poppy image   The First Illuminated Christmas Tree poppy image
in the New World

The custom of bringing evergreens into the house at the beginning of the winter solstice goes back through the mists of time to the pre-Christian era. It was customary among the German tribes living in the dense forests of north-central Europe to bring saplings of evergreen trees into the home on the longest night of the year. Because they did not shed their green needles in the winter, evergreens were a symbol of survival and continuity. Among the ancient Germans they were close to being objects of veneration.

After Charlemagne, king of the German Franks, became the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation (Germany) he forced his subjects to adopt Christianity and forbade their heathen customs and practices. However, the custom of bringing a small evergreen tree into the house on the eve of the winter solstice was so ingrained in the people that it was never completely eradicated. Since the birth of Jesus Christ was said to be on December 25th, the beginning of winter, they simply put up their tree on that date and called it a Weihnachtsbaum (Christmas tree) to conform to their new religion.

The earliest written record we have of an illuminated Christmas tree is from the chronicles of Strassburg, Anno 1539. Once the most German of cities, this capital of Alsace was arbitrarily awarded to France after World War I, and it is now spelled Strasbourg.

Throughout past centuries the Catholic Church favored the nativity scene as a symbol of Christmas. It may be a more realistic depiction of Christmas, but in German communities it does not evoke the same feelings of warmth, family and good fellowship as the Christmas tree. No written record exists, but there is no doubt in my mind that the custom of decorating a Christmas tree was brought to this continent by the earliest German colonists. Evergreen trees were plentiful and it does not take much imagination to picture a candle-lit Christmas tree in a German settler’s log cabin somewhere in the silence of the boreal forests in America.

New World Christmas

Unfortunately, the early pioneers were too busy chopping down trees to take the time to write about it.

The earliest evidence we have of an illuminated Christmas tree in America comes from the diary of Friederike von Riedesel, the wife of Major-General Friedrich Adolphus von Riedesel, Baron of Lauterbach, who was born in Lauterbach, Hessen, in 1738. In 1776 he landed in Quebec with his German troops whose services the British had bought from their German prince to help them put down the American Revolution.

A year later, in 1777, his wife Friederike, although burdened with two young children and pregnant with another, sailed across the stormy Atlantic to be with her husband in the New World. She wrote many letters and made daily entries into a diary in which she detailed everyday life in North America in the turbulent colonial period. Her diaries are now in possession of the National Archives of Canada in Ottawa.

Friederike’s outgoing personality earned her many friends among the British and German officers, their wives and servants. She was affectionately known as “Lady Fritz” by everyone. In those days officers as well as soldiers’ wives sometimes accompanied their menfolk into battle. When Baron von Riedesel was ordered to New York State in support of the British, she went along too. After the British and their German auxiliaries suffered a degrading defeat at Saratoga, both the Baron and Friederike as well as their children were captured by the Americans. They spent two years in the United States as nominal prisoners-of-war. Since they were treated decently, they voluntarily remained in the new republic for another two years. Here, too, Friederike made many new friends.

In September of 1781, at the request of Swiss-born Governor General Haldimand, the von Riedesels returned to Lower Canada (Quebec) where the general was posted to Sorel. Just before Christmas they moved into their new home on the site of the Maison des Gouverneurs (Governor’s Mansion) which is located at the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Richelieu Rivers.

It was here on Christmas Eve of 1781 that Friederike von Riedesel decorated a Christmas tree according to the German custom. She did it to relieve the homesickness of the German officers and their wives and to surprise the English officers and their spouses who had never seen such a thing.

In the 18th century in England Christmas was celebrated by merrymaking, hence the term “Merry Christmas”. In Germany it was a more subdued affair. On Christmas Eve families gathered around a candle lit Christmas tree to sing beloved carols and to exchange modest gifts. On Christmas Day they enjoyed a succulent goose dinner and partook of an array of special baked goods and drinks. Such was the scene in the Governor’s mansion in Sorel.

Christmas Eve 1781 was described by Lady Fritz in her diary. Among non-Germans the idea of putting a Christmas tree in the home did not catch on until 1841 when young Queen Victoria had one put up in Buckingham Palace, at the behest of her husband Prince Albert, her German-born consort.

The public display of Christmas trees originated in America. Nowadays, it is also seen in busy shopping centers, where amid hectic shoppers, ringing cash registers and repetitious carols over a sound system, it definitely does not belong. However, we dare not stand in the way of “progress” – or profits.

New World Christmas Tree Outdoors

In 1767, on the 100th anniversary of the Canadian Confederation, a group of German-Canadians planted a mature fir tree in front of the former Governor’s Residence in Sorel and put up a plaque in French, English and German to commemorate the lighting of the first Christmas tree in North America. They also installed a painting by Werner Schubert depicting the officers, their wives and children in the very room where the original tree had stood in 1781. This was the centennial project of the donors to make the public aware of what had taken place there 200 years ago.

In 1981, at the urging of some German-Canadian historians, the Postmaster-General of Canada issued a series of three postage stamps depicting a Christmas tree as it might have looked in 1781, another in 1881, as well as an electrically lighted one in 1981. All three were designed by Anita Kunz, a Canadian of German ancestry. I can’t help but note that in 1981 it cost 15 cents to mail a Christmas card in Canada. Today it’s 52 cents. Some call that progress.

In September 1999, I visited Sorel, Quebec with my wife. The Governor’s
Residence is now a Quebec tourist office. The big Fir tree in front of the residence is gone. So is the plaque that was put there in 1967 and also the painting by Werner Schubert which hung over the mantel of the fireplace.

The disappearance of the plaque in three languages can be attributed to the overzealous Quebec language police. Although Canada is ostensibly bilingual, it seems ludicrous that English-language signs are banned in the precincts of the residence. The staff know the historical significance of the building, yet there is nothing available in print which refers to the historic event that took place there – not even in French.

As if to make up for the disappearance of the live fir tree, they have put up a stylized aluminum Christmas tree which I must admit is quite striking in a modernistic sort of way. Even on a hot day it looked as if it were snow covered. However, there is no marker which alludes to the reason it was put there.

Perhaps the Christmas tree is a sign of a gentler past and fond memories. The secularization of Christmas is now well underway on this continent. The mass media may have now downgraded Christmas to the “Holiday Season” and the unthinking majority have gone along with this deception to the detriment of their heritage. The salutation “Merry Christmas” has been replaced by the inane but politically correct “Seasons Greeting”, a term whose meaning escapes me.

Whether you go along with this brainwashing is up to you. As for me, this Christmas I will continue to wish all and sundry a Merry Christmas, and to hades with the Holiday Season.

Merry Christmas

Joyeux Noel

Frohe Weihnachten

By Frank Schmidt

Republished with permission from the author

©Copyright 2007-2009 Anita Pare & Mark Remsing, All rights reserved