2017-12-09 / Columnists

A Look at History

Decorated Trees Are Part of Island Christmas Heritage

Decorated green trees are part of the heritage of Christmas, especially in parts of North America where evergreens grow. Green trees with needles have been part of the Christmas story since Christian missionaries traveled north and east, from countries like Italy and Ireland, to those parts of Europe that get cold and snowy in winter. Scholars of religion say that the evergreen conifer was a promise, during the dark days of winter, that spring would come soon. Burning a Yule Log became part of the worship cycle of these peoples, and Christmas trees grew out of this tradition.

By the time French-Canadian fur trappers and traders came to Mackinac Island in the 1780s, Christmas was already part of their Quebec-based culture. Complex rules determined what early Mackinac Islanders like Elizabeth Baird could and could not do on Christmas Day itself, and Baird’s childhood memories show they did most of their feasting and merrymaking not on Christmas, but on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day.

German and Dutch immigrants to the U.S. brought different traditions to America. In the early 1800s, New Yorkbased media began to disseminate the Dutch-German Christmas throughout North America, especially in what was then the Dutch-American Hudson River Valley of New York. In the familiar poem “’Twas the Night Before Christmas,” the lines where Santa Claus goes around with a sack full of presents and slips down every chimney began as a newspaper item printed in a paper published on the Hudson River north of New York City in 1823.

In the 1820s, the northern United States was fast becoming a rich country. Fur, spurred by a rich harvest from Mackinac

Island’s Market Street and other trade centers, was one of America’s biggest exports. This 1823 poem, attributed to New York land developer Clement C. Moore, celebrated the sweetness and even luxury that some Americans were beginning to be able to afford. Candy stores were beginning to sell confections like “sugar plums,” rounded sucrose candies.

Christmas trees were already being cut and lighted in the colder parts of Germany. A prince from mountainous Coburg, Albert of Saxe- Coburg-Gotha, came to London in 1840 to marry Queen Victoria. Albert immediately asked that Christmas trees be set up at Windsor Palace, which was done. Over the next 50 years, throughout the Englishspeaking world, leading members of society began to buy and put up Christmas trees. The idea of cutting a tree for Christmas seemed unusual to many Americans; in the 1860s, for example, Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln never had a Christmas tree at the White House. By the 1880s, however, the custom was beginning to be established in upstate New York. Frances Cleveland, of Buffalo, appears to have put up one of the first presidential Christmas trees in 1888.

Christmas trees were especially adapted to those parts of northern New York and Northern Michigan, where the trees can grow. Trees like spruce and balsam are especially adapted to growing naturally on postlumbering second-growth soils after the great pines or maples have been cut down. Starting in the 1880s, this part of Michigan began to export tens of thousands of evergreen saplings to cities in the central part of the continent. The tragic 1912 voyage of the “Christmas Tree Ship,” which began at the logging port of Manistique only a few miles west of the Straits, is an example of this trade.

The original Christmas Tree Ship, the Rouse Simmons, was an aging commercial sail-powered cargo boat. By 1912 it had shuttled back and forth on Lake Michigan for many years. Captain Herman Schuenemann found a profitable use for the old schooner as a shuttle-boat for cut pine trees from the Upper Peninsula to the Chicago River. The city laws of those days allowed the boat captain to sell the Christmas trees right off the boat to Chicagoans. The customers, many of them German-Americans like Captain Schuenemann, could carry the trees home by streetcar. After the boat was lost, sentimental folklore portrayed the captain as a jolly, generous fellow who gave away mounds of Christmas trees to the city’s poor families. In real life he would bring down a load of trees and would let his paying customers take their pick. On Christmas Eve the paying customers faded away, and the captain and his crew would give away the remaining unsold trees. Perhaps the true mark of his generosity was that the captain always piled up his boat with so many saplings that there would be some to give away. The men who found the remains of his boat a few years ago, in Wisconsin waters well short of Chicago, say it was badly overloaded.

As time passed, the ethnic heritages of many different European countries began to blend together in America. The idea of a public Christmas tree in the town square, which originated with the winter street markets of Germany, had come to Mackinac Island; Islanders put up their public tree in the middle of Main Street. In some winters, the Straits of Mackinac area had better have a surplus of Christmas trees because the saplings have an important use – in years of thick ice, they are set in the ice as markers for the Mackinac Island Ice Bridge.

By now it is the 1960s and snowmobiles are starting to buzz around. Their big strokeengines are the Christmas tree’s big brothers when snow is on the ground, and not just because the trees get hauled round on sleighs. Christmas trees are for families and friends, and when snow is on the ground, almost every visit to someone’s house is done by snowmobile.

The image of the Christmas tree is so closely connected to the Straits of Mackinac that, many years ago, someone in the Coast Guard asked their shipmates to make the cutter Mackinaw into a new Christmas Tree Ship. It is now 2017, and two successive Mackinaw cutters, both home-ported in Cheboygan, have delivered Christmas trees to struggling families in greater Chicago. As the Coast Guard says, “Semper nostra optima.” Always our best.

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