Every year we’ed decorated our tree with tiny books that held tiny printed stories and songs. Little birds were tucked up in branches, with a few glittered pinecones, peppermints and fake cranberry chains. It stood nine feet tall. After we finished, feeling the need to tend to dinner we’ed leave the tree to eat. Then Crash!
You would think, after the third year we would remember, that our pesky pet would climb and then perch itself as if a quail in a pear tree at the very top. But the tree could not hold the 35 pound mass we called AJ, and nature called a raccoon.
If only we had an 1847 tree – wrappers with nougats, chocolates, and pralines would be tied to branches with candles set carefully aglow. Small trumpets, kazoos, hobbies horses and little dollies would wait diligently with a tree that stood three feet tall. Spinning tops with whips, plus a bundle of pinwheels would be spied by children. And as for the raccoon, he would have been perched on a head… as a hat.
What many here in Buffalo don’t know is that while our German citizens may have brought the tree traditions here, we would be drawn in like moths to the sparkle, spirit and in all honesty, business of Christmas Treeing.
For all the historiography fanatics, we’ll fast track a recap. A number of German-Americans are recorded as having erected trees for both personal and communal use. In Easton, PA German settlers were reported as having erected a Christmas tree in 1816 for public viewing and Matthew Zahn of Lancaster, PA recorded in a journal the use of a Christmas tree in 1821 in his home. Between 1834-38, Charles ‘Follen’ of Boston – a German immigrant – erected a tree as recorded by an English visiter.
The first known image of a Christmas tree in America was published in 1836 in “The Stranger’s Gift” by Hermann ‘Bokum’ (see image from an original edition). The first time it was mentioned in a story was published in the 1836 edition of The Token and Atlantic Souvenir called, “New Year’s Day”, by Catherine Maria Sedgwick, where a German maid decorate’s her mistress’s tree. Both of the 1830s publications are observations of the German communities and households.
However, soon something special will happen in Buffalo…
Below, the New York Daily Tribune reprints a story from Philadelphia where Christmas trees were gaining traction for personal use by the wealthier non-Germans Americans in the 1840s.
New-York daily tribune., December 16, 1844
Kris Kringle’s Christmas Tree – A Holiday Present for Boys and Girls. [1st printed in] Philadelphia: E. ‘Ferrett’ & Co. 101 Chestnut Street. Fashions change, says the Editor of this elegant little volume; and of late Christmas Trees are becoming more common than in former times.
It is unknown if these first trees were used to place a child in a state of astonishment, then laden their gaping mouths with sugar, filling their hands with gifts, and finally sending them home with mother to bounce off the walls. Though, we do known the Universalist of our fair city used it as a carrot to entice children to stick with Sunday school… at least according to the Buffalo Daily Republic newspaper.
It was inevitable for the weakest link to go pagan. In 1847, Buffalo’s Unitarian Church is recorded in the Buffalo Daily Republic as having established the tradition of giving gifts from a “Christmas Tree” on Christmas Eve.. And much to the thanks of the Franklin St. building’s current and private owners, the building where Buffalo’s first known Christmas tree was displayed is still standing, having been erected in 1833. It is possible that the tradition had occurred in prior years but this was the first year the BDR was published. (See inset: The Buffalo Daily Republic, “Christmas Tree” published 1847). The next year the notice explained the practice further.
The Buffalo daily republic., December 29, 1848, Page 3, Image 3
“Beautiful Entertainment. – We have omitted to notice the Sabbath School Festival at the Unitarian church Christmas evening. The Commercial, of last evening, says: – It has seldom been our lot to witness any thing so joyous and beautiful as the Sabbath School Festival at the Unitarian Church, Christmas evening. The Christmas tree covered with light and with gifts – the delighted children – the happy parents, teachers and friends – all formed a group of rare interest. The singing by the children, admirably conducted by Mr. C. F. S. Tomas, was full of spirit and harmony of the heart as well as of sound. – In a brief address the Pastor gave a tongue to the emblems with which the room was filled: the evergreen – tho Christmas tree – the light – and carried the thought thro’ the signs to Christ, to Christianity, to immortality. An instructing part of the services was the presentation of a medal. A beautiful silver medal of ten dollars in value was given to the scholars of the school, by a gentleman of the Society…. Refreshments are then served to the children, and the gifts distributed from the tree.“
I admit, I am wondering if the Universalist has a record of annual trees since the 1847 article? If so, the Universalist may hold the title to being the oldest practitioners of Christmas Treeing in America. I am thinking, Christmas tree shaped historic marker
Black Rock jumped on the Christmas cheer early on. While the English way was to give gifts on New Years, it was the German, Swiss and Dutch tradition to start a bit earlier. The Black Rock Advocate and Buffalo Daily Republic also ran advertisements for Christmas and New Year’s gifts. Traditionally, only New Year’s gifts were given, so this was a big change in culture. This advertisement hints at trees being used by 1836.
Black Rock Advocate: November 11, 1836. ANNUALS FOR 1837.
– The Token, Pearl, Gift, Religious Souvenir. Young Lady’s Books,
Christmas-Box, &c., this day received at Steel’s
Bookstore, 214 Main-st., Buffalo, Oct.17.
In 1846, 1847, and 1848, Christmas gift advertisements were taken out by Steel’s Bookstore, Peck’s book store, and Philo Allen’s jewelry store in Buffalo’s Morning Express. All three of whom were located on Main St. near the Universalist church.
Within 10 years, except for the most destitute, the practice of Christmas Treeing had cross ethnic and socio-economic divides in Buffalo. In addition to the idea of light being an important symbol, providing gifts to parents who could not afford to put them on a tree had become an annual call to arms in Buffalo by 1857. One poem publish in The Buffalo Daily Republic demonstrates that even low income working class families celebrated with Christmas Trees but did not necessarily have the funds to place a gift in its branches. We may have been the first Americans to ask the public to buy Christmas gifts for those without. In this poem we can see the birth of the City of Good Neighbors by someone with a rather stern tongue for those that are greedy.
The Buffalo Daily Republic, December 24, 1857, Page 3.
Christmas and “the Christ-child”
Hundreds of little hearts are beating anxiously to-day; hundreds of little stockings will be hung in the chimney-corners to-night, while the bright eyes of their owners will peep out from the drooping lids, to catch a glimpse of the mysterious SANTA CLAUS, who is expected to fill theirs, But alas ! too many hopes, we fear, will be disappointed; too many little stockings will be found empty in the morning; and the bright visions that have danced all night in those little restless heads, will be banished by that grim specter, “Hard Times.” If I were only rich enough to fill them all, not one should be found empty. No child of poverty should turn from the sight of Christmas trees, glittering with their treasures, in the abodes of wealth, to cherish in its little heart hard thoughts of that Providence which gives to one and denies another. It is a great day to them, and is looked forward to with eager interest for months.
Three little ones in our neighborhood were talking very earnestly about it the other day, and wondering what the “Christ Child” would bring them. The mother’s hands were busy with her household cares, but her mind was wandering far away over the ocean, to her own dear “Father-land,” picturing the busy scenes of Christmas time among her friends, and then back again to the little faces upturned to hers, as if to read there what their gifts might be. But her husband was out of employment, and, though they were not in actual want, she knew that they had no money to spare; so she told them that she guessed the Christ-Child would not come this year, it was such hard times. “No, no, Mamma,” cried the oldest, “ i’sh ‘think de Heaven Fade’s bank be not broke yet. I guess he got plenty money. ”
Heaven bless you, little one, for your beautiful lesson of faith and trust in your “Heaven Fader.” May that faith never be shaken, but grow stronger and purer until it bears you to Himself.
Oh ye selfish ones who live only for yourselves, try for once the pleasure of making others happy. And if you would derive the greatest amount of pleasure from the money you spend, lavish not your gifts upon those who have an abundance, and who would be expected to return the compliment; but rather give to those whose purse is empty and they will know how to prize it. Give cheerfully, “Hoping for nothing again.” Seek out those neglected little ones who have no one to fill their stockings (and perhaps no stockings to fill,) and let not their faith in the “Christ Child” be destroyed.
Happy Holidays Buffalo !