The Pennsylvania Christmas Tree
This photo is believed to be the Lesione Family of Henryville, Monroe County.
They are proudly standing by their Christmas tree. Photo dates circa 1895.
By Amy Leiser, Executive Director
Monroe County Historical Association
The tradition of bringing evergreen boughs and even whole trees indoors during the Winter Solstice began in Europe well before reliable written records. These early indoor trees, however, were not adorned with fanciful decorations. Relatively modern Christmas tree traditions began in the 16th Century, with the Protestant reformer Martin Luther being credited with first decorating a small evergreen tree with candles. These candles represented the stars in the sky that twinkled over Bethlehem.
Although the Christmas tree tradition was brought to Pennsylvania by early German colonists, the first documented Christmas tree in our commonwealth belonged to Lancaster resident Matthew Zahn. His 1821 diary entry reads, “Sally & our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick’s saw mill.”
Throughout the 1800s, the Christmas tree grew in popularity. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert of England were featured in the London News in 1846 with an illustration of the Royal Family standing around their Christmas tree. This picture caused a sensation, and the Christmas tree became instant fashion for others to imitate. By the late 1800s, the decorated tree movement hit the United States, and the Christmas tree had become commonplace in many American homes.
The first popular style of American Christmas trees did not look like the typical decorated trees of today. Such trees were 3 to 4 feet tall and stood on a table in the center of the room for all guests to enjoy. Ladies and children would spend hours crafting homemade decorations and ornaments using natural materials. Often, clusters of berries, nuts, pretzels, fruit, paper, raisins, cotton and cookies adorned the evergreen branches of the tree. Small candles were clipped onto the outermost branches to illuminate the tree and show off the decorations. The candles would only be lit for a few minutes at a time because of the danger of fire.
Not much later, manufactured holiday ornaments became part of the tradition. The Easton Express advertised for Christmas tree ornaments in 1867 while a Pottsville newspaper in their December 1881 edition boasted “charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home.”
As Christmas trees became more and more popular, a demand for artificial, reusable trees arose. The first artificial trees were created in Germany in the 1880s. Concerned about extensive lumbering and the health of their forests, the German people created feather Christmas trees. Feather trees were made out of goose feathers, dyed to resemble evergreen needles. The feathers were separated at the spine, then held secure using wire to form a branch. The branches of feathers were then inserted into a small wooden pole, representing the tree trunk, to make an “evergreen” Christmas tree.
Pennsylvania Germans brought this tradition with them to America. Since then, a vast array of artificial trees in different styles, textures, materials, and even colors have come to decorate many Monroe County homes. Indeed, 58% of Americans today display an artificial rather than a live tree at Christmas.
If you are among those who still prefer the aroma and beauty of natural trees, you’ll be happy to know that according to 1997 agricultural census reports, Monroe County boasts 25 tree farms.