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Merry Christmas, Washington: Evolution of the Holiday in the Nation’s Capital

 To view images full size & high resolution, left click on each

 By Matthew B. Gilmore*

 During December of 1923 a 48-foot balsam fir tree arrived in Washington from Vermont. Installed on the Ellipse south of the White House, it was called the National Christmas Tree — the first in a tradition continuing to this day. The ceremonial lighting of the tree brings the local and the national and federal together in a unique way, with the First Family lighting it, to the delight of locals and tourists.

As the National Park Service noted a few years ago, “The ceremony on the Ellipse was consciously endowed with national significance and elevated by presidential involvement. However, this was also a ‘community Christmas tree,’ marked by its sense of citywide participation and service to the District of Columbia.” [1]

Calvin Coolidge and group at the 1923 Christmas tree lighting event. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Calvin Coolidge and group at the 1923 Christmas tree lighting event. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The 1920s seem to have seen an intensified energy in the celebration of Christmas. The rough years and privations of the Great War were over, and normalcy restored under President Warren Harding, followed by Calvin Coolidge. But the Christmas holiday has its own conflicted origin and history, unknown to most of the spectators at the tree lighting event.

Program from the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, 1923.

Program from the first National Christmas Tree lighting ceremony, 1923.

Washington and Christmas

“Holidays” had their origin in the Catholic liturgical calendar of “holy days” — which had ballooned to 95 by the time of the Reformation. The Anglican church rejected most of these “red letter days” but English Puritans went so far as to abolish them all: “Festival days, vulgarly called holy-days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.” [2] Christmas was not celebrated in the Puritan Commonwealth.

The earliest English North American colonies inherited Puritan (in Massachusetts and New England) or Anglican (in Virginia) attitudes toward holidays and Christmas in particular. The influx of Irish, Dutch, Germans, Swedes, and other Europeans brought other traditions and attitudes towards Christmas as the 18th century progressed. There’s little doubt that some churches did have religious ceremonies for the day, but it went generally unrecognized in public press until the 1820s. The Presbyterian Church was particularly hostile to any commemoration of Christmas, harking back to its roots as the pagan Saturnalia — a hostility not dissipated until well into in the 19th century. [3]

So many of the familiar elements of today’s Christmas, including Santa Claus, came together starting in the 1820s. Clement Moore’s “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” published anonymously in 1822 is one of those early influences. It is more popularly known from its first line “’Twas the night before Christmas.” [4]

 

Cover, "A visit from Saint Nicholas" by Clement Clarke Moore. (New York : James G. Gregory, 1862). photo--Library of Congress.

Cover, “A visit from Saint Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore. (New York : James G. Gregory, 1862). photo–Library of Congress.

Early observations of Christmas in Washington are difficult to document; local newspapers rarely made mention of it before the 1830s. Mrs. Samuel Harrison Smith hosted a large party with “musick and dancing and games” recounted in a letter about Christmas in 1827. [5] The November 24, 1830 edition of the National Intelligencer included several advertisements for Christmas presents. A charming vignette of an ante-bellum White House Christmas is found in Mary Wilcox’s Christmas under Three Flags which recounts Christmas with Andrew Jackson in 1835. There is discussion of the German tradition of Christmas trees, but the White House did not have one. It is a Dickensian picture of the holiday with eminent families of the Capital (and their children) taking part.

Initial paragraphs of “A Christmas Dinner” by Boz (Charles Dickens) published in the Madisonian newspaper, December 22, 1838.

Initial paragraphs of “A Christmas Dinner” by Boz (Charles Dickens) published in the Madisonian newspaper, December 22, 1838.

On December 22, 1838 the Madisonian newspaper editorialized (ambiguously) about Christmas, pointing out the dissonance of combining religious observance and feasting. In 1838 the Madisonian published “A Christmas Dinner” by Boz;  “Boz” was the pen name of Charles Dickens. The story, just two columns long, includes Christmas elements familiar to us today, such as turkey dinner, stem-winding stories, and resolution of family strife. Plum pudding is made and consumed, mince pies abound, and songs are sung. How familiar this all would have been to an American audience is open to conjecture. In 1840 the Alexandria Gazette reprinted a piece from the Norfolk Herald describing some different foods in addition to turkey:

“Pigs, ’possums, raccoons, hares, Lynnhaven oysters (so fat and full that they almost bursted their shells) eggs, and sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and numerous evidences of a thrifty horticulture, in the shape of cabbages, carrots, parsnips, celery, &c. &c., from all of which it would be no difficult matter, with a ham, and a leg of the delicious mutton or a surloin of the splendid beef . . . to make out a tolerably passable Christmas dinner. . . .” [6]

In addition to American food ways, the City of Washington developed its own Christmas Eve custom — fireworks. The Alexandria Gazette of December 27, 1843 decried the practice as “singularly grotesque and anomalous.”

Alexandria Gazette of December 27, 1843 decrying fireworks on Christmas.

Alexandria Gazette of December 27, 1843 decrying fireworks on Christmas.

On January 26, 1844, the Alexandria Gazette reprinted a very long review/appreciation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, seeing in it an urge for philanthropy and charity toward those less well-off at the holiday. On Christmas Day 1845, the Columbian Fountain (the city’s temperance newspaper) urged, “Avoid the fashionable compound called ‘Egg-Nogg,’ and all other drinks containing alcohol.” By 1869 new mores were taking hold. The Evening Star was pleased to report on December 27th, “. . . much less drinking, gambling, shooting, disorder, and noise now on Christmas Day than in ‘the good old times’ and more church-going and home merry-making.”

On Christmas Day of 1855, the Washington Sentinel offered a familiar image of Christmas with children and toys brought by Santa Claus, along with “. . . mirth and joyousness. The Christmas bowl, the Christmas dinner, and the Christmas fire. . . .” They also noted at the top of their editorial page, “Regarding Christmas as sacred to social enjoyments and innocent mirth, we refrain from desecrating it by indulging in political discussions and party appeals.”

In 1862, Elizabeth Blair wrote to her absent husband Samuel Phillips (S.P.) Lee sounding a familiar note about their son Blair Lee’s joy over his presents:“So far as we can share Blair’s joys this has been a merry Christmas. He was awake before daylight-& had to take a look at his gifts by candlelight—it was six… of all the toys nothing so pleased him as the Engine & railway Cars.” [7]

Congress and the Christmas Holiday

In the 1770s, newly independent America was a land bereft of holidays. When the colonies ditched the official British calendar, there was no body to inaugurate a new uniform calendar of celebrations. Each state was its own sovereignty and would, in time, establish various separate celebrations — or not. Traditions could die slowly; Guy Fawkes Day, the quintessential British holiday, was celebrated as Pope’s Day for a few more years after independence. [8] The no-holiday situation was in full accord with American ideals — the idea that the Confederation government or the successor federal government should establish national holidays would have been treated as an absurd intrusion into matters outside federal purview.

It was not until 1870 that Christmas became an official holiday in Washington. Local holidays had been established earlier, including Thanksgiving in 1845.<http://intowner.com/2017/11/19/1845-washingtons-first-thanksgiving> Holidays in that era meant something much different than today. The British use the slightly different term “bank holiday” than do Americans, but the original effect was the same — the bank holiday would not be counted in financial transactions. Christmas (or December 25th) was declared a holiday for federal employees, along with New Year’s, July 4th, and Thanksgiving. Ironically, while this was a federal action, its effect was strictly local; employees in the District of Columbia only were given these holidays. It was not expanded beyond the District until 1885. [9]

Image of the printed text of the 1870 legislation enacted by Congress establishing official holidays in the District of Columbia.

Image of the printed text of the 1870 legislation enacted by Congress establishing official holidays in the District of Columbia.

Christmas Trees

Christmas trees are a mid-19th century addition to the Christmas holiday. Credit for popularizing them is given to Queen Victoria, as publicized in the popular press — the royal family around a tree as depicted in the 1848 Illustrated London News image, and Americanized and published in this country in 1850. [10] Victoria’s (and the British) incorporation of the Christmas tree is attributed to the influence of her German husband (and cousin) Albert. Americans took to the Christmas tree as well, perhaps influenced by the mid-19th century of influx of German immigrants.

An example of the incorporation of the Christmas tree into the holiday iconography is an 1883 political cartoon “Christmas at Washington” in the British journal Puck. It shows a gaggle of politicians snatching “tax surplus” dollars off the Christmas tree for their pet projects with a forlorn “taxpayer” observing outside in the ankle-deep snow.

This 1883 “Christmas at Washington” cartoon by J. Keppler shows several members of Congress dancing around a large Christmas tree labeled "Tax Surplus" decorated with money bags labeled "Surplus"; the legislators carry bags in which to place the bags of surplus they pluck from the tree. image--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

This 1883 “Christmas at Washington” cartoon by J. Keppler shows several members of Congress dancing around a large Christmas tree labeled “Tax Surplus” decorated with money bags labeled “Surplus”; the legislators carry bags in which to place the bags of surplus they pluck from the tree. image–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Christmas trees were put up in the White House after the Civil War during the Grant administration, but the practice was discontinued under subsequent presidents. On Christmas Day, 1889 the Washington Post reported on the first White House tree in 20 years:

Washington Post Christmas Day 1889 report on the White House Christmas tree.

Washington Post Christmas Day 1889 report on the White House Christmas tree.

President Benjamin Harrison and Mrs. Harrison played host to their daughter and grandchildren, Benjamin Harrison McKee (known widely in the press as “Baby McKee”) and Mary McKee. Electric lights, rather than candles, make their first appearance in Washington in 1893. The Post January 7, 1894 carried Sarah Willard Howe’s report on the “Beautiful effects of electricity on a Christmas tree.” Joseph U. Burked and his wife assembled an entire Santa’s village with Ferris wheel, blacksmith shop, and numerous dancing figures. Burked, who had an electrical store at 1409 New York Avenue, NW and whose 1930 obituary on the Evening Star credited him with bringing electrically lit Christmas tree tradition to Washington.

A quite similar elaborate display at 3116 Dumbarton Avenue, NW created by Charles Memmert and H.G. Wagner was described in the Evening Star of December 29th; President Cleveland had electric lights on the White House Christmas tree in 1894; and in 1895 the very fashionable society leaders Mr. and Mrs. Levi Leiter had a tree which “twinkled with many electric lights” at their Christmas week “dance” — really a society ball — in their new Dupont Circle mansion.

Community Christmas Trees

The 1923 Community Christmas Tree was not, in fact, the first of Washington’s community Christmas trees. In 1913, the first community tree was erected on the east plaza of the United States Capitol at the instigation of prominent Washington businessmen and community leaders. [11] A similar ceremony was held in 1914.

The first community Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol as seen being set up in 1913. photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The first community Christmas tree at the U.S. Capitol as seen being set up in 1913. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

Celebrations moved to the Treasury Building (sans tree) for the next few years, but the ceremony and the “municipal Christmas tree” again appeared at the Capitol in 1918. What with the multiplicity of jurisdictional complexities of the Capitol grounds, these early celebrations were municipal, not federal, although requiring federal permission for the site.

"Washington's Community Xmas Tree being hauled by P.E.P.CO. 3 1/2 ton electric truck." 1923. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

“Washington’s Community Xmas Tree being hauled by P.E.P.CO. 3 1/2 ton electric truck.” 1923. photo–Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Div.

The initiative for the tree in 1923 came in part from Lucretia Walker Hardy, director of the District of Columbia Public Schools Community Center (after school recreation) program, as Alvin Rosenbaum recounts in A White House Christmas.

Description of Lucretia Walker Hardy's lobbying for the community Christmas tree. Alvin Rosenbaum,” A White House Christmas.” (<em>Preservation</em> magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1992, p.116.)

.Description of Lucretia Walker Hardy’s lobbying for the community Christmas tree. Alvin Rosenbaum,” A White House Christmas.” (Preservation magazine, National Trust for Historic Preservation, 1992, p.116.)

Or was she? In typical Washington, DC fashion, success has many parents, and credit for the ceremony needs to be shared. The 1923 tree lighting ceremony seems also to have been inspired by Frederick Feiker of the Society of Electrical Development and an advisor to Herbert Hoover. Feiker, editor of Electrical World and vice president of McGraw Hill, claimed to have organized the entire thing on behalf of the electrical industry. The ceremony on the Ellipse began the tradition which continues to this day (although the tree location has sometime shifted in the executive grounds complex). In 1963, Speaker McCormack had the Architect of the Capitol erect at tree at the west front of the Capitol, starting a separate tradition unconnected to the National Community Christmas Tree. [12]

National Christmas Tree, December 17, 1923, as seen on the Ellipse looking north to the White House. <em>photo--Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.</em>

National Christmas Tree, December 17, 1923, as seen on the Ellipse looking north to the White House. photo–Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Div.

The holiday Washingtonians enjoy today, including the Christmas tree lighting, is a synthesis of many traditions, old and new, a kind of English Christmas pudding which Dickens started stirring, and is being stirred still. [13]

Footnotes

[1]  Christmas in America’s Capital. Chicago, World Book, 2005, p.14; Albert Menendez, Christmas in the White House, p.40; “1923 National Christmas Tree,” National park Service.

[2] The Heidelblog, “Presbyterian And Reformed Ambivalence About Christmas.”

[3] The Heidelblog, ibid.

[4]A Visit From St. Nicholas” (Library of Congress).

[5] Margaret Bayard Smith, First forty years of Washington society , 1778-1844. New York, Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1906. p. 209.

[6] Alexandria Gazette and Virginia Advertiser, Dec. 30, 1840.

[7] Wartime Washington: The Civil War Letters of Elizabeth Blair Lee. University of Illinois Press, 1999, p. 220.

[8] Michael Pollak, “Remembering Guy Fawkes Day, or Popeʼs Day.” New York Times, Oct. 23, 2015.

[9] Ruth Cole Kainen, America’s Christmas Heritage (New York, Funk & Wagnalls, 1969, p.57); Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Los Angeles, University of California Press, 2007, p.64).

[10] National Park Service, “National Christmas Trees Through the Years.”

[11] Frederick Morris Feiker Papers, 1910-1955, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum. (Note: no one seems to have checked Feiker’s archived papers to verify his role.)

[12] J.M. Golby and A.W. Purdue, The Making of the Modern Christmas. (Athens, University of Georgia, 1986, p. 13 ff.)

References and Resources

See resource list published on author’s Washington DC History blog.

Matthew B. Gilmore is the editor of the H-DC discussion list and blogs on Washington history and related subjects at matthewbgilmore.wordpress.com. Previously, he was a reference librarian at the Washingtoniana Division of the DC Public Library for a number of years and chaired the Annual Conference on DC Historical Studies for four years.

© 2018 InTowner Publishing Corp. & Matthew B. Gilmore. All rights reserved.