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Origin Story: Philly’s First Public Christmas

Philadelphia’s First Community Christmas Tree, frontispiece in The First Year Book of The Child Federation ( 1913-1914)

“To the waifs of fortune,” one news story began, to the “men, women and children whose lives have been passed in bleak wandering as outcasts of society, there will be afforded a taste of Christmas joy.”

The donors backing Philadelphia’s Child Federation, the newly-founded philanthropic organization whose usual mission was the reduction of infant mortality, augmented their first year’s giving with a grand gesture of public beneficence: installing a giant, 63-foot Christmas tree on Independence Square.

Twenty thousand citizens packed the square on December 24, 1913 and “turned their faces toward” the city’s “first Christmas tree that ever was set up for all the people of the city.” Mayor Rudolph Blankenburg “flashed on 4,200 red, white and blue lights” before Lucretia, his wife, illuminated the large “electric star” at its pinnacle.

The gathered crowd then enjoyed a concert by the 45-piece First Regiment Band, ancient Christmas chorales performed by the famous Moravian trombonists from Bethlehem, and the 700 voices of the United Singers of Philadelphia featuring “Holy Night,” “Peaceful Night,” and “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.”

Independence Square, Christmas Tree, December 1913 (PhillyHistory.org)

At the center of it all was a mammoth Norway spruce found at the Parry farm near Rancocas, New Jersey, after a five-state search. Nine days earlier, the tree had been shuttled down the Delaware River from Bridgeboro to the Vine Street pier. If all had gone according to plan, the tree would have been greeted by officials, a band and 2,000 schoolchildren.

But dusk came and went without the tree. The band waited patiently; the schoolchildren not so much–they were corralled for hours on the dock by mounted police tasked with keeping the “youngsters from falling into the Delaware.”

“There was really considerable comedy, instead of Christmas spirit, reported the Inquirer.

Eventually, the “long-lost tug and its tow were sighted off Port Richmond” but the band and the school children had gone home. Even the mounted police “gave it up . . . and galloped away.”

Arriving alone in chilly darkness, the tree was “unceremoniously dumped along the waterfront at Vine Street” to “the sibilant maledictions of a crew of riggers.” The reception committee had diminished to a handful of “disappointed officials, night custom inspectors, a detail of policeman, six wharf rats, four teamsters, several Jerseyites waiting for a ferry, and 87 newspapermen.”

Navigating the tree the last mile through the streets was delayed as riggers realized there was no way to avoid the overhead trolley wires. It took “a long conference, several protracted telephonic conversations” before a decision to postpone work until after midnight “when the trolley company could raise overhead wires.”

The tree arrived at Independence Square just before dawn.

Upright and decorated, it was an immediate popular attraction. An estimated 350,000 visited before the tree was taken down, stripped of its branches and recycled as a flag pole at the Kingsessing Recreation playground, 50th Street and Chester Avenue.

The idea of a public display of Christmas, built around a monumental tree in a prominent civic space, had gotten off the ground. It would continue to grow as a civic, if not always philanthropic, competition.

[Sources: [The First Year Book of The Child Federation Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1913-14 (1914); from The Philadelphia Inquirer: “Big Christmas Tree in the Square Planned,” October 1, 1913; “Giant Xmas Tree Found for Independence Square,” November 23, 1913; “Gay Reception For Tree Fails,” December 16, 1913; “Gigantic Spruce Hauled Through Streets,” December 16, 1913; “Big Tree Put Up,” December 21, 1913; “Bethlehem Star In Great Spruce Shines on 20,000,” December 25, 1913.]

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