Even as far south as Louisiana, winter nights are long and chilly, but in homes all across the state, Christmas trees bring a little light and joy. When did the tradition of decorating evergreens during the darkest days of winter come to the Bayou State? Our latest blog post highlights some materials from Special Collections that hold part of the answer…
Originating in Germany around the time of Martin Luther, the Christmas tree was brought to America in the late 1700s by German immigrants. It would take several more decades, however, before the custom became widespread. In 1850, Godey’s Lady’s Book, an influential American magazine, adapted an engraving, originally published in the Illustrated London News, of Queen Victoria, her German husband Prince Albert, and their children gathered around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. The heartwarming picture of the royal family struck a chord, and before long, Christmas trees began showing up in the homes of fashionable families throughout the United States, as well as in churches and town squares.
The Planters’ Banner, a newspaper published in St. Mary Parish, contains one of the earliest references to a Christmas tree in Louisiana. In the December 18, 1852 issue, we find an advertisement for Cary & Garrett’s general store in Centerville. “Persons wishing to procure presents to put on the Christmas tree,” it reads, “would do well to give us a call.” Incredibly, the little town was one year ahead of the White House, which would not get its first Christmas tree until 1853, the same year that nearby Franklin put up a tree at the St. Mary Parish courthouse and another at the Odd Fellows’ Hall. The courthouse tree “was laden with a goodly variety of rich and curious fruits.”
New York City had a small Christmas tree market as early as 1851. It is not clear where people in Louisiana at that time got Christmas trees, but they were definitely in demand, as we learn from a letter in the James P. Bowman Family Papers. “If the weather permits, Mary Jane is going to have the Christmas tree tomorrow night,” Julia Finley wrote to her friend Isabel Bowman on December 27, 1859. “She was not able to get a tree until today. It appears strange to us who have had so many at command to be unable to procure a tree [Finley came from Maryland], but so it was…” The tree was picked up in Carrollton on the outskirts of New Orleans.
A letter written in 1835 by John W. F. Burruss of Pinckneyville, Mississippi, just a few miles north of the Louisiana state line, reveals that people in this part of the country knew about Christmas trees even before the fad of the 1850s got started. Writing to his father from Middletown, Connecticut, where he was a student at Wesleyan University, Burruss mentioned how much he missed being at home at the Christmas season. He then described an Episcopalian church service he had recently attended in Middletown. The church “was ornamented for the occasion with evergreens, hemlock, spruce, pine, and different kinds of vines. Some of the trees were at least thirty feet high and were of the most graceful shapes.”
An even larger tree was shipped from Connecticut to Louisiana in 1884 for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition, which opened in New Orleans on December 16. A forty-five-foot hemlock in the exposition’s Music Hall was covered with electric lights (recently patented by Thomas Edison). On “Children’s Day,” thousands of boys and girls gathered around the tree to receive presents from Connecticut’s representative to the Exposition, dressed as Santa Claus, as a goodwill gesture from the people of New England towards the South. “Nothing that a child could want was missing,” an article in Harper’s Young People reported. “Whatever good the New Orleans Exposition accomplishes… it can do nothing more useful or admirable than this. Every boy and girl has heard it said that the Americans are a material, pushing, money-getting people… But here is a case where one of the greatest business enterprises which the world has ever seen stopped short and became a children’s playground.”
To learn more about Christmas in Louisiana in days gone by, explore our fascinating collections online at www.lib.lsu.edu/special or via the LSU Libraries’ catalog. Have a great holiday break! We look forward to seeing you in Special Collections in 2015!
Godey’s Lady’s Book, Dec. 1850, Rare Book Collection.
The Planters’ Banner, Dec. 18, 1852; Dec. 15 & 29, 1853. Online at Chronicling America.
James P. Bowman Family Papers, Dec. 27, 1859.
John C. Burruss Family Papers, Dec. 20, 1835.
“The New Orleans Christmas Tree,” Harper’s Young People, Jan. 13, 1885 (Google Books)
Music Hall with Christmas Tree, in New Orleans Centennial Exposition Stereoscopic Views Collection, Louisiana Digital Library.