Arts and Leisure

Six Christmas Firsts for New England

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New England is as unlikely a place as there is to celebrate Christmas firsts. After all, Puritans in Massachusetts and Connecticut officially banned the holiday. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century that most New Englanders took the day off, let alone trimmed trees, sang carols or sent cards.

And yet, with a little imagination, we can find Christmas firsts in each of the New England states.

First Christmas Tree

A German father and son collecting a tree, painting by Franz Krüger

A German father and son collecting a tree, painting by Franz Krüger

A Hessian soldier named Hendrick Roddemore put up the first Christmas tree in Windsor Locks, Conn., giving Connecticut the claim to the first Christmas tree.

Roddemore was a mercenary during the American Revolution. He was captured during the Battle of Bennington.

Many prisoners from that battle were sent to Boston and then elsewhere. Roddemore ended up at the farm of Samuel Denslow in Windsor Locks. Denslow let him live in a small cabin on what is now the Noden-Reed Farm and home of the Windsor Locks Historical Society. In 1777, Roddemore raised a Christmas tree inside that small cabin. He continued to live there until well after the war, putting up a tree every year. Today, there is a stone marking the spot where Roddemore put up that first tree.

First North American Christmas

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First buildings on St. Croix

Maine can claim perhaps the best of Christmas firsts: the first Christmas, in 1604. It happened on St. Croix Island, the lost French colony of Maine.

Since history is written by the winners, the English colonization of New England is far better documented than anything the French settlers did. So unsurprisingly the first settlement in Maine – and the first Christmas in North America – are all but forgotten.

St. Croix Island, now on the border between New Brunswick and Maine, was settled by a small band of Frenchmen headed by Sieur DeMons. Samuel Champlain served as historian and navigator. They were sent to North America to establish a colony in Acadie. The expedition included thieves from Paris prisons and noblemen from the court of Henry IV, Catholic priests and Huguenot ministers, artisans, merchants and sailors.

The Frenchmen arrived in June, built a fort, houses and a handmill. They planted gardens and a field of rye. Snow fell in October and ice filled the river, so Maine can claim an ancillary Christmas first: The first White Christmas.

On Christmas day, the French colonists, all men, attended services in a just-completed chapel. There were probably two services, one for the Protestants, one for the Catholics.

Then they gathered inside next to a roaring fire, told stories, joked and reminisced about France. They passed around a handwritten ‘newspaper,’ called ‘Master William,’ a humorous take on the daily events and gossip of the settlement. They had a feast -- perhaps roast venison or rabbit stew.

The St. Croix settlement did not last. Most of the men were felled by a mysterious disease – probably scurvy. By spring they decided to move, packed up their houses and moved to Port Royal, which is now Annapolis.

First American Christmas Card

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A Louis Prang Christmas card

The first American Christmas card is attributed to one man: Louis Prang, a refugee from the German wars of 1848. He came to Boston and went to work for an engraver, eventually setting up his own lithography shop.

The first Christmas card had already been sent in 1843, when an Englishman named Sir Henry Cole was too busy to pursue the English tradition of sending notes to friends at Christmas. He asked his friend, the artist John Calcott Horsley, to design a card, and had a thousand copies printed. Cole didn’t send them all, so he sold the leftovers for a shilling. Word spread about the cards, which showed a child drinking wine. Soon English printers were churning out Christmas cards, but the fad didn’t spread to America.

Until Louis Prang got hold of it. There are many stories about how he decided to enter the Christmas card business. According to one, he went to the Vienna Exposition of 1873 and printed beautiful four-color business cards. An Englishwoman saw them and asked if he’d thought about printing Christmas cards. According to another, a clerk in Prang’s London office suggested he add Christmas greetings to his floral business cards.

Prang decided the potential market was huge. In 1875 he printed his first Christmas cards and exported them to London. They were a big hit. The next year, he sold them throughout the Northeast. It took but two more years for him to corner the greeting card market in the United States. By 1881, he was printing more than 5 million Christmas cards a year. His Prang Lithographic Factory in Roxbury became a tourist attraction, and he often conducted tours himself. His house and factory are still standing, the house at 45 Centre St. and the factory at 270-286 Roxbury St.

Eventually Louis Prang moved his business to Springfield, where he continued to make Christmas cards as well as child-safe art materials – which you can still buy under the Prang name.

First White House Christmas Tree

The 1997 Christmas ornament depicting the Pierce White House

The 1997 Christmas ornament depicting the Pierce White House

It isn’t clear exactly how New Englanders got Christmas tree fever in the 19th century. Some say a German professor at Harvard named Charles Follen set up Christmas trees in his Cambridge home beginning in 1832. Sarah Josepha Hale deserves credit for promoting the practice in her popular magazine, Godey’s Lady’s Book.

In 1856, New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce introduced the first Christmas tree to the White House.

President Pierce and First Lady Jane Pierce invited the Sunday school class of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church to join them in trimming the tree for Christmas. The Pierces were mourning for their son, Benny, who was killed in a train wreck shortly before they moved into the White House.

It was no accident that the Pierces chose a Sunday school class to trim the tree. Christmas trees had gained acceptance in Sunday schools. They were even called ‘Sunday school trees.’ Children were rewarded for memorizing Bible verses with trinkets and candy hanging from the tree. When cold weather caused churchgoers to stay home, a decorated indoor tree was an enticement for children to brave the winter temperatures.

The Pierces had never been Puritanical toward Christmas. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, hosted 21 veteran soldiers from the American Revolution to his home in Hillsoborough, N.H., in 1824, for a Christmas feast.

1st Christmas Eve Sighting of Santa Claus

Clement Moore visit

Clement Moore wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas for his children, never intending it to become the most popular Christmas poem ever. Nor did he expect it would indelibly define Santa Claus as a jolly old elf who flew around on Christmas Eve in a sleigh pulled by reindeer.

Moore grew up the son of the Episcopalian bishop of New York who was twice president of Columbia University. His mother inherited a vast estate that is now the Chelsea neighborhood of New York. Moore was an intellectual, a professor of Biblical Learning and author of the first Hebrew-American dictionary.

In 1822, Moore borrowed some Dutch and German Christmas lore for his poem, a gift to his six children. A friend copied it and submitted it to the Troy, N.Y., Sentinel. The newspaper published it on Dec. 23, 1823, and for many years thereafter. It wasn’t until 1837 that he was identified as the author. Moore himself didn’t acknowledge authorship until 1844 – and only because his children insisted.

So how does Rhode Island fit in as one of the Christmas firsts?

Sometime in the 1850s, Moore bought a home in Newport, R.I., and became a summer resident.

The house is known as ‘Cedars,' ‘Clement C. Moore House,’ and ‘The Night Before Christmas House.’ It still stands at 25 Catherine St., though it has been broken up into apartments. Claims have been made that he wrote ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in Newport. The Redwood Library tells us that’s unlikely as the house hadn’t been built when the poem was written.

The First National Christmas Tree

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Vermont sometimes claims the honor of the first Christmas tree because Hessian soldiers put them up in their campsites. Vermont can also claim to be the source of the first national Christmas tree.

In 1923, a General Electric engineer named Frederick Morris Feiker wrote to President Calvin Coolidge suggesting he light the national Christmas tree on the Ellipse. Coolidge asked the president of Middlebury College to donate a tree. Wealthy Middlebury alumni paid to ship the 48-foot-tall balsam fir to Washington, D.C. A crane put the tree in place a few weeks before Christmas, and $5,000 worth of GE electrical cables illuminated the 2,500 red, white and green Christmas lights. At 3 p.m. on Dec. 24, a choir began a two-hour concert of Christmas carols. At dusk, President Coolidge pushed the button to light the tree. As many as 9,000 people came to the Ellipse to sing carols over the next four hours.

Do you know of any other New England Christmas Firsts? Please post them in the comments section of this post.

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