December 14, 2015

Christmas Trees and Their Anti-Slavery Symbolism

Decorating evergreen trees as part of the celebration of Christmas was a long-standing tradition in European countries well before the practice was adopted by Americans.  This European tradition was introduced to America by a number of means including the influx of German immigrants into Pennsylvania during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and drawings of decorated trees at Queen Victoria's Windsor Palace and other royal residences that were featured in newspapers and magazines in the 1840s and 1850s.

Osborne House Christmas tree as illustrated in Godey's Lady's Book, December 1850.
Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Decorated Christmas trees in America were further inspired by a published account of a tree in the home of Charles Follen in 1835, written by the British author Harriet Martineau.  Follen, a professor of literature at Harvard University, a children's rights advocate, and an outspoken abolitionist, had erected the traditional Christmas tree of his German homeland for his son's holiday delight and to be shared by Christmas visitors, including Harriet Martineau.
Charles Follen.  Frontispiece of Collection Works (1841)  published by his wife, Eliza Follen, after
his death in 1839.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Harriet Martineau by Richard Evans (died 1871).  Collection of the National Portrait Gallery,
London, England.  Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
Charles Follen's abolitionist zeal and incendiary rhetoric on the topic of slavery partially cost him his position at Harvard, which he lost in 1835, and later resulted in his dismissal as an ordained clergyman at a Unitarian church in New York City.  On his way to another clerical position in 1839, the steamboat on which he was traveling sunk during a storm and he never reached his destination.
Follen's dedication to the anti-slavery cause was echoed by many men and women, black and white, who formed anti-slavery societies in the early 19th century and worked vigorously to bring to national attention the plight of the enslaved in America.  In 1834, members of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society founded by William Lloyd Garrison began holding Christmas fairs in Boston to raise money for the abolitionist cause and to use these fairs as a means to promote their anti-slavery sentiments.  Soon, anti-slavery societies in Philadelphia, New York, and other cities engaged in fund raising and messaging through the sale of donated items at Christmas fairs, many of which displayed mottoes and slogans promoting the cause.  In the January 2, 1837 issue of Garrison's paper, The Liberator, the following slogans were cited as some of those appearing on sales items:  "Twenty five Weapons for Abolitionists" (on bunches of quills); "The doom of Slavery is sealed" (on wafer boxes); "Wipe out the blot of Slavery" (on pen wipers);  "Trample not on the Oppressed" (on needle books made in the form of small shoes); and, "May the use of our needles prick the consciences of slaveholders" (on needle books, many of which were made by members of the society holding the fair).
Depiction of a female slave and motto often applied to articles sold at anti-slavery Christmas
fairs.  Based on an engraving by Josiah Wedgewood of a male slave which read "Am I Not
a Man and a Brother?"  Source of image:  From George Bourne, Slavery Illustrated in Its Effects
 upon Women (1837), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.
The women of the anti-slavery societies, in particular, promoted the idea that slaves had fewer rights than children and that they deserved a right to the caring consideration of Christians, as did children and all human beings.  These women worked publically to expose the brutality of the institution of slavery, adopting an evergreen bough or shrub as a symbol of the freedom they sought for the enslaved.  When this symbol was replaced at anti-slavery fairs by the decorated Christmas tree at the end of the 1830s, the Christmas tree became the seasonal anti-slavery symbol for freedom.  It also promoted a new image of Christmas - a holiday characterized in the 18th and early 19th centuries in America as an occasion for raucous behavior and drunkenness.  (Refer to our post of December 29, 2013 and the diary entries of Quaker Elizabeth Drinker for first-hand accounts of Christmas behavior in Philadelphia during this period of time.)  The Christmas tree became a symbol of gift-giving to and the care of children who, themselves, came to symbolize the victims of slavery.
The Christmas Tree.  Wood engraving by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
Published in Harper's Weekly, Volume II, 25 December 1858, p. 820.
Source of image: Wikimedia Commons.
Many of the women who co-founded and participated in the activities of the anti-slavery societies were members of the Religious Society of Friends.  The Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society was one of the most active and influential female societies in the country, boasting a membership that read like a "who's who" of both Quaker and non-Quaker female abolitionists.  This society began holding Christmas fairs to raise money for the abolitionist cause in 1835.  It continued to do so until 1861 and the end of the Civil War.
When it was first proposed to hold Philadelphia fairs as a fund-raising activity, there was active and vociferous discussion about whether or not members of the Religious Society of Friends should participate.  Such events were regarded with suspicion and "disapprobation" by some, especially if they occurred during a week in which Monthly Meetings were held.  It was finally agreed to call these events sales, rather than fairs (which implied frivolity and entertainment rather than a serious endeavor).  Their first sales were small in scope and featured simple articles for purchase.  As time went on, the name of the events changed to "fairs" and they became more and more elaborate with donations from wealthy families in England as well as America, raising more and more money for the cause.
Portrait of Lucretia Mott by Joseph Kyle (1815-1863).  Painted in 1842 when she was 49 years old. 
 Source of image:  Wikimedia Commons.
In 1842 there were still some members of the Religious Society of Friends who did not approve of Quakers participating in the fairs.  That year, some of the sale items from England and elsewhere arrived too late to be included in the fair and a leading member of the Philadelphia Female Anti-Slavery Society, Lucretia Mott, volunteered to use her home as a venue for selling the items.  Venerable as Lucretia was as an internationally known voice for the freedom and equality of all men and women, this generous offer resulted in a visit from Quaker elders who let her know that they strongly disapproved of the "light-hearted proceeding" these sales represented and of her vanity in letting an engraved image of herself be included in the sale. Nonetheless, the Philadelphia Christmas fairs continued and so did Lucretia until her death in 1880!
Hansen, Thomas S.  "Charles Follen, Brief life of a vigorous reformer: 1796-1840."  In Harvard Magazine, September-October, 2002.
Rush, N. Orwin.  "Lucretia Mott and the Philadelphia Antislavery Fairs."  In Bulletin of Friends Historical Association, Vol. 36, No 2 (Autumn 1946), pp. 69-75.
"The Christmas Tree as an Anti-Slavery Liberation Symbol" accessed at on 12/5/2015.
"The History of the Christmas Tree" accessed at on 12/5/2015.
(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2015.

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