That evergreens should somehow be associated with Christmas is no surprise. The holiday occurs within a few days of the darkest time of the year—the winter solstice—when the hours of darkness most exceed the hours of sunlight, and most plants in nature are dead or dormant. The enduring life and vitality of the evergreen—even in the dead of winter—quite naturally became a symbol both of hope and of the continuity of life. These symbols of the enduring quality of life have their roots in many ancient cultures, including the ancient Egyptians and Romans, and they antedate Christianity. For example, the Romans celebrated the feast of Saturnalia—in honor of one of the Roman gods of agriculture, Saturn—by decorating their homes with greens and by exchanging gifts during the winter solstice.
The modern tradition of the Christmas tree has its roots in German culture. St. Boniface, who brought Christianity to Germany over a millennium ago, is said to have discovered pagans worshipping an oak tree. He cut it down in anger, and a fir tree grew where it once stood; thus, the close association between evergreens and the Christian faith evolved.
Several hundred years later, Christians brought the evergreen tree indoors to celebrate the birth of the Christ child born, significantly, at the darkest time of the year—light in the midst of darkness-- showing the way to salvation, according to their beliefs. The German theologian, Martin Luther, is said to have been the first to start the tradition of lighting the Christmas tree with candles.
Many American Christmas traditions have their roots in German culture. One commentator on German Christmas traditions puts it this way:
The undisputed focal point of the entire Christmas period, in the community and in the family, is the Christmas tree. A German Christmas without the green fir tree is simply inconceivable…It is the symbol of Christmas for all Germans, who have to have their Christmas tree December the 23rd (not a day before!) even if they live abroad in distant countries.
Germanic cultural influences permeate American Christmas traditions in many other areas as well. Many popular Christmas carols have German connections, such as "O Tannenbaum"—German for Christmas tree—and the world’s most popular Christmas carol, "Stille Nacht" ("Silent Night"), written in 1818 by Franz Gruber. (The lyrics for "Silent Night" have been translated into 44 languages.) The Advent Calendar, which starts on the first Sunday after November 26, is another popular German Christmas tradition. The Advent Wreath, originally made of holly flowers and bound by fir twigs with four candles attached may be responsible for the proliferation of wreaths everywhere in America. The word "Yule" itself has a Germanic etymological pedigree.
According to the National Christmas Tree Association, Americans purchased more than 40 million Christmas trees last year. Add to that total the approximately 51 million artificial trees trucked out of the attic every year, and you have 91 million reasons to believe that putting up a Christmas tree annually is an American tradition with staying power. It is also an American tradition that began in Connecticut in 1777-- thanks to the Battle of Bennington (VT) during the American Revolution.
The Battle of Bennington took place on August 16, 1777. It was an interesting battle for a number of reasons. British forces, consisting largely of Hessian troops—German mercenaries—went on a foraging raid in the Bennington area to re-supply their troops with food and horses. They badly underestimated the size and quality of the American forces arrayed against them. Led by the clever American commander, General John Stark, the colonials defeated the British forces after much fierce fighting. The failure of the Bennington raid became a major factor in Burgoyne’s decision to surrender at Saratoga two months later—considered by historians to be the turning point in the war-- as his army had all but run out of supplies. Hundreds of the Hessian mercenaries were taken prisoner.
Many of the prisoners ended up in Boston, from where most were dispersed to various places around the region. One of the Hessians, Hendrick Roddemore, ended up in the custody of Samuel Denslow on his 100 acre farm in Windsor Locks, CT. Denslow allowed Roddemore to live in a small cabin on property located on West Street-- between Spring and North—the current Noden-Reed Farm and home of the Windsor Locks Historical Society. It was within this small cabin in Windsor Locks in 1777 that the German POW from the Battle of Bennington began the tradition of the indoor Christmas tree in America, probably on December 23rd—the traditional German custom for raising a Christmas tree.
Jabez Hayden’s Historical Sketches, published in 1915, describes a cabin "built by the Samuel Denslow, who lived on West Street, for… Hendrick Roddemore, a Hessian soldier." Roddemore continued to live here until his wife died, ironically, on Christmas Day 1790. Today, a stone marks the approximate spot where Roddemore erected the first Christmas tree in 1777 (see photos). By 1900, one in five American households had Christmas trees in their homes; by 1920, the vast majority of American homes were putting up Christmas trees.
Today, just over 75% of Americans consider themselves members of a Christian church; 16% of Americans consider themselves atheists, and about 8% have other religious beliefs. Many of the non-Christian 25% in America, nevertheless, celebrate the holiday as well, just as it had been celebrated for centuries prior to the advent of Christianity for a variety of reasons and according to different cultural traditions.
Given the central importance of Christmas in general and the Christmas tree in particular to German cultural traditions, it should come as no surprise that a lonely German POW in Windsor Locks, CT - my hometown - sought comfort in raising the first Christmas tree in America in December 1777. Little did he realize what he had started; 234 years later over 91 million Christmas trees in America carry forward a tradition begun by a POW from the Battle of Bennington!
Notes and Sources:
- Historical Sketches by Jabez Hayden; Windsor Locks Journal Corporation, 1915.