Christmas Traditions - Trees
References to decorating with Christmas trees became frequent in American history with the influx of German immigrants. Table-top trees were a German custom, but the notion of a room-sized tree is completely American. Although trees were sparse in Kansas during the 1800's, the tradition of a Christmas tree was wide-spread.
Community trees in churches and town halls were often mentioned in the 1870's. In 1877, the Hays City Sentinel (Ellis County), "Stockton's Sabbath-school is to have a Christmas-tree." Just two years later, trees were so customary the the Sentinel noted, "We have heard of no arrangements for a Christmas tree. Are the little ones to be slighted this year[?]"
An early resident of the town of Potwin (Butler County) remembered how "a nice Hackberry tree was selected and transported to the hall, where it was found the tree was four times as large as the door. Limbs were sawed slantingly until the tree could be taken into the hall, where the limbs were nailed back in their proper place."
Presbyterians and Methodists shared the first church in Smith Center (Smith County), and held their first meeting in the building on Christmas Eve in 1877. Cordelia Niles McDowell recalled the event: "A community Christmas tree was brought from the banks of the Solomon River and when placed in the church extended from the floor to the roof. You will note I stated, 'to the roof,' not the ceiling, as the church had no ceiling at that time."
Most Christmas trees of the time were trimmed with hand made ornaments. Candy, fruit, and nuts also were popular. Another of nature's products decorated the boughs of one family's tree near Lawrence (Douglas County) in the 1870's. "In addition to the yards and yards of strung popcorn and cranberries, sprays of bittersweet were brought up from the basement where they had been dried, berry ends down so the stems would be long and straight."
A uniquely American tradition was trimming the tree with Christmas presents. Residents of Kiowa (Barber County)were so delighted with their new hall in 1881 that they decided to have a community celebration. "Some one brought in a huge cedar tree, set it on the floor and nailed the top to the ceiling. A nice big star was made out of heavy paper and covered with tin foil of tobacco and placed high on the tree with one lone candle," remembered Julia Bunton many years later. "As there was nothing more with which to trim the tree, Kiowans hung presents on its branches--brightly colored silk handkerchiefs, shiny knives and candy. They certainly made a fine showing," Bunton recalled.
In the days before electric lights, candles often lit Christmas trees. Harriet Adams of Marysville (Marshall County) recalled a holiday in the 1870s when she was just seven years old. "On the bluff nearest our home was a scattering growth of cedars,"she recounted. "Father took us with him as he carried an axe and selected the tree. . .Then Father set it up securely in the center of the living room, and found a piece of tin and made the candle holders. After breakfast on Christmas morning, the family marched around the tree, which was decorated with ribbons and gifts as well as the usual strings of popcorn and cranberries. There was the most delightful odor of scorching cedar," Adams remembers, "and Father would keep walking around and around the tree smothering every smoking stem and keep the candles burning safely."
Entry: Christmas Traditions - Trees
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: July 2011
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