If you think that Americans invented the Christmas tree, you would be wrong. That honor goes to the Germans, who began decorating their native trees way back in the 15th Century. Americans can, however, take pride in that we took the German tannenbaum to a new level. We put lights on them. We make them out of plastic. We make them spin, dance and even play music. Although tannenbaums are supposed to be green - it says so in the words of the song - we paint them blue, white, red, yellow and even pink, Pink! This is the story of our first city Christmas tree and its role in the history of Christmas in Georgia.
The Christmas tree first came into vogue in England during the reign of Queen Victoria through her relationship to Germany. On this side of the Atlantic, some ministers in the United States believed that the tree was an abomination and a pagan symbol.
The ladies of Macon sent out a request in December 1861 for contributions of gifts and money to have a tree decorated with tinsel, hand made paper decorations and gift cards. The promoters charged a small fee for entrance to the Christmas Eve party to help fund the relief of the beloved soldiers who were enduring their first Christmas away from home during the Civil War.
The first mention of a Christmas tree in the Dublin papers was the time when Capt. Rollin A. Stanley and Rev. T.W. Johnson, superintendents of the Baptist and Methodist Sunday schools, planned a Christmas party for the little children at the Troup House on South Jefferson Street on Christmas night in 1879. The children were entertained with music, food, and plenty of fireworks. Though the night was cold and the crowd too big for the hotel, everyone went home satisfied.
Edward H. Johnson, a Thomas Edison associate, is generally credited with creating the first electrically illuminated Christmas tree with eighty red, white and blue pecan size light bulbs at his home in New York during the 1882 Christmas season. San Diego, California holds the honor of having the first municipal Christmas tree. Further up the West Coast, Pasadena joined the list in 1909. New York's lighted tree was turned on in 1912.
The Christmas season of 1913 was a nightmare for the law-abiding citizens and merchants of Dublin. Firework shooters were out of control. Fire fighters along with cotton merchants, and especially their insurance agents, were horrified at the thought of a stray roman candle or rocket landing in a bale of cotton lying beside a wooden warehouse building.
An editorial writer described the commotion: "Life and property were in danger, so much that citizens feared to venture on the streets, and plate glass fronts were smashed on all sides. Persons were knocked down and injured by rockets, or had some idiot to burn their clothing with Roman candles, while cannon crackers that endangered windows and doors by the jar when they were exploded half a block off were fired without protest by the police or the city authorities. The police could do little because permission had been given to the 'funmakers' by someone in higher authority, and the result was that the rowdy and the roughnecks went as far as they pleased."
So, the city council decided to take action when the police force would not. A license tax of $1,000.00 was placed on dealers who sold skyrockets and large firecrackers. Merchants who sold other less explosive fireworks, such as Roman candles, sparklers and bomb sticks, paid the usual fee of $10.00. The ordinance seemed to work as no one paid the larger fee.
The mayor and council were serious. Fireworks ordinances were going to be strictly enforced. The council invited the people of the country to come into town, promising them that they would be free of fear and harm.
The ladies of the Women's Christian Temperance Union were serious as well. They knew that the miscreant behavior was due in part to the use of alcohol. In order to divert the attention of the party goers, the ladies planned a caroling from the library to the courthouse on Christmas Eve of 1914.
Leading the committee were minister's wives, Mrs. W.F. Mott, Mrs. T.W. Callaway and Mrs. Whitney Langston. By using children as carolers, the ladies felt sure that no scoundrel would dare shoot a firework in their direction. Once the children arrived at the courthouse, the public was invited inside for an extended program of Christmas music.
The plan worked. There was not a firework fiend in sight on that Holy night. "For the first time in several years, it was possible to walk through the business section without risking life and limb in the saturnalia of fireworks," a Courier Herald writer reported.
With the end of an old tradition, a new tradition began. A large cut tree was placed on the courthouse square. Electrician C.F. Ludwig strung a long string of colored electric lamps around the evergreen tree. On the tree top, Ludwig placed a large star outlined with electric lamps. Ludwig's donation of the material brought forth many favorable opinions.
It would be the first time that Dublin and Laurens County had a municipal Christmas tree. It would also be the first time that a city in Georgia had a lighted tree.
The merchants were also happy. After a few days of acceptable business due to bad weather, storekeepers were delighted that they had more business than they could handle. Most of the large crowd hung around and patronized the soda fountains and engaged in a lot of last-minute Christmas shopping. It was nearly 10 o'clock before the streets began to clear.
Another pleasant aspect of the day actually took place in the courthouse. Laurens County Ordinary W.A. Wood reported a state record of twenty marriage applications were issued on the day before Christmas.
The tradition of a Christmas tree lasted for many years under the direction of the city light and water commission with free help from the electricians and telephone linemen of the city. The large tree, loaded with lights and topped by a brilliant star array, illuminated the entire courthouse square and could be seen from blocks. From time to time it was resurrected, but never on the scale of the 1921 tree, which was reported to be as tall as the courthouse, or the very first time we lit the tannenbaum, ninety-five years ago this Christmas.