Christmas trees have served as political lightning rods for nearly as long as Americans have been decorating them.
In 1937, the Federal Writers’ Project interviewed Junius Quattlebaum, who’d grown up enslaved in South Carolina, about his Christmas memories. He spoke of gathering around the Christmas tree to take his share of the
candy, apples, raisins, and nuts for all de chillum … Christmas morning, marster would call all de slaves to come to de Christmas tree. He made all de chillun set down close to de tree and de grown slaves jined hands and make a circle ’round all … missus would stand in de middle of the de ring and raise her hand and bow her head in silent thanks to God. All de slaves done lak her done.
Frederick Douglass denounced such parties as being “among the most effective means in the hands of the slaveholder in keeping down the spirit of insurrection … These holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.” The white South Carolinian William J. Grayson rhapsodized in his 1856 poem “The Hireling and the Slave” about the “smile and bow” and “abundant cheer” of the slave’s Christmas: “No ennui clouds, no coming cares annoy, / Nor wants nor sorrow check the Negro’s joy,” for “In all his master’s joys he claims a part.” Yet for all their paternalism, slave owners betrayed a suspicion that the pleasure in Christmas wasn’t mutual, and that slaves might not be satisfied with raisins: Christmas was the time when white Southerners spread the wildest rumors of slave insurrection, restocked their ammunition, and built hiding places in the woods.
Grayson may well have sympathized with LeAnn Rimes Cibrian, the country singer who upstaged her own performance last year at the lighting of the Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree with a tweet: “Wow, riots are sad tonight coming out of a joyous place. #peaceatchristmas #prayersforall.” The “riots” she referred to were the peaceful protests of the non-indictment of the police officer responsible for Eric Garner’s death earlier in 2014.
I’m an atheist, but I love Christmas trees as much as—or probably a lot more than—the next celebrant. After I assembled a new gold and silver tinsel tree in my Brooklyn apartment last December, I never took it down; a year later, it’s dusty but still radiant. I collect souvenir ornaments and Italian nativity figures; I’ve sewn my own tree skirt and stocking and made my own Caga tío, the Catalan hazelnut-pooping Christmas log. I can almost understand the temptation, then, to insulate Christmas trees from politics: to retain the presumably pure, innocent, childlike wonder of Christmas iconography. But as any good folklorist will tell you, Christmas trees in America have always come with tumult: the apocryphal first Christmas trees on U.S. soil were decorated by the Hessian mercenaries the British had hired to kill American insurgents. “We won’t go until we get some!”
As long as America has had Christmas trees, people have used them to tell other people who does and doesn’t matter, celebrating communal joy narrowly, sometimes belligerently, at somebody else’s expense. Let us therefore celebrate the equally venerable tradition of Christmas tree dissent! Long before any Johnny-come-latelies like the American Civil Liberties Union, religious minorities, or the Supreme Court had deliberated about Christmas trees, menorahs, and Frosty the Snowman figures on state property, Christmas trees had already embraced or antagonized generations of Christians with their attitudes about holidays and communities. Consider the Manhattan business consortium that, in 1953, lit the first Christmas tree in Union Square for the jolly purpose of protesting “the reputation of radicalism,” thus enlisting the tree in the fight against the Red Menace. Or the state of Arkansas, where, in the 1830s, a German immigrant brought the first Weihnachtsbaum to Washington County, charging his neighbors ten cents to see “this new feature in Christmas celebration”: a pay-per-view holiday spectacular. Later, during the Depression, the mining company that ran Bauxite, Arkansas, provided Christmas trees decked in gifts of food for its workers—the white workers only, for earlier that year, Bauxite had fired its entire Mexican workforce, forcing them to leave town.
The tradition of decorating public trees offered fellowship and entertainment to people who couldn’t afford trees for their families—but even in public, the generosity was selective. (With exceptions: the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society, for instance, was described in 1895 as “most catholic in its benefits: it knows neither race nor creed—only neglected children.”) In segregated Orlando, in 1927, Santa Claus paused only briefly at the “Negro Christmas tree” before moving on to the main municipal tree and Christmas party, for whites only, at Lake Eola. The Ku Klux Klan has carried on the tradition. In 1993, they sued to add KKK designs to a tree in Columbus, Ohio; six years later, they topped a tree with a swastika in Fort Pierce, Florida; and just this month, they rallied in Irving, Texas, to force a Muslim peace rally to disassociate from Irving’s municipal tree-lighting ceremony. (And give all tree-lovers, myself included, a moment before invoking the Nazis, who tried to reclaim the German heritage of Christmas trees, playing up the pre-Christian, pagan, Nordic associations of the Yule log. They loved their Christmas trees, too, but not those inflected by “Americanism,” which, one Nazi holiday greeting opined, had distorted “the Feast of Christmas root and branch” into “a racket with jazz and drinking.” The National Socialist Party preferred a gift-laden, public “Christmas Tree for All,” which, they hoped, manifested “a sense of justice that is entirely characteristic of the race.”)
Anyone seeking to cast blame for the “War on Christmas” would do well to remember that Christmas trees went to war with us first—thanks, Hessians! The state anthem “Maryland! My Maryland!” which demands vengeance against “the Northern scum,” is set to “O Tannenbaum.” (“Your boughs can teach a lesson,” one version of the Christmas song says.) During World War II, Americans destroyed their German and Japanese glass ornaments. In December 1962, when North Korea objected to the twenty-five-foot-tall Christmas tree raised by American soldiers in the demilitarized zone, the UN command declared, “Free people all over the world have been decorating trees this way for more than 1900 years … We are not going to stop now.”
Yet American pushback against Christmas trees’ deployment as propaganda, weaponry, boundary marker, and enforced token of cheer is just as traditional. At the 1966 City Hall tree ceremony, two thousand New York City Parks Department employees busted through police barriers and tore up the lighting wires. American protesters have climbed the Rockefeller tree for the sake of American hostages in Iran or demanded that World AIDS Day condom trees be taken down. Conscientious objectors imprisoned during Word War II hung Freedom Now signs on prison Christmas trees; Nisei families in the Topaz Internment Camp topped bonsai Christmas trees with stars. And in 2009, cops moved Grandmothers Against the War away from Rockefeller Center, because their protest interfered with the tree lighting. “The point is to interfere with the routine,” said Jenny Heinz. “As people walk down the street, it has an impact on their consciousness. If it engages them, it’s fine. If it infuriates them, it’s fine.”
Early in the Civil War, the diarist Mary Greenhow Lee, in Winchester, Virginia, wrote that she’d “dressed the parlour with evergreens … I have determined not to let the Yankees interfere with me, except by force.” She wrote determinedly about singing and flirtations at the church Christmas tree. But when the South faced defeat, Lee found it “injudicious” to decorate: “quite a violent party in the church against it.” At the holiday service, she wrote,
The Christmas music was the only thing to remind me of old times. In every other respect the presence of the Yankee interfered with the enjoyment of the services. Their responses blended with ours & I felt how unnatural it was to be joining in prayers & praises with men whose hands were red with the blood of our friends.
I have little sympathy for her idea of fellowship, but I’m moved by her conviction that the community Christmas tree can feel like a fraud and a betrayal. The Christmas tree has never included everybody, and perhaps it was never meant to—but its tradition has embraced fraught contradictions from its origins in this country. There’s an unlikely harmony between the feelings of Lee and Frederick Douglass that resonates into the present, when—as happened in 2014, and again this December—police have prevented Black Lives Matter protesters from gathering around the Rockefeller Center Tree, and trees in Boston, Philadelphia, and Oakland. Earlier this season, on local news broadcasts in Seattle, Chicago, and New York, protestors’ outrage over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald—the grief and pain of communities reckoning with “men whose hands were red with the blood of our friends”—shared airtime with the grievances of people defending the sanctity of Christmas trees.
Perhaps the best and the worst Christmas tree ever was the one that Shirley Graham Du Bois and W. E. B. Du Bois, both communists, decorated in 1953 for the newly orphaned children of the Rosenbergs. (Robert Meeropol would remember, “I was told the presents were all for my brother and me. I wondered why none of the other kids was getting any. The disparity seemed very unfair.”) This was the most American of Christmas trees, a tree for dissent and grief. On one hand, its meanings didn’t add up, and its capacity for dispensing joy was dubious at best; on the other, its fellowship crossed lines of race and creed, extended not to the merry but to the most outraged, hurt, and bereft, making room at the party for them.