The First Christmas Tree: A Cultural Perspective

First Christmas Tree in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Working with teams of environmentalists over the years, I have wondered how they feel about the cutting of trees at Christmas time. Do they see it as genocide of poor evergreen trees, or do they view it as a cultural experience that we Americans have followed for generations? I am guessing the latter. As an archaeologist, I always turn to the cultural perspective of traditions or taboos to gain an understanding of why we conduct specific rituals every holiday season, including trimming of the holiday tree.

To understand the history of this ritual, we go back to 19th century Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia. The first written reference of a holiday tree was published in the Richmond News Leader in 1928, which chronicled Ms. Martha Vandergrift’s recollection of a decorated tree in 1845 at the St. George Tucker House. At the time, Judge Nathanial Tucker rented a room to the new Professor of the Classics at the College of William and Mary, Charles Minnegerode.

Charles Minnegerode – credited with creating the first decorated Christmas tree in America

Dr. Minnegerode was a political refugee from Germany who arrived in Williamsburg in 1842. Some time after that, Charles decided to entertain the Tucker children by cutting down a small evergreen tree and trimming it with a few decorations, including lit candles. The tree was placed on the parlor table for all to enjoy.

At the time, holiday decorations consisted of hanging mistletoe and a few sprigs of holly or evergreen laying at the windows. For the Tucker house to have a tree displayed for visitors to see, must have been an amazing site. I can see how Ms. Vandergrift would still remember it some 80 years later. However, it would take several years for the trimming of trees to become a mainstay of United States culture. Today,  it is customary for homes, businesses and cities to be adorned with trees filled with lights–all thanks to one man’s desire to entertain the children at the Tucker house.

To learn more about holiday traditions in Colonial Williamsburg, click here.

Season’s greetings from everyone at LJB Inc.

Comments

  1. eoliverljb says:

    The tradition of the Christmas tree goes further back to Europe and includes an upside down version, which was revived by merchants and had a short lived popularity a few years ago here in the US.

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