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Rochester’s First Christmas Tree

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In 1840 Rochesterians witnessed a new custom to celebrate Christmas, when a group of recent German immigrants decorated their small church with an evergreen tree according to their old- world tradition. The church was the Zion Lutheran Church at Grove and Stillson Streets, one of the parent churches of Incarnate Word Lutheran Church.

All Rochesterians – there were 18,000 to 20,000 inhabitants at the time – were invited to come and see the tree on December 25th, and many came. The church was packed inside and people were standing in line outside. The tree was a 10 to 12-foot-high spruce that was cut in the woods outside the city. It was ‘brilliantly illuminated and adorned with a great variety of toys, sweetmeats etc.’ (Rochester Union Advertiser, December 29, 1840). Children surrounded the tree, and after the candles were lit pastor Mullhauser led a prayer and all sang hymns in German. Young George Ellwanger held a speech in English, telling about Christmas celebrations in the old country and explaining the symbolism of the tree: ‘In the mill town whose people were mostly of the Yankee stock, George Ellwanger found that Christmas was a day of rather austere religious observance. He remembered the holiday in the fatherland, the green trees alight with candles, the songs, the bells, the legends, the feasting and, above all, the laughter of the children’ (Arch Merrill: The Mill Town’s First Christmas Tree. UPSTATE. Sunday, December 22, 1968).

George Ellwanger was from Würtenberg and had just a few months earlier, with an Irishman named Patrick Barry, started a nursery business that was to become a flourishing one. Mr. Ellwanger finished his speech by saying that people ‘may have seen something worthy of imitation, although we do not pretend to be qualified to teach you anything.’ Nevertheless the tree became a tradition at the church, and it soon also spread to private homes of others than just of the German immigrants.

And keeping with this holiday tradition, we have decked the halls early with a 12 foot Fraser Fir,  for holiday celebrations and family photos at the Ellwanger Estate B&B.  Happy Holidays!