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Hurley’s first community Christmas tree

Historic Christmas tree
Wisconsin Historical Society
An engraving showing a family gathered around a Christmas tree

Public decorations are part of the holiday tradition in towns and communities across the Northwoods. Streets are gaily decorated, and a community Christmas Tree is put up for all to enjoy. But where did this tradition come from?

In the climactic scene of the classic 1960s Christmas special How the Grinch Stole Christmas, the Whos in Whoville gather in the town square around the place where the community Christmas Tree would have been and celebrate the arrival of Christmas Day. Despite the Grinch’s efforts, Christmas arrived anyway, and the people gathered around the one spot that symbolized both the spirit of Christmas and the solidarity of the community. The idea of a community Christmas Tree as a symbol that brings us together was moving because it was something we all recognize.

Early Americans did not decorate their homes or adorn the Town Square with Christmas Trees because such things were viewed as paganistic. German immigrants in the mid and late 19th century brought the tradition of Christmas Trees with them, and by the end of the century it was common practice to have a Christmas Tree in the home. A community tree in a public place, however, was another matter.

The idea of a community tree began in 1912 with Emilie D. Lee Herreshoff in New York City. Sympathetic to the suffering of the poor, she proposed that a community tree would allow everyone, rich and poor alike, to enjoy the holiday together. The mayor approved the plan, the Adirondack Club donated the 60-foot-tall tree, and the railroad provided the transportation. The Edison Company provided the lights, and the tree went up in Madison Square Park on December 21st.

The concept proved to be wildly popular, and within a few years towns and cities across the country were erecting community trees, including in the Northwoods. The town of Hurley, for example, put up its first community Christmas Tree in 1916.

Nellie McConnell, one of Hurley’s pioneering residents, was the primary advocate for the tree. McConnell proposed the idea to the City Council and headed the fundraising committee to solicit subscriptions to pay for the tree. She arranged for the tree to be set up on the square near the Town Hall at the intersection of Cooper Street and Third Avenue and got the Hurley Electric Company to provide the lighting. The tree was raised on Saturday, December 23.

A verse written for the raising of the New York tree in 1912 fits just as well for the Hurley tree:

“Above the bustle and wear and tear

Of a city’s life in a busy square.

The Christmas Tree stands with its open hands,

A symbol of love for all to share;

And great and small respond to the call

Of the chimes in the belfry, till one and all

Forsake the shop and gilded home,

For the voice of the Christ Child calling,”

“Come –

O come – Lo, My festival is free,

And Love is the Host at my Christmas Tree!”

Despite the severe cold, on Christmas night at 7:00 pm the people of Hurley left the warmth of their homes and gathered around their first community Christmas Tree to listen as Eileen Harrington conducted a choir of schoolchildren singing carols and hymns. Candy was available for the children, and everyone thought the tree a great success.

That is how a tradition began.

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In addition to being a historian and educator, Gary R. Entz serves on WXPR's Board of Directors and writes WXPR's A Northwoods Moment in History which is heard Wednesdays on WXPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.