Although the tradition of decorating a Christmas Tree began in Latvia in the early 16th Century, it was the Germans who picked it up and developed the tradition on a national basis with their ‘Tannenbaum’. In the United States it was slow to catch on, being a tradition brought to our shores by the German immigrants. One need only read the wonderful American poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas,” published in 1823, to see that there is no mention of a tree, only that the stockings that '...were hung by the chimney with care...’ were the repositories of Santa’s gifts.
Enter the hero of Thanksgiving – Sarah Hale. If you recall from an earlier post, Sarah Hale was a 19th Century writer, editor, poet, and political activist, strongly anti-slavery, and very much out in front of the women’s movement. As editor of Godey’s Ladies Book magazine in Philadelphia, she worked with the likes of Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.
Hale campaigned persistently for decades by writing congress to establish Thanksgiving as a National Holiday. As we know, Lincoln granted that wish in 1863 when he declared a National Day of Thanksgiving in November.
Now we find that Hale did not limit her activities to poetry [she wrote ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’], Thanksgiving, slavery and women’s issues.
As the editress of Godey’s magazine, Hale published an issue in the decade before the Civil War with a cover depicting an American family around their decorated Christmas Tree. As it turns out, the American family was neither typical nor American.
Christmas Trees, as noted above, were pretty much celebrated by Germans in Germany, and German-Americans in the U.S. As it turns out, Prince Albert, Prince Consort and husband to Britain’s Queen Victoria, was a German. He introduced the Christmas Tree to England. The image used on the cover of Godey’s Ladies’ Book magazine was of Albert and Victoria with their Christmas Tree in England, but with their jewels and sashes and other royalty indicators erased from the image to make it look like it was an American family. See the two images below for comparison.
Then in 1860, Hale published a short story, a romance centering on a Christmas Tree, with a very detailed description of how to decorate it. ‘The Christmas Tree’ apparently pushed the country over the edge and Christmas Trees were soon embraced by many American families.
So as you gather around the Christmas Tree in your home on Christmas day, a murmur of thanks is due to one exceptional woman. Oh yes, the Latvians, the Germans, Prince Albert and Queen Victoria have something to do with it, but so did Sarah Josepha Hale.
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