Community Christmas trees are an American tradition that bring people together regardless of income, faith, political persuasion, or pretty much anything that divides us. Whether sponsored by a city, town, church, or civic organization, community trees are placed in an outdoor public setting for anyone to enjoy.
It’s a rare treat to share something so nonpartisan: whatever you might personally like about the holidays is what you’ll take away from viewing the tree or sharing in song and merrymaking with fellow citizens. And it’s nice to know that America’s first community Christmas tree, the one that spawned a movement still going strong more than a century later, was an Adirondack balsam.
The concept, which was proposed in 1911 and came to fruition in 1912, is credited to Emilie Herreshoff, member of a wealthy New York City family (she was separated from her husband at the time and would later divorce him). Her goal was to bring people together around a community tree and hopefully inspire other cities, towns, and villages to do the same.
A few historical factors — including Christmas trees becoming commonplace, and the birth of electric lighting — converged with Emilie’s personal experience to create the idea. Through a good part of the 1800s, Christmas trees in America were largely shunned as endemic to pagan rituals. In time, with the arrival of millions of European immigrants and their holiday customs, things changed. Trees bedecked with ornaments and candles became popular in American homes (but deadly fire hazards as well). Soon after the invention of the incandescent bulb in 1879, strings of Christmas lights began adorning trees in the homes of wealthy folks (for decades, the cost was considered exorbitant for average earners).
In 1911, as the story is told in many sources, Emilie conversed with a young man in New York City, home to none of his friends or relatives. For him the Christmas holidays were lonely. Lighted windows in the evening offered glimpses of private festivities and left him aching for something more.
It’s a nice story, often repeated but not entirely accurate, for the “young man” was 41-year-old artist Orlando Rouland. He was once a new student in Germany, where the lack of friends and relatives left his first Christmas there sadly wanting. In subsequent years, he and a group of friends planned Christmas festivities and then roamed the streets, inviting people who were lonely — like he once was — to come and join them. Sharing that story in New York sparked an idea in his friend, Emilie: perhaps a community Christmas tree would lift the spirits of those in the city without family or friends to share the holidays.
Until that time, community trees were indoor affairs, often hosted by religious houses. It dawned on her that electric Christmas lighting made outdoor displays possible, and that holiday customs in the United States were derived from other countries. No Christmas traditions were America’s own, but perhaps an outdoor community tree, shared by people of all persuasions, might fill that void. She devised a plan and sought allies willing to voluntarily promote the Christmas spirit. With the mayor’s blessings and the necessary permits in hand, Emilie went to work.
The first thing needed was a tree, one that would be truly impressive. Many wealthy city men were members of the Adirondack League Club, which owned a large tract of land in Herkimer County. They readily agreed to donate a quality specimen from club property at Old Forge, where — coincidence or not — Emilie’s grandfather-in-law, Charles Frederick Herreshoff, had settled 101 years earlier.
The next issue was how to get the tree from there (a remote location in the Adirondacks) to here (Madison Square). Inquiries were made, and a railroad man agreed to handle the 250-mile transportation problem free of charge, solving one of the project’s most daunting obstacles.
But another major roadblock still existed: lighting the very large tree, which was sure to be costly. And that’s where artist Rouland’s substantial contribution came about. Paying a visit to Arthur Williams, vice-president of the New York Edison Company, he shared the story of his lonely Christmas in Germany, and the plan to remedy that situation for many folks in New York by placing a community Christmas tree in Madison Square, where everyone — the indigent, homeless, average, and wealthy — could gather and share in the Christmas spirit. Rouland’s suggestion that Edison handle the tree’s lighting as a public service was brought by Mr. Williams to the executive board, which consented despite the substantial estimated cost of $5,000 — equal to $130,000 in 2018. (Many involved in the project who donated or volunteered remained anonymous. Decades passed before Williams finally revealed the role he and Rouland had played.)
City police agreed to handle security issues that might arise should a sizable crowd show up for the first lighting ceremony. Special watchmen were also hired to ensure that no off-hours damage came to the tree once it was installed. After arriving at a train station, the 60-foot balsam was loaded onto a steel girder truck and hauled by a four-horse team to its ultimate destination, Madison Square. The trunk was said to be 18 inches in diameter, and the lower branches spanned 25 feet wide. After it was erected, a large block of cement would hold it firmly in place.
Edison’s challenge of festooning the tree with strings of lights was tackled by a team of about 50 men, some working from scaffolding and others climbing on the trunk and branches. But during a test session the night before the event, Mrs. Herreshoff concluded that the initial 1,200 lights on more than a mile of wire didn’t do justice to the balsam’s grandeur. In response, the company went all out, raising the light total to 3,500 and finishing just in time for the grand opening. The results were spectacular.
And then, of all things to happen, a storm hit the city, threatening to derail the event. But instead of a catastrophe, it only added to the ambience, further decorating the tree and the square in “Christmassy” style. Said the New York Sun: “The heavy fall of snow curtailed the standing space in the park, but the city’s sweepers had cleared off the winding paths and there was room for all. The crowds began to gather before five o’clock. The early arrivals included belated shoppers with Christmas trees at home, but there were many of the lonely ones for whom the Christmas eve celebration was mainly designed.”
The general rule that things never go as planned did not apply to what followed, as the evening’s program went off almost flawlessly. At 4:50 p.m., the chimes in the Metropolitan tower began sounding for ten minutes. At five o’clock, church bells across the borough began tolling for 25 minutes, ringing in the festivities. Emilie initiated the lighting of the treetop star at 5:30, causing it to gradually illuminate. Said the New York Press: “Then each branch blossomed in blue, red, green and white electric lights,” thousands of which adorned the branches.
Key to the hours-long celebration that followed was top-grade music supplied live by seven accomplished bands and choirs, plus soloists that included a baritone, soprano, contralto, and bass. (Because of union rules, the large band had to be paid, but all the others performed as volunteers.) To ensure their voices reached the huge crowd (estimates varied widely, from 10,000 to 25,000), the singers used a megaphone.
Except for two intermissions of an hour each, the music lasted until midnight. The idea was for attendees to sing along with holiday and patriotic tunes, but in surprisingly reserved fashion early on, people barely joined in or only sang softly to themselves. As the spirit of the gathering blossomed, a request was honored to again play the first song of the evening, “Silent Night,” for a sing-along, and the result was magical. Thousands participated, setting a joyful tone for the rest of the evening.
Hours of singing and sharing the community Christmas spirit around the huge, beautifully lit tree amid snowy surroundings made it truly a night to remember. Thereafter, public lightings were held each day until New Year’s Eve. Said the New York Sun: “So far as anybody seems to know, this is the very first time an American town has had a municipal outdoor Christmas tree.”
But Emilie’s goal was not just a joyful occasion to be shared by city residents from all walks of life. As revealed in newspaper interviews several days prior to Christmas, the planners had a more expansive vision for the future. “It is hoped by those who have worked for it and hope to personify in it the great Christmas spirit, that the placing of a great outdoor Christmas tree may become a national custom, taking the place in America of the older customs of older lands. The tree is typically modern and American, for it would not be possible for it to appear in all the beauty of an illuminated Christmas tree without the electric lights. There will be great numbers of these.”
The New York Times weighed in on December 19: “Mrs. Herreshoff and those who are helping her hope that the public Christmas tree may become a National feature, to be found in every town and village, a place where all may gather, rich and poor, on Christmas Eve, listen to the Christmas music, and feel that it is their tree, their Christmas, and that the spirit of peace and good will encircles them, no matter how friendless they may be. The tree will not be for children more than for grown people, for the poor more than the rich. There will be no gifts on it, and only the gift of the Christmas spirit can emanate from it…. No one need, then, feel lonely or homesick, or forlorn, for it is the Christmas tree for them all.”
And it worked! An American tradition was born, extending to communities of all sizes at locations near and far. The following year, community trees appeared in hundreds of cities and villages across the country. More than a hundred years later, the custom continues unabated. Every similar lighting, including the famous Rockefeller Center event, is rooted in the 1912 gathering at Madison Square, where thousands sang, ate, and communed around a majestic Adirondack balsam.
Note: Regarding a longstanding rivalry between cities: it’s no surprise that when folks in Boston back in 1912 caught wind of New York’s plan for a community tree, they arranged a similar celebration held the same day — but as the originator of the idea, Madison Square’s is widely considered the historic first. Hartford, Connecticut, also followed New York’s lead that year and had a public tree. Emilie commented to the New York Tribune that she was “pleased to hear” both cities had taken up the idea.)
Photos: Madison Square Christmas Tree (Library of Congress, ca. 1912-15, likely 1912); headline New York Sun (1912); raising the Madison Square Christmas Tree (LOC, ca. 1912-15, likely 1912); headline New York Press (1912)
A version of this article first appeared on the Adirondack Almanack.