Christmas wasn’t always merry and bright in Andover, at least not in terms of the traditions we now celebrate. The sparkle, the joy, the parties, the decoration of Christmas trees — all that and more we owe to Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Who was Harriet Beecher Stowe? Back in 1852, when Stowe moved to Andover from Maine, she quickly became the most famous woman in America due to the success of her anti-slavery novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Stowe was the mother of six children, the wife of a professor at Andover Theological Seminary, a magazine journalist and an active abolitionist. All of which, of course, entailed serious responsibilities.
It’s not surprising, therefore, that Stowe may have stunned her somber, Calvinistic seminary neighbors in 1854, when she invited them to her cheerfully decorated home, now at 80 Bartlet St., for a gala Christmas party with a Christmas tree and humorous gifts for guests.
A Christmas tree? With gifts? What frivolity! Or so the neighbors reportedly thought.
Not only were Christmas trees almost unheard of in America at that time, but the tradition of giving gifts to friends and family members was also in its infancy.
Stowe, however, was a world traveler and an avid reader who had likely seen or read about the German Christmas tradition of lighting candles and placing them on the branches of a small tree set inside the house on a tabletop. The branches were then adorned with small tokens of love.
This tradition is thought to have spread from Germany to the Northeast first with the Pennsylvania Dutch. And like those German descendants, Stowe probably draped her tree with simple decorations such as apples, oranges, painted walnuts and pinecones and strings of popcorn and berries.
If you would like to learn more about the first Christmas tree in Andover, visit AndoverHistorical.org.