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The radical gift we still celebrate

The radical gift we still celebrate
© Bonnie Cash

A firebrand far outside the mainstream. A troublesome agitator suspected in a political assassination. An immigrant whose fringe views got him booted from Harvard.

Charles Follen was all of these — and one more thing that may seem surprising in light of the rest: the father of one of our most cherished Christmas traditions.

Follen came to the United States from Germany in 1824, where he had been a member of a radical student group. Authorities accused him of involvement in the assassination of a conservative author. He fled first to France, then to Switzerland. When more charges were brought against him, he continued on to the United States. Follen snagged a job as a Harvard professor, teaching German, history, ethics and gymnastics. He also studied for the ministry.

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Follen brought his radical politics to his new country, becoming an ardent abolitionist who also agitated for political and legal equality for women. Such positions were highly controversial at the time. Those who sought to abolish slavery were frequently the target of venom and violence. Follen’s views eventually cost him his Harvard professorship, and later got him fired from a New York church that had hired him as its pastor.

In December of 1832, while he was still at Harvard, Follen grew nostalgic for the German Christmases of his youth. He wanted to recreate that enchanted memory for his two-year-old son Charlie. So, he went into the woods, chopped down a spruce tree, and brought it home. He spent hours trimming the tree, decorating it with paper ornaments, candied fruit and candles on every possible branch. “He spared no pains, no time in adorning the tree,” wrote his wife Eliza.

Follen kept up the tradition every year, at a time when Christmas trees were virtually unknown in the United States. Three years later, in 1835, a traveling British writer and fellow abolitionist named Harriet Martineau planned a stop at Follen’s home during the holidays. She couldn’t make it for Christmas, so they saved the tree lighting for her visit on New Year’s Eve.

Follen lit the candles on the tree behind closed doors, then threw them open to usher in the neighborhood children who had gathered for the spectacle. “The room seemed in a blaze,” wrote Martineau. “The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested.” She noted that Follen positioned himself so he could see their faces light up as they spied the illuminated tree. “I was present at the introduction into the new country of the German Christmas tree,” she concluded.

That’s a bit of an exaggeration. Follen’s Christmas tree certainly was not the first one in America. Hessian soldiers put up decorated trees during the Revolutionary War, and German settlers in Pennsylvania had been doing so for a long time. But Follen’s tree was likely the first one in New England — and Martineau’s widely publicized account, which appeared in a magazine, a book, and a pamphlet distributed by the American Sunday School Union, spread the idea across the country. It caught fire, so to speak, and five years later, advertisements for Christmas tree lightings and Christmas ornaments were common in American newspapers.

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Charles Follen didn’t quite live long enough to see the degree to which his nostalgic tradition enchanted his adopted country. In January, 1840, he boarded a steamship in New York City for a quick journey north. He had been hired as pastor by a congregation in Lexington, Mass., that was willing to give voice to his abolitionist views. He was hurrying there for the dedication of the new church building. It must have seemed a good omen that the steamship was named Lexington. But she went up in flames and sank off of Long Island, killing Follen and almost everyone on board.

Today the Follen Church in Lexington stands as a memorial to the immigrant who pursued a radical vision for America that eventually came true — and the loving father who helped give us the gift of the Christmas tree. Every year the congregation remembers him in a most appropriate way — by setting up a lot to sell Christmas trees.

Rick Beyer is an author, documentary filmmaker and producer, and co-host (with Chris Anderson) of the History Happy Hour livecast on the Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours Facebook and YouTube page. One of his books is The Greatest Stories Never Told. He lives in Chicago.