In a lot of homes, it seems, the Thanksgiving turkey is still defrosting but the Christmas tree is already up. They’ve been up in most of the big box stores for some weeks, which is an understandable if annoying desire to prod the holiday buying season into high gear, but it does seem that the urge to erect and decorate festive freestanding timber, real or not, has taken hold this year earlier than before.
If local lore in Elbert County is true, then a house there saw the first Christmas tree in Georgia in the late 1850s. According to a 1958 article that appeared in the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, the grandchildren of George Loehr and Henrietta Leopole Loehr recollected that their grandparents had had the first Christmas tree in Elberton and there was some reason to believe they had the first Christmas tree in Georgia, at least the first that ever attracted attention and emulation.
George Loehr was born in Einbeck, in the German state of Saxony, and was a skilled cabinet maker when he emigrated to the United States in 1848 with his bride. The 1850 census shows the Loehrs living in Elberton. In October 1858, George Loehr bought a four-acre lot on what’s now Heard Street and built the home that now stands at 305 Heard Street.
The Loehr’s grandchildren remembered that their grandparents “made paper chains and streamers, fashioned other ornaments [and] added strings of snowy-white popcorn” and candles were affixed to the tree. George Loehr carved wooden toys that were placed around the tree inside a small picket fence, not as gifts but as ornaments themselves, as the toys were reused year after year.
There is no way to know for sure if the Loehrs actually introduced the first Christmas tree to Georgia even though it’s plausible that they did introduce the custom to Elberton and this corner of north Georgia. That the Loehrs were German is, however, highly significant to any such claim.
Many cultures in eastern and central Europe lay claim to at least a piece of the origin of the Christmas tree, but it is with Germany, or the various German states before Germany’s 1871 unification, that the custom of the Christmas tree approaching the practice as we know is most associated. The custom of decorating evergreens has both Roman and medieval roots but one plausible story has gaining prominence when Martin Luther decorated an evergreen with lighted candles. By the 1500s and early 1600s the custom had taken firm hold. A reference in a 1570 Bremen guild chronicle notes a small evergreen (Tannenbaum) decorated with “apples, nuts, dates, pretzels and paper flowers” arranged in the guild house for the children of the guild members on Christmas Day.
The custom followed Germans wherever they went, so it’s almost a certainty, even without finding specific instances, that the custom was in the American colonies well before the American Revolution, especially in Pennsylvania and the central part of South Carolina, the old Sax-Gotha district, that saw significant settlement by immigrants from the German states. And since colonial Georgia also attracted a number of German immigrants, it’s plausible that the Loehr’s Christmas tree wasn’t truly the first in Georgia. But like so many other instances in history, it’s a good story and it serves a useful purpose and there’s no reason beyond arrant pedantry to argue with it.
Some stories hold that Hessian mercenary soldiers during the American Revolution erected Christmas trees during the holidays, and in the postwar years a number of places with German immigrant and German-descended populations are known to have followed the custom. So the first third of the 19th century, Christmas trees were a well-followed custom in some places but wasn’t a commonplace tradition. Stockings were hung by the chimney with care in Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas,” for instance, but there is no mention at all of a Christmas tree.
The little contretemps of 1775-1783 aside, Americans still tended to take their cultural cues from Great Britain, and there the custom has a complicated history. King George III’s German-born wife, Queen Charlotte, is said to have introduced the Christmas tree about 1800 (if not before and it attracted little note). The custom did not gain widespread following, however, until Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of the German state of Saxe-Coberg in 1840. Look all you want in Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” for mention of a Christmas tree but you won’t find it. The book was written in 1842 before the custom had become widely popular outside Windsor Castle, so it wasn’t part of the Christmas festivities Dickens depicted. When the custom took hold in Great Britain, naturally it was a shot in the arm for the custom in America.
So … that’s probably more than you might have ever wanted to know about Christmas trees or Christmas trees in Georgia. But it’s the time of year for one of our most dazzling, beautiful and iconic symbols of the season.
Grinches can go read something else …