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How America got its first Christmas tree

Christmas trees now sparkle in millions of homes, but did you ever wonder how the tradition began? No doubt there are several stories regarding the start of this custom, and here’s one I’d like to pass along.

“It’s now been more than 150 years since Professor Charles Minnigerode decorated Williamsburg’s first Christmas tree,” says Robert C. Wilburn, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

“A German native, the College of William and Mary professor brought the festive tradition with him to the United States. When Nathaniel Beverley Tucker invited Professor Minnigerode to celebrate the holiday season at the St. George Tucker House, he trimmed a tree with candles and fancy paper decoration as a present for Tucker’s children.”

Beverley Randolph Tucker, a descendant, says “regular sized candles were cut down and fastened on the tree, nuts were gilded, and other ornaments made. Presents were probably not distributed at this time, but there were songs, games, and refreshments.” (See: Tales of the Tuckers, Dietz Printing Co., Richmond, VA, 1942).

From that humble beginning (and no doubt similar celebrations with other immigrants), evolved what is now a tradition observed in millions of American homes.

The St. George Tucker House

As to the St. George Tucker house, it was donated to Williamsburg in 1993 after more than 200 years of family ownership. Used now as a donor hospitality center, the home is one of the most unusual examples of original colonial architecture to be found.

St. George Tucker was born in Bermuda in 1752 and came to the colonies to study law at William and Mary under George Wythe, whom he later succeeded. He was a member of the collegiate Flat Hat Society — a fraternity that evolved into what we today know as Phi Beta Kappa.

In 1788, Tucker bought three lots on the green in Williamsburg near the governor’s palace. This was once the site of the first theater in America (Levingstone’s) as well a small house. Tucker then built a home on the property which was expanded, wing after wing, until he decided to try something different: the house was pushed forward with the result that a visitor now finds parlors that have windows looking over the Williamsburg green as well as windows which look into the home’s central hallway. (Today there is actually a modern version designed in the style of original house.)

Such expansion was a necessity because Tucker had nine children and five stepchildren from two wives. While not all lived to adulthood, a family dinner could include Tucker as well as three children who served in the Congress at the same time: Beverley Tucker, Henry St. George Tucker and John Randolph (a stepson). His brother, Thomas T. Tucker, a physician, was appointed Treasurer of the United States by Jefferson and served from 1801 to 1828.

(A third brother, Henry Tucker, was President of the Bermuda Governor’s Council. Today the Tucker House in St. George’s Bermuda is a national museum while in Hamilton the famous Bermuda Underwater Exploration Institute was founded by a family descendant, Teddy Tucker. Teddy Tucker, in turn, was the basis for Peter Benchley’s book, The Deep.)

The Revolution


“When he was in his early twenties,” writes Beverly Randolph Tucker of St. George Tucker, “he happened to be in Richmond during the meeting of the Assembly at St. John’s Church and to have been sitting in the gallery when Patrick Henry made his famous ‘Give me Liberty or Give me Death‘ speech and immediately afterward St. George Tucker wrote what we know of the speech today.”

When the Revolution began, the British seized the Williamsburg magazine to deprive the colonialists of ammunition and powder. Believing that fair is fair, Tucker sailed to Bermuda, “liberated” the British magazine, and brought tons of arms and ammo back to the colonialists.

Legacy

After the revolution, Tucker taught law at William and Mary, became a judge, and in 1803 published an Americanized edition of Blackstone’s Commentaries. This five-volume set is one of the foundations of our legal system and today is still in print.

St. George Tucker held a number of opinions which are at the core of American law and custom.

On religion he wrote, “liberty of conscience in matters of religion consists in the absolute and unrestrained exercise of our religious opinions, and duties, in that mode which our own reason and conviction dictate, without the control or intervention of any human power or authority whatsoever.”

Tucker was also a strong believer in the concept of a free press.

“Liberty of speech and of discussion in all speculative matters, consists in the absolute and uncontrollable right of speaking, writing, and publishing, our opinions concerning any subject, whether religious, philosophical, or political….”

Perhaps most remarkably, in a state and a society where the ownership of slaves was equated with wealth and status, and where Tucker was among the wealthiest people in Virginia, he wrote in 1796 — more than 60 years before the start of the Civil War — an essay entitled A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia.

“Whilst America hath been the land of promise to Europeans, and their descendants, it hath been the vale of death to millions of the wretched sons of Africa,” he wrote. “The genial light of liberty, which hath here shone with unrivalled lustre on the former, hath yielded no comfort to the latter, but to them hath proved a pillar of darkness, whilst it hath conducted the former to the most enviable state of human existence. Whilst we were offering up vows at the shrine of Liberty, and sacrificing hecatombs upon her altars; whilst we swore irreconcilable hostility to her enemies, and hurled defiance in their faces; whilst we adjured the God of Hosts to witness our resolution to live free, or die, and imprecated curses on their heads who refused to unite with us in establishing the empire of freedom; we were imposing upon our fellow men, who differ in complexion from us, a slavery, ten thousand times more cruel than the utmost extremity of those grievances and oppressions, of which we complained.”

Tucker died in 1827, and it was his son, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, also a judge and professor of law at William and Mary, who hosted the famous tree in 1842.

No doubt if Mr. Tucker were with us today he would extend to one and all the very best wishes for this holiday season and the coming New Year.

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Published originally by Realty Times on December 25, 2005, posted with permission and expanded from the original. This post is re-published annually and with good wishes to all.

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