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"O, Tannenbaum!”
The History of the Christmas Tree in Tidewater
By Nancy E. Sheppard

Tannen imageEvery year, residents of York County gather together to watch the annual lighting of Yorktown’s Christmas Tree. But what is the origin of the Christmas Tree and how did it come to the Tidewater? This week, we will examine what is probably one of the most recognizable icons of Christmas: The tree.

The origins of the Christmas Tree pre-date Christianity. Romans are said to have used fir trees to decorate their temples during Saturnalia and various European Pagan groups used branches from evergreens to decorate their homes for the Winter Solstice as a show of everlasting life and a reminder of the spring to come. How it became associated with Christmas was through Martin Luther (1483-1546), the German priest who started the Protestant Reformation on October 31, 1517. He is said to have been walking through the woods one night when he looked up at an evergreen tree against the night sky. He cut down the tree and promptly brought it home. He told his children, "The tree is so beautiful; it reminds me of Jesus, who left the stars of Heaven to come down to Earth at Christmas.” Thus, the Christmas tree was born.

The tradition slowly made its way through Europe, particularly England, as Germanic traditions and Protestantism spread throughout the country. However, it didn’t come to Tidewater until much later.

In 1842, Charles Minnigerode came from Germany for a professorship at the College of William and Mary. He was staying with the family of Judge Nathaniel Beverly Tucker on Nicholson Street in Williamsburg and was particularly homesick. The Tucker family wanted to help ease Minnigerode’s longing for his homeland during the holiday seasons and went with him to cut down an evergreen tree. They set the tree up, complete with homemade decorations, on Christmas Eve of that year. The sight of the tree in the Tucker home was one that enchanted their Williamsburg neighbors, who started falling in line with the tradition. The popularity of the Christmas tree spread throughout Hampton Roads as Minnigerode stayed in Virginia to take postings as ministers at Episcopal Churches in the Commonwealth.

Like the Williamsburg pineapple, the Christmas Tree is not something that was a regular part of the Anglican Virginia colonists’ Christmas traditions. Even so, the Christmas Tree remains a staple in Christmas décor, reminding many of the spirit of love, friendship, and family throughout the season.


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