When the magic of Christmas trees came to the Valley


The delight the decorated trees generated was timeless



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December 24, 2009
As New Hampshire towns in those days were widely separated with no regular communication between them, Lady Blanche doubtless did not know that something of the sort had already taken place in Madison seven years before. There, a newly-settled family named Pearson had introduced a community tree at a party held in their home in 1873, within six months of arriving from Newburyport, Mass.

In those days, a decorated community Christmas tree was still a novelty in America.

Well-known in Germany for many decades, the Christmas tree tradition had taken hold in England after Queen Victoria married her German cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg. In the United States, it first arrived via German settlers in Pennsylvania, then slowly made its way northward, at first only in cities.

As Lady Blanche explained in an 1881 article she contributed to the English publication London Graphic, "in these a backwoods [where] the necessities of cold weather stifle the chance of keeping up with the etiquette of civilized life," no local children had ever seen such a sight. Therefore, "a few of the more traveled individuals in the neighbourhood had the bright idea of having a Christmas tree …"

Herself clearly one with some experience of "civilized life," Lady Blanche (née Noel) was the eldest daughter of the Earl of Gainsborough, a granddaughter of the Earl of Errol, a great-granddaughter of King William IV, and a godchild of Queen Victoria. When, despite her family's opposition, she married Thomas Patrick Murphy, her father's multi-lingual organist/choirmaster and a commoner, they both became pariahs in caste-ridden England and emigrated to the U.S. To combat their economic woes here, Murphy taught music, and Lady Blanche wrote articles and stories for British and American publications.

Although childless themselves, Lady Blanche and her husband wanted to organize something festive to entertain local youngsters. As she describes it for her London Graphic readers, sometime shortly before that year's Christmas a meeting was called at a neighbor's house. While their wives sat knitting, a dozen men and a "moderator" solemnly deliberated whether or not to introduce a Christmas tree to their district.

Having decided "to give the children a little amusement," a committee of four then debated how to afford presents when everyone was so poor. While Lady Blanche does not say how the presents were funded or who was chosen to impersonate Santa Claus, she does note that the whole of the following week was taken up with "fixing" things for the communal tree.

"The men did little but that," she writes, "and the women spent their spare time popping corn and stringing it bead-like (a very pretty decoration, as the grains of 'popcorn' take all sorts of surprising shapes when held over the hot coals) … and otherwise arranging presents."

Because that winter's snow was deep, with drifts reaching from 10 to 12 feet, "it was difficult to get into the woods to cut down a suitable tree." In due course, one was found, then carried and crammed into a tiny one-room schoolhouse. Too tall to fit under the ceiling, its tip was thrust into an overhead stovepipe hole. The tree was then garlanded and hung with wrapped presents — "as nicely arranged as I ever saw any Christmas tree" — with yet more presents strung from nails hammered into the ceiling around the hole.

On the evening of the party, access to the schoolhouse had to be carved out of the snow. But nobody let difficult conditions keep them away. The schoolhouse interior was bright with the light of candles and barn lanterns commandeered from miles around, and more people arrived than the little room could comfortably hold. Still, everyone had a good time: poems were read and hymns sung, someone disguised as Santa distributed presents, and, as Lady Blanche, concluded, "the main object was attained, the children were delighted, the tree was a success, and many of the grown people, who also had never seen one, were immensely pleased."

In Madison a few years earlier, the introduction of the Christmas tree had taken a different form.

At that time, the Pearsons from Massachusetts may still have been unknown to many of their neighbors. However, coming as they did from the seafaring city of Newburyport, the Christmas tree custom was already familiar to them.

Initially, in June 1873, they had bought their Madison house as a summer farm, then decided to move in full-time. As they hadn't been there long, perhaps the idea of inviting the entire village to join them in a Christmas celebration was partly intended as a means of getting to know their neighbors.

The host and hostess were Theodore C. Pearson, and his second wife, Rhoda. Fifty-four at the time, Theodore had been a successful Newburyport and Salem baker. His wife, née Rhoda Ann Whittier, was a cousin of American poet and abolitionist John Greenleaf Whittier. Together the couple were parents of eight children, in addition to four of Theodore's by his first wife.

When their invitations went forth, the Pearsons specified that the party would include food, refreshments, music — and presents. Guests were insistently requested to bring presents. (Whether these were intended for the host family or for the guests, history does not record!) Meanwhile, as townspeople were relishing the prospect of a cheerful evening to enliven the long winter, the Pearson household was likewise preparing for the event.

From Pearson family documents and "A Brief History of Madison" (compiled in 1925-26), we learn that, "Every room on the first floor was cleared for the festival. Two large Christmas trees were set up in the largest room of the house. A great crowd came out to enjoy the celebration. All the rooms were packed with people. Every seat was taken and many had to stand. A happy evening full of fun and laughter was enjoyed by everyone."

Not content with the success of their Christmas party, the Pearsons went on to host Madison's first-ever public Fourth of July celebration in the summer of 1874, to which again they invited everyone in town. Their subsequent Thanksgiving festivities, it is said, outclassed all earlier efforts.

Lady Blanche may have been mistaken in supposing that hers was "the first tree ever seen in this district," when in fact a communal Christmas tree had been introduced in a neighboring town several years before. But that is not what interests us today. Both trees were innovations then, first in their time and place, each introduced by people from "away."

Today, what we see is the spirit of hospitality and sharing that motivated both initiatives, its resonance down the years, and a celebration of life that links their holiday seasons with our own.

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