Flashback Friday: 1st public Christmas tree lit in Minneapolis 106 years ago

The municipal Christmas tree is lit up at night for crowds gathered in front of the Minneapolis Auditorium on Nov. 19, 1941. Photo: Hennepin County Library
The municipal Christmas tree is lit up at night for crowds gathered in front of the Minneapolis Auditorium on Nov. 19, 1941.

Updated: December 27, 2019 03:47 PM

The first public Christmas tree in Minneapolis was lit 106 years ago this week in Gateway Park, according to the Minnesota Historical Society.

Nowadays, it's routine to hear Christmas music and see decorations, including Christmas trees, as early as Thanksgiving through the end of December in stores, malls, and even in public. However, the whole celebration of Christmas really grown from what it used to be.


The Minneapolis Morning Tribune posted on Dec. 13, 1913, "A community Christmas was assured for Minneapolis yesterday when the Center improvement association agreed to take charge of the plan.

"Mayor Nye presented his proposal for a mammoth and brilliantly illuminated Christmas tree to be erected on the Gateway park. Other suggestions by him that exercises be held on Christmas even consist of Christmas music by church choirs, a band and outdoor motion pictures, was approved.

"J. W. Pauly, president of the association, was authorized to appoint several committees to complete the arrangements."

Four days later, on Dec. 17, the Morning Tribune noted "a 50-foot Christmas tree will blaze at Gateway park Christmas eve with 3,000 vari-colored electric lights, tipped by a star three feet high, flashing intermittently. The tree will stand on a platform 40 by 70 feet. It was shipped on a special car provided by the Northern Pacific railroad from Frazee Minn."

Yes, Christmas has led to public celebrations for over a century in Minnesota. But, what's up with the tree and how did it become a symbol of Christmas?

There are varying theories about how Christmas trees started, but some suggest Germany is where the tradition began back in the 16th century. At that time, candles were used to illuminate the tree, according to ABC News.

But it didn't translate to America right away. In fact, Massachusetts even had a law penalizing anyone who observed Christmas in any other way than a church service back in 1659. That was eventually challenged by German and Irish immigrants who brought their own traditions to the U.S. when they came over. That helped start the spread of the Christmas tree in America, but it wasn't nearly as widespread as it is now.

In 1846, Queen Victoria and her German Prince Albert were pictured in a newspaper with a fully decorated Christmas tree. At that time, Christmas trees were already used around the world, but many credit that picture with helping the popularity of Christmas trees take off, especially in America.

German ornaments started being shipped to the U.S., and in the 1880s, Thomas Edison's partner, Edward H. Johnson, put the very first string of electric Christmas tree lights together, ABC reports.

In 1895, President Grover Cleveland requested a tree lit with hundreds of electric lights for the White House, and in 1923, President Calvin Coolidge celebrated Christmas by lighting the National Christmas Tree with 3,000 electric lights. Thus, the annual White House Christmas tree lighting began.

Jacqueline Kennedy began the tradition of selecting a theme for the White House Christmas tree in 1961.

Meanwhile, the most famous tree of them all, the Rockefeller tree, actually began as a symbol of the Great Depression. However, lights were eventually added and it became a holiday beacon.

By the late 1950s, artificial trees were being manufactured.

Through the years, the celebration has grown exponentially into what we know it as today. Of course, different communities celebrate in different ways, but many include a public Christmas tree.

You can find more information about the history of Christmas trees in the video below.

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