The gift that changed christmas.
On Christmas Eve 1924, President and Mrs. Coolidge accepted a gift from AMERICAN FORESTS that would forever change the way Americans celebrate the holidays.
That gift, accepted on behalf of the citizens of the country, was a magnificent 40-year-old, 35-foot Norway spruce, and it became the first living symbol of Christmas for the entire nation--the National Community Christmas Tree. The lighting ceremony for the tree, which came from the Amawalk Nursery in New York, was held near the Treasury Building.
The event--which included more than a thousand people singing Christmas carols, a brass quartet, and a concert by the U.S. Marine Band--was intended as more than just a holiday celebration. As with all AMERICAN FORESTS' initiatives and programs, it was designed to draw public attention to a conservation concern.
Although Christmas trees were a holiday tradition at that time, there was no Christmas tree industry. Trees were cut in the wild, sometimes illegally, and always with little consideration for the continuance of the forest. There was no replanting, no trees left standing for reseeding, and areas devoid of pines were left unsightly and environmentally devastated.
The gift of a living National Christmas Tree was AMERICAN FORESTS' way of inaugurating a campaign urging the use of living Christmas trees as a conservation measure, "in harmony with the early significance of the Christmas tree--the sign of endless life, for its leaves are evergreen," one author wrote in American Forests' January 1925 issue. For years, AMERICAN FORESTS encouraged the commercial growing of Christmas trees with articles in our magazine on growing techniques, scientific advances, and profiles of growers. It was a two-pronged attack on the dangers of wanton cutting of Christmas trees: encourage both the use of live trees and the development of an industry that grows Christmas trees.
On one side stood the danger of damage to our precious forest ecosystems; on the other, the danger of losing a beautiful tradition of having Christmas trees in our homes. At the turn of the century, misled conservationists would have had us forego the joys of a Christmas tree.
"These efforts in behalf of forest conservation are unfortunately misdirected," Edmond Secrest said in a 1925 article in American Forests. "Instead of being aimed at the use of the Christmas tree, they should be directed against the unregulated and destructive methods by which the wild trees are harvested."
Even the most prominent conservationist of the day fell prey to misguided activists. President Theodore Roosevelt declared there would be no White House Christmas tree at the turn of the century. His sons Archie and Quentin smuggled a tree up the back stairs of the White House, hid it in their closet, then appealed to Gifford Pinchot, a close friend of Roosevelt's, to intercede on their behalf. Pinchot convinced Roosevelt that growing and harvesting Christmas trees could be done right. Roosevelt relented.
The story of how Christmas trees came to be is a fascinating one, with its roots in pagan practices. Plants that stay green throughout the year have always been symbols of the triumph of life over death. It's no surprise, then, that evergreen trees filled this bill nicely. Romans adorned their homes with evergreens during Saturnalia, a winter festival in honor of Saturnus, the god of agriculture.
Druid priests decorated oak trees with golden apples for their winter solstice festivals. In the 16th century, families in Germany decorated fir trees with colored paper, fruit, and sweets. Elderly women sold trees cut from nearby forests--the first known retail Christmas tree lots!
The tradition spread throughout Europe and was brought to the U.S. by German settlers and Hessian mercenaries paid to fight in the Revolutionary War. According to the National Christmas Tree Growers Association, soldiers stationed at Fort Dearborn (now Chicago) in 1804 cut and hauled trees into the barracks from the surrounding forest.
After Prince Albert put up a tree for Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle in 1841, the tradition spread like wildfire. Five years later, 30,000 trees were sold in Paris. The first retail lot in America was set up by Mark Carr in 1851, who hauled two ox sleds loaded with balsam firs from his Catskills farm to New York City. In the 1850s President Franklin Pierce brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House.
The Christmas tree industry grew slowly at first. People believed trees should be free for the taking from nearby woods and weren't willing to pay for them. But established nurseries began adding "Christmas tree departments" to their operations, and a 1925 article in American Forests notes that a nursery near Cleveland sold 7,000 trees. Its best ones sold for $1.50 each and were delivered to Cleveland. Less desirable trees brought only $1.
That experience and others like it helped build what today has become an important forest industry in this country, employing more than 100,000 people and planting between 750,000 and 1 million trees each year. That's according to the National Christmas Tree Association, which every year provides a fresh cut Christmas tree to decorate the White House Blue Room.
And what of our first National Living Christmas Tree? It served the nation until the weight and heat of the Christmas lights and soil compaction around its roots necessitated its replacement in 1929. AMERICAN FORESTS donated another Norway spruce that year. In 1934, the ceremony was moved to Lafayette Park, where live Frazer firs were planted on either side of the statue of Andrew Jackson.
In 1939 a live red cedar from George Washington's original estate was planted on The Ellipse. And in 1941, two live Oriental spruce were planted on the White House south lawn where the ceremony was held through the war years. Just after the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the ceremony had a special guest--Sir Winston Churchill. Wartime blackouts left the tree unlit from 1942 to 1944. In 1978 Mrs. William E. Myers, of York, Pennsylvania, donated a live Colorado spruce she had received as a Mother's Day gift 15 years earlier. That same tree is still lit at the White House every Christmas.
While some things about the annual lighting ceremony remain the same--people still gather and sing and the lights still twinkle--one thing has changed. No one need feel guilty about having and enjoying a Christmas tree!
Deborah Gangloff is the executive director of AMERICAN FORESTS. She would like to thank NPS archivist David Krause for his assistance with this article.
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|Title Annotation:||although many environmentalists feel guilty about using Christmas trees, the National Community Christmas Tree, a living spruce from Norway can be enjoyed by all|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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