O (Schuylkill) Christmas Tree!
Some historians hold that the first White House Christmas tree was brought by President Franklin Pierce in 1856. Others dispute that stating that Christmas was not a national holiday until President Grant declared it so in 1870. Most White House historians however agree that in 1889, President Benjamin Harrison’s family did trim and decorate a White House tree with popcorn, candles and tinsel.
Electric string lights (single bulbs, hand strung) adorned the White House tree in 1895 under the watchful eye of President Grover Cleveland. Conservationist Theodore Roosevelt attempted to halt the tradition; not because he was a Grinch but rather due to his conservationist views. He firmly believed that this tradition was contributing to deforestation and wanted to set an example for the rest of the nation. After his son Archie secretly brought a tree into the White House, Teddy Roosevelt finally eased his opposition but not until after receiving counsel from his Chief of Forestry Gifford Pinchot, who informed the President that thinning out trees was good for the overall crop. Later, in the early 1920s, President Calvin Coolidge held the first national tree lighting ceremony at Capitol Ellipse without saying a word.
A Schuylkill County tree was selected by First Lady Hillary Clinton as the official White House Christmas tree in 2000, the last year of her husband’s presidency. It was an 18 ½-foot Douglas fir grown on Evergreen Acres in West Brunswick Township, near Auburn. That tree farm is operated by Paul Shealer and his wife Sharon and was started by Mr. Shealer’s grandfather in 1936.
The tree farm is located near the area where Fort Lebanon once stood. That fort was a colonial Pennsylvania military post erected in 1755 by order of Benjamin Franklin to protect these early wilderness settlers from Indian attacks during the French and Indian War. It now remembered with a state historical marker.
In colonial Pennsylvania, if one belonged to the Episcopal Church, Christmas was observed but not so for Quakers, Mennonites or Presbyterians. But it was the early German settlers in Schuylkill County, including Moravians who established many of the Christmas traditions that we still hold to today, such as the Christmas tree, candles in the window, and music.
Was there some low key Christmas observance at the garrison by the 53 soldiers stationed there? There is no written documentation but perhaps there was. What we do know is that there was no USO Christmas Show at the Fort as the “United States” was still but a gleam in Thomas Jefferson’s eye.
Three White House staff members ventured to Schuylkill County to examine and select the presidential tree. Mr. Shealer told the press that the 700 pound tree had been planted twenty years ago as a three year old sapling. The Shealers had the tree cut and personally delivered it to Washington in a converted boat trailer towed behind their pick-up truck. Arriving in Washington, bomb-sniffing dogs and a security team greeted the family and the evergreen.
For the official photo-op ceremony the security-cleared Schuylkill tree was carted up the presidential driveway in a green horse drawn wagon and carefully carried into the White House to be displayed in the Oval blue room. As it was the eighth and last year of the Clinton Administration, the holiday theme was “Holiday Reflections” with the tree decorated with ornaments that reflected the past seven years, as well as 2700 lights. Mrs. Clinton welcomed Mr. and Mrs. Shealer and their two teenage children, Briana and Paul, Jr. into the White House for tea and cookies. Briana was surprised with a thoughtful personal birthday cake as it was her 18th birthday.
The Schuylkill County tree that graced the White House was taken down in January 2001. In a few weeks, with the recent presidential election decided, the Schuylkill Douglas fir tree was gone from the White House and a Bush moved in.
The SCHS’s Annual Appeal is now underway please remember the Society during this joyous holiday season. Donations can be made in person, by mail and by Paypal.