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Public Theology: The Christmas Tree as an Anti-Slavery Liberation Symbol
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The Christmas Tree as an Anti-Slavery Liberation Symbol
Here is a story about how the Christmas tree became associated with the holiday celebration in the United States.

Editor's Note: The civil rights movement of the 1960s was successful partially because the moral conscience of Northerners was strongly influenced by the earlier anti-slavery abolitionist movement, of which John Brown was a most significant advocate. Southern violence against black demonstrators led by Martin Luther King and others shocked the moral sensibilities of Northerners when exposed in the media. But few today are aware that a German immigrant (Christmas trees were a popular custom in Germany where forest mysticism is a factor in its cultural consciousness.) helped make the Christmas tree a symbol of human liberation in the United States. Here is the story as reported in the Amsterdam News by William Loren Katz on December 17, 2003, published online at the New York Community Media Alliance.

Before Christmas became a rousing commercial success, the holiday had a checkered history. In the American colonies, it was a holiday marked by heavy drinking and brawls—a raucous blend of July 4th and New Year’s Eve.

But as the bitter struggle over human bondage in the United States heated up in the 19th century, a determined band of anti-slavery Christian activists shaped the holiday into one devoted to the prince of peace and steadfast enemy of oppression.

In 1834, militant black and white members of William Lloyd Garrison’s new Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society created a Christmas holiday to expose a republic that proclaimed liberty throughout the land, yet held three million men, women and children in shackles. Boston abolitionist women, intent on financing their uphill crusade against the slave-holding elite that dominated the Southern states and the federal government, organized Christmas fairs that sold donated gifts at fund-raising bazaars. They also used these fairs as a vehicle to drive home their message.

During the Victorian era, this effort was aimed at Northerners who claimed that the degradation of enslaved women and children was too sensitive and immodest a subject to mention in public. They forthrightly proceeded to expose the brutality and rape inherent in the South’s “peculiar institution.” As a symbol of their campaign, fair sponsors adopted an evergreen shrub.

Another method abolitionists used to penetrate the Northern conscience was to compare the common practice of whipping children—it was beginning to gain popular disapproval—to the brutal whipping of enslaved men, women and children. Next, the anti-slavery forces used their fairs to create a generous, gift-giving Christmas that rewarded children. This emphasis on children drew listeners to the view that enslaved people, who had even fewer rights than children, deserved a right to Christian care, generosity and consideration as human beings. It was aimed to sway Northerners who accepted the slaveholders’ practice to portray their slaves as children. At least one early Massachusetts fair featured an interracial children’s chorus known as the Boston Garrison Juvenile Choir that sang such popular holiday songs as “The Sugar Plums.”

By the end of the 1830s, abolitionists found their Christmas fairs had become the movement’s primary source of funds. Fair sponsors began to replace their small green shrub with a more dramatic, full-grown evergreen tree. This contribution was inspired by Charles Follen, a German immigrant, children’s rights reformer and professor of literature at Harvard University; he was fired in 1835 because of his anti-slavery activities. It was that same year at Christmas, when the famous British author Harriet Martineau visited Follen’s home and became entranced by his towering, festive evergreen.

When Martineau enthusiastically described Follen’s “Christmas tree” in one of her books, the public was enthralled. The anti-slavery movement elevated the Christmas tree into a powerful holiday symbol, and Follen became its “father.”

Few Americans know that the holiday’s most powerful and cherished notions, an emphasis on children and gift-giving—and its emblematic evergreen tree—began as conceptual weapons in the struggle against the slave-holding elite, who dominated the federal government and the Southern states and held millions of people of African descent in chattel slavery.

To expose the world’s greatest crime, challenge the country’s strongest vested interest and recruit fellow citizens into their crusade for justice, a small interracial band reshaped a disorderly and turbulent Christmas into a holiday of human liberation.

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Date Added: 12/24/2009 Date Revised: 12/24/2009

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