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Christmas Tree Origins and an 1896 Celebration in the North End

I always grew up with a decorated Christmas tree.

Along with the Manger, the tree seemed both a very Italian and a very Catholic thing to have in the house. The gifts were under the tree and we usually opened them on Christmas morning.

I know now, but I didn’t know then, that in Italy people give gifts on the eve of the Epiphany, January 6, and they are brought by La Befana. Today, this tradition still holds, though Babbo Natale and the giving of gifts on Christmas day are becoming more popular in Italy (and many other places, such as Japan).

Albero_di_natale_in_Piazza_del_ComuneWith antecedents, in pre-Christian practices, the Christmas tree that we know is actually a German custom, and it used to be a strictly Protestant thing. It went from Germany to England with the House of Hanover (the name for a now obscure German Kingdom and a renowned North End Street). There it spread among the middle-class by the mid-1800s with Victoria’s marriage to Prince Albert.

In the United States, the Christmas tree came earlier, going back to the 1700s perhaps, with our many German immigrants. There are in fact a few towns in the U.S., all of them places where German immigrants had settled, that lay claim to the place of the first American Christmas tree.

By the late 1900s, Christmas trees were popular throughout the United States, with Christmas ornaments imported from Germany.

Italian immigrants adapted to this American practice quickly, as they did with all things American, though in their own way.

Some time ago, I found a Boston Globe article from 1896 entitled “In ‘Little Italy’: How the People from the Sunny Land Passed the Great Festival Day in the North End.” The article describes Christmas in the North End.

The day began with a high Mass followed by a gathering in North Square to exchange news and gossip. By noon, everyone was at home, with friends and family visiting from all around Boston. The article noted that most families had Christmas trees, with one or two gifts for each member of the family and honored guests. However, the gifts were not opened until near the end of Christmas day, after the conclusion of the meal, which had begun at noon and was completed by about 8:30 p.m. (the unnamed author seemed to marvel at the length of this meal). The article ended with a note that “everywhere in the North End the same good cheer abounded.”

So, it looks like my Italian, Catholic custom was really a product of the Americanization and even, dare I say, Protestantization of the Italian immigrants who came the United States. That does not matter to me of course, just as I don’t think it will matter to you. The Christmas tree is a beautiful custom and an essential part of Christmas. We can’t wait to put ours up.

Merry Christmas!

About James Pasto

James S. Pasto is a senior lecturer at Boston University, co-founder of the North End Historical Society and editor of the society's journal. To share stories about North End's past, e-mail pasto@bostoniano.info. To find out more about the North End Historical Society, visit alexgoldfeld.com/NEHS.html.