American people were becoming atomized and rootless. They worried that new immigrants would never start feeling at home here, and instead remain isolated in their ethnic enclaves. They worried the poor would be ignored and trampled upon. Looking out at a nation in crisis, the Progressives saw Christmas trees as an opportunity to intervene.

It was an elegant concept: By enticing strangers to gather outside around an object widely associated with home, the reformers hoped to instill in people who might otherwise never speak to one another, but who were mostly Christian, a sense of belonging and civic pride. “The ideal municipal Christmas tree,” said an article in an urban planning magazine called American City, “should draw to it all classes and kinds of citizens, whether rich or poor, native or foreign-born. It should symbolize to them and awake in them the spirit of brotherhood, while they voice, together with the message of peace and good will, renewed loyalty to their common city, state and country.”

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When the first community trees were installed during Christmas of 1912, there was some mystery about who was behind these celebrations, and who paid for them. Several newspapers at the time credited a wealthy society dame named Emilie Herreshoff with arranging for the New York tree, but the organizers of the national community-tree campaign made a point of keeping their identities secret. According to Prendergast, the movement’s architects wanted the celebrations to look like leaderless and spontaneous outpourings of civic pride. An article from 1915, without naming the organizers, instructed “anyone interested in planning a community festival” to send a request for assistance to “Tree of Light,” P.O. Station G, New York City.

As the phenomenon of community trees spread across the country, the work of organizing the proceedings was taken up by elected officials, newspaper publishers, union leaders, and organizations like the YMCA. Tall, spangled trees appeared in big cities and smaller towns. By 1914, there were more than 300 nationwide.

The Progressives benefited from an unlikely ally: the growing American conservationist movement. Horrified by the number of trees being cut down from American forests, a handful of conservationists had been trying to stir up public sentiment against the private Christmas tree trade. The most prominent was J. Sterling Morton, the founder of Arbor Day, who saw the ravaging of the country’s forests as a blow to the future of the American timber industry. “The absurdity of celebrating the birth of the Savior of the world by a wanton waste and extravagance which jeopardizes the welfare of millions of human beings yet unborn,” Morton told the Indianapolis Record in 1899, “is obvious to every thinking man.”

The push by social reformers for community Christmas trees dovetailed perfectly with this conservationist impulse. In 1914, a wealthy Chicagoan who owned a forest preserve offered to donate some of his massive trees to 100 cities under the condition that they be replanted on public property and kept alive, rather than chopped down. (According to Prendergast, the man sent his offer to the mayors of 75 cities in the Midwest.) In 1923, a newsletter editorial by a conservationist agency in North Carolina urged elected officials around the state to plant community trees to discourage people from buying chopped ones: “in place of destroying an irreplaceable tree for a single night’s entertainment, the happier idea is its removal from the native forest and careful transplanting as a permanent part of the civic equipment.”

These days, when someone mentions the tree on Boston Common, you’re more likely to hear the story of how Nova Scotia donates it to us every year than the one about the shadowy group of idealists who helped establish civic trees. But the legacy of that movement is all around us. Regardless of what holiday we celebrate in our homes, most of us experience the public version of Christmas for several weeks every time we go outside. Decorations hang from street lights; department store windows are dressed with extravagant Christmas scenes. Implicitly, everyone is invited to participate.

The problem, of course, is that when it comes to religious holidays, there is no “everyone.” And in a way that would likely have surprised the original Progressives, the overwhelmingly public nature of Christmas in America can now leave those who are not Christian feeling excluded rather than included. Whether or not Christmas has transcended its religious roots, and should be treated more like a civic holiday than a religious one, is a debate worth having. But before we get too carried away next time the War on Christmas flares up, it’s worth considering that both sides of the fight might have lost sight of the tradition’s original intent. Instead of regarding the public Christmas tree as an essentially religious--and thus exclusionary--symbol, we can also remember that it was originally conceived as a catalyst of civic unity, an inclusive gesture that in its time had less to do with expressing a faith than in fostering an idealized vision of American society.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail lneyfakh@globe.com.