Charles Follen and the First Christmas Tree
By Richard F. Vieth
This is a story literally told to me at my mother's knee. It is the story of a man, a little boy, and a tree. It held special interest for my mother because the man is Karl Follen, the brother-in-law of her great-grandfather, Friedrich Muench.
Born in 1796, Follen grew up in Hesse-Darmstadt, one of the scores of principalities that made up the Germany of that day. It was there that, as a boy, he experienced each year the magic of the brilliantly-lit Christmas tree.
In 1813 Follen began law studies at Giessen University, but soon interrupted his studies to enlist with his older brother in the Hessian volunteers fighting Napoleon. Within a few weeks he contracted Typhus and never saw action, but the German volunteers' patriotic fervor for a united Germany never left him. Resuming his studies at Giessen, he became the leader of a fraternity known as the “Bund der Schwartzen” (“Band of Blacks”), so named because of the color of their garb. Soon his younger brother Paul also entered the University and joined the fraternity, along with my great-great grandfather, Friedrich Muench. Paul and Friedrich became lifetime friends, and Paul later married Muench's younger sister Maria.
The charismatic Follen deeply influenced the thinking of his fraternity brothers. A child of the Enlightenment, he encouraged them to think for themselves. Muench said that it struck him like a flash of lightening when, in a religious discussion, Follen remarked that Christ was an “ideal human.” (1) This concept contradicted the dogmatic theology of his University professors and, indeed, of his own father. After a vehement inner battle, Muench reported, he accepted Follen's view, and went on from there to construct his own theology.
More relevant to that time of political turmoil, however, was Follen's dream of a united Germany, embracing democracy and respecting human rights. Die Schwarzen joined with other students across Germany to form a national student union, or Burschenschaft. The Burschenschaftler were convinced that when the time was ripe, like-minded professors, labor unions and other progressives would join with them to overthrow the petty German tyrants and establish a united democratic German republic.
Follen, however, was not just an armchair intellectual. Believing that training of the body as well as the mind produced character, he taught the brothers the new German sport of gymnastics. He was an avid follower of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, the so-called “Father of Gymnastics.” Jahn built the first gymnasium in Berlin in 1811, including the balance beam, horizontal and parallel bars, and vaulting horse—the same equipment used today. Having fought against Napoleon, Jahn was a fervent patriot and believed that gymnastics could bring vitality to the German nationalist movement and build German character. He was one of the organizers and leaders of the Burschenschaft.
In 1819 one of the Burschenschaftler close to Follen, Carl Ludwig Sand, assassinated the conservative dramatist August von Kotzebue, who had ridiculed the ideas of the Burschenschaft. Sand believed that his action would precipitate the anticipated revolution. Instead it instigated repression. The suspected conspirators were arrested, including Follen. He was released for lack of evidence, but still fearing for his liberty and even his life, he fled from Giessen to Jena, then to Switzerland, and finally to Paris.
There he met the Marquis de Lafayette, who urged him to go to America, and gave him letters of introduction to prominent persons there. So in 1824, at age twenty-eight, Follen began his career in America, anglicizing his name to “Charles.” During his first year he taught German and gymnastics at the Round Hill School in Northampton, Massachusetts. The curriculum there was modeled on that of the German Gymnasium (elementary school), so it provided an easy transition. It also gave him the opportunity to put into practice his progressive notion that teaching should draw out the natural abilities and thinking of students instead of simply inculcating traditional ideas.
A year later he was called to teach at Harvard University, becoming its first instructor in German. There were no textbooks, so Follen literally had to create the course, distributing single sheets to each class session as needed. These became the bases of a German Reader and German Grammar, which quickly became standard textbooks in the U.S. At the same time he taught gymnastics and supervised the construction of the first college gymnasium in America, complete with elaborate exercise apparatus. He also taught an ethics course at Harvard Divinity School.
Living in Cambridge brought him into contact with the New England Transcendentalists: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Bronson Alcott, and others. They prized his friendship, because he could interpret for them the thought of the German Idealist philosophers, whose thinking paralleled their own Transcendentalism.
Follen also became friends with William Ellery Channing, the leader of New England Unitarianism. Follen found Channing's religious ideas compatible with his own. Follen joined a group of twenty persons who met at Channing's house to discuss religion and philosophy, and to plan for a new Sunday School. There he met Eliza Lee Cabot of the Boston Cabots, who, legend has it, spoke only to God. They were married in 1828.
Another of his new friends was the abolitionist leader, William Lloyd Garrison. Follen had not left his ideals behind in Germany, and here he joined with Garrison and a handful of other abolitionists in advocating the immediate and universal emancipation of slaves—an unpopular view in that day, even in Boston.
1830 was a banner year for Follen. That year he became a U.S. citizen, he was appointed to a full-time chair in German language and literature at Harvard (thanks to a donation from his wife's family), he and Eliza built a house in Cambridge on what is now Follen Street, and their first child was born: Charles Christopher Follen. They called him ”little Charley.”
Follen wanted his son to experience the same magic of the lighted Christmas tree that had enchanted him as a boy in Germany. So when Charley turned five, the Follens set up a tree in their home and invited little Charley's friends and their families to a party, at which the unveiling of the tree would be a special surprise—doubly so, because up to this time Christmas trees were unheard of in Puritan New England.
They also invited a distinguished guest for this occasion, Harriet Martineau, a widely-read British author who was traveling in America. Martineau was unable to come on Christmas Eve, however, so the Follens agreed that New Year's Eve would do just as well. She was in on the surprise, and came early to help with the preparations. She also took careful note of the event as it unfolded in the Follen household that evening, and she subsequently published her account. “I was present,” she wrote, “at the introduction into the new country of the spectacle of the German Christmas tree. (2)
Follen had cut a small fir tree in the nearby woods, set it in a tub surrounded by moss, and placed it in the front drawing room. For weeks the cook had been saving eggshells, which little Charley gilded. These, together with paper cornucopia that they made, were filled with candied fruit and hung on the branches. Many small cloth dolls also adorned the tree. “There was not a twig that had not something sparkling upon it,” Martineau commented. Finally seven dozen wax candles were attached to the branches, ready to be lit. As the first guests were arriving, the double doors of the drawing room were closed to keep the tree hidden.
After tea and coffee had been served, Martineau entertained the children and adults with Christmas games. When word came that the candles had been lit, the double doors were thrown open and the children rushed in. Martineau described the scene:
It really looked beautiful; the room seemed in a blaze, and the ornaments were so well hung on that no accident happened, except that one doll's petticoat caught fire. There was a sponge tied to the end of a stick to put out any supernumerary blaze, and no harm ensued. I mounted the steps behind the tree to see the effect of opening the doors. It was delightful. The children poured in, but in a moment every voice was hushed. Their faces were upturned to the blaze, all eyes wide open, all lips parted, all steps arrested. Nobody spoke, only Charley leaped for joy. (3)
The silence was broken when one of the children spotted the candy on the tree. The adults helped them remove the goodies without burning themselves, and when all had had their fill they returned to the other room and finished the evening with dancing. By eleven o'clock, all had departed, leaving the Follens and Martineau to welcome in the New Year. Martineau predicted that the Christmas tree would soon become an established American tradition, as indeed it has, thanks in part to her widely-read account. (4)
The reason for Martineau's visit, however, was not to observe this celebration, but to share with the Follens in a time of crisis. Follen's performance at Harvard was under review for what was the equivalent of tenure, and just weeks before Christmas the University decided not to renew his contract. It might have been due to a conflict in pedagogical style with President Josiah Quincy's strict disciplinary measures. He and Eliza had been accused of fomenting student unrest. But both Eliza and John Greenleaf Whittier later attested that the real reason for his dismissal was his outspoken position on slavery. That night the Follens and Martineau talked over his situation well into the New Year. Follen mused, “Had I been willing to lower my standard of right, the world would have been with me, and I might have obtained its favor.” (5) But he was not willing to lower his standard.
In 1838 Follen, now an ordained Unitarian, accepted a call to All Souls Church in New York City. Within less than a year he was once again dismissed because of his uncompromising stand on abolition.
He found a more congenial home in the new Unitarian society in East Lexington, Massachusetts. That church shared his deep commitment to equality and abolition of slavery. Follen succeeded Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had been interim pastor for three years. The congregation was in need of a building, so Follen designed an octagonal structure—in effect, a church-in-the-round, so that the congregants facet one another. Instead of a high pulpit, Follen placed pastor and people all on the same level. This unique architecture symbolized the congregation's dedication to community and equality. Here is the prayer that Follen offered at the groundbreaking on the Fourth of July, 1939:
May this church never be desecrated by intolerance, or bigotry, or party spirit; more especially may its doors never be closed against any one who would plead in it the cause of oppressed humanity; within its walls may all unjust and cruel distinctions cease; and may all men meet here as brethren. (6)
The building was completed in 1840 and was to be dedicated on January 15. Follen, lecturing in New York at the time, took the steamer Lexington home to be present at the dedication service. Tragically, the steamship caught fire and sank in Long Island Sound on January 14, 1840. There were only four survivors, and Follen was not among them. Because of Follen's uncompromising position on slavery, not a single church in Boston would host a memorial service until two months later, when the Marlborough Chapel agreed to hold the service.
The octagonal church is still in use today by the East Lexington congregation, now known as the Follen Community Church. Each year a fir tree outside the church is decorated in memory of that first Christmas tree, and across the street trees are sold to benefit the church. People come from hundreds of miles away to buy a tree that came from Follen's church.
This story of Follen, little Charley, and the tree is bitter-sweet. The brightly-lighted tree continues to bring joy to people everywhere, but the man, cut down at age forty-four, was too far ahead of his time.
--copyright Richard F. Vieth
1 “Wie ein Blitzstrahl fiel ein Bemerkung von Karl Follen in mein inneres, dass nȁmlich Christus ein 'idealer Mensch' gewesen sei.” Gesammelte Schriften von Friedrich Münch, ed. Julius, Ferdinand, & Hugo Münch, St. Louis, Missouri: Im Verlag von C. Witter, 1902, p. 109.
2 Harriet Martineau, Retrospect of Western Travel, vol. II, London: Saunders and Otley, 1838, p. 1789.
3 Martineau, p. 179.
4 Ibid. Whether or not this event was “the introduction into the new country . . . of the German Christmas tree,” as Mardtineau claimed, is debatable. We know the Hessian mercenaries had such a tree during the Revolution, but the Americans did not imitate their hated occupiers. Perhaps German settlers in Pennsylvania brought the custom with them, but I know of no written account of it. Follen's celebration, then, may constitute the first documented Christmas tree in America.
5 Thomas S. Hanson, “Charles Follen,” Harvard Magazine, September-October 2002.
6 “Highlights of Follen's History,” Lexington, Mass.: Follen Church Society, www.follen.org <http://www.follen.org/> . (n.d.). Edited for clarity.