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Buffalo’s First Christmas Trees

The toll house sat on Main St. where the border divided the City of Buffalo from Amherst, before there was even a Bailly Ave. The toll-man, from his shed, would have been able to look out and see the twinkling lights across the field shining through the window panes from the Schenck’s house.

Paper flowers, lemon drops, candied oranges, and other treats would have been carefully made and used to decorate the little evergreen that stood upon a table. The kitchen fireplace would turn the wood into the coals that were shoveled into the stove to heat the parlor; and cookies would be picked off the plate before dad made it back from feeding the livestock.

Disappointed, the kids got to them first, he and his wife steal away together into the kitchen, where she pulls out an extra plate of goodies and grog to settle him in. There was an arm-chair where he sat, putting up his feet; and she leaned back on a lounge. Their children were but toddlers, pulling the flowers off the tree; dancing around and singing songs. The tall case clock hauled all the way from their former home in Pennsylvania would chime in as if signing along.

It was a good year; with hay, oats, barley, potatoes, cabbage, turnips, apples, and more for the winter. The jelly cabinet was stocked with canned foods. The cake was setting in a mold. They had mustered up small gifts for the farm hand and their dairymaid, who were now just coming into the house to join them. With the horses, cattle, pigs and sheep fed; the honey bees fast asleep for winter, it was the eve to the twelve days of Christmas and Western New York’s first tidings with a Christmas tree. It was the 1820s, while the Schencks and their friends settled in for twelve days of merry-making, the toll-man from his shed may have wondered, what on earth possessed them to bring nature into the house and set it afire!

Photo: dierregi

It is the inclusion of immigrants that has created the culture of Buffalo; bringing new customs and traditions including our first Christmas trees. Christmas trees have been a tradition at this time of the year in Central Europe since the 16th Century. While we may never truly know if Estonia, Lithuania or Alsace-Lorraine was the first to have an evergreen tree cut, hauled to the town square and decorated for the season; we do know that people of German decent brought this tradition over to America and eventually to the City of Buffalo. In one 1747 account from a traveler through German communities in Pennsylvania noted decorated evergreens at community centers. Another decorated tree was observed in the 1830s PA, not in a town square but this time within the home. For the Greater Buffalo Region with our first settlers, came our first Christmas trees. It is lucky that three of the homes in which these Christmas trees could be found are all still standing; the Frick House 1830 of Amherst, the Lapp house 1828/1830 of Clarence, and the Schenck House 1822 of Buffalo.

By the time of the 1850 census; at least 21,197 of the 42,261 people in Buffalo (50.16%) were born outside of the United States. While the vast majority of these foreign-born immigrants were from Europe; we have William Peck born in China, Marcus Hill from Brazil, and Rosa Lee from Jamaica. There is also one “Besty Swatout” (b. 1762 in Africa) living in Ward 4. Ward 4 had a considerable diversity of languages from Norwegian and Swedish, French and Italian, and even Brazilian and Chinese. When we think of Buffalo today, the amount of diversity one sees often is dictated by where one lives. With 81.7% of Buffalonians having been born in the State of New York according to the 2010 census, we have less birthplace diversity than that of 1850. Though, we have many people born abroad, they make up only 7.4% of the population. The diversity we see today is primarily first, second and third generations holding on to their bilingualism and family traditions.

The 1840s saw even more development; and by the 1850s Buffalo was hosting music groups such as the Continental Vocalists. On November 21st, 1856, the Continentals performed Christmas carols in Buffalo. By December 15th, Mr. Seaver of Buffalo was about to commence a tour of the North East, with Miss Greenfield, the Black Swan, and George Francis Handel Laurence as the pianist. Christmas, for Buffalonians, was anything but a somber event.

Buffalonians appear to have latched onto this indoor tree tradition long before Prince Albert helped his new English wife discover Christmas trees in 1846. With an evergreen covered in little toys being enjoyed by the Queen, what was once a family and community affair was suddenly turned into a fashionable trend with the nobility, but less so with the common Englishmen for sometime.

In Buffalo, these trees appear to have been popular enough that the non-Germanic portion of the population introduced them to children in hospitals, and one man figured out how to keep these papered and dry evergreens from bursting into flames.

1877 – ‘C. F. A. Bielby has accepted the rectorship of St. Mary’s church [on the hill], Buffalo, N. Y. The Rev. …. Anything suitable for the ” Christmas-tree,” which will be put up for Christmas night, will gladden the hearts of the school children,…’

1879 – ‘CHRISTMAS-TREE LAMPS. Buffalo, N. Y. Filed May 28, 1879. To all whom it may concern: Be it known that l, FRANK SIBLEY, of Buffalo, in the county of Erie and State of New York, have invented certain new and useful improvements on a Christmas-Tree Lamp…’ – Specifications and Drawings of Patents Issued from the U.S. Patent Office

It took some times for Queen Victoria’s discovery of the Christmas tree to catch on beyond the nobility; then spilling over into New England, fight as they might. But like any childhood tease, it grabbed hold of their children and the parents were pressed to follow.

1883 – ‘The Christmas tree is now almost universal in all the leading Western cities, and it is only when a fond husband desires to give his wife a sewing machine, or his daughter a seal skin dolman, that he suggests the hanging of a Christmas stocking. Thus, for reasons utterly dissimilar, the Christmas tree has virtually driven out the Christmas stocking both in New England and in the West, and there is little probability that in either locality the stocking will ever again come into favor.’ – Life Magazine

The Greater Buffalo region can lay claim to many things whether it is pioneering history, fabulous buildings, or its unusually thoughtful people who know how to pull together and make things happen. But unlike many regions that were once British colonies, only New York and Pennsylvania can lay claim to the Christmas we know today. Their practice of decorating Christmas trees got started long before the Queen brought nature into her castle.

Have a Merry Christmas Tree Season Buffalo !

Lead image: FaFulanita

Written by Tara Mancini

Tara Mancini

Tara Mancini's interest span from Microbiology and Chemistry, Research and Development, Manufacturing, Quality Assurance, and Process Improvement Analysis to New York History, Early Civilizations and Child Development and Education.

Part of the Quality Assurance jobs was food taster, both sweet and savory. When I travel I make a point of eating everything.

Recent projects include founding the Friends of Schenck Hose in Buffalo, NY - an 1823 pioneer and farm estate - that seeks to restore and put into adaptive reuse the historic buildings to recently being awarded a patent for a new chemical production system.

Specialties: Operations, Plant Start up, R & D, Pilot plant testing, operations, quality, Sales and Marketing, Production line or plant start up, streamline production, material waste management, recycling, process improvement, Biodiesel, Renewable Energy, Project Development.

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