Established at St. George Tucker House, Colonial Williamsburg
By Bob Ruegsegger
At the end of Nicholson Street adjacent to the Palace Green in Colonial Williamsburg, the St. George Tucker House generally attracts considerable attention—especially during the Christmas holidays.
Plaques and sprays with boxwood, red cedar, bittersweet, and assorted fruit might accent the doors. Fir wreaths decked with pineapples, pomegranates, and oranges may adorn the front gate. While such fresh, natural holiday embellishments are certainly enchanting, the St. George Tucker House is also the inaugural site of an equally charming convention.
Although Colonial Williamsburg visitors frequently stop on the pebbled path to carefully examine the rambling exterior of the stately old Colonial home with its imposing chimneys and tasteful holiday decorations, few of those who pass the edifice have any idea of the very significant addition to American holiday tradition which took place within it walls 160 years ago.
On December 24, 1842, the Christmas tree—as we know it today—made its Old Dominion debut in the parlor of the St. George Tucker House. Before that time, Virginians had been quite content with the traditional English garlands and wreaths made from freshly cut indigenous greens such as holly, pine, and spruce.
Professor Charles Frederick Ernest Minnegerode, a German political refugee who taught Latin and Greek at the College of William and Mary, helped Virginians to start a new Christmas Yuletide tradition in Virginia — the Christmas tree.
Professor Minnegerode and Judge Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, colleagues at William and Mary, became fast friends. Judge Tucker, a genial, kind-hearted man, took the displaced, young German under his wing. Minnegerode frequented Judge Tucker’s home which faced Market Square Green.
On the Eve of Christmas, Minnegerode — apparently nostalgic for the holiday traditions of his youth in Hesse-Darmstadt — suggested to Judge Tucker that he be allowed to host a German-style holiday celebration in Judge Tucker’s home as a Christmas gift to the Tucker children. The judge thought Minnegerode’s proposal was a superb idea and readily agreed to his young friend’s proposition.
Following the German custom, Minnegerode and the Tucker children wrapped themselves warmly against the elements and trudged off to the local woods to cut a suitable tree to decorate. They eventually chose a small but particularly well-shaped evergreen.
Minnegerode with the enthusiastic assistance of the Tucker children embellished the freshly cut Christmas tree with gilded nuts, marbleized paper, and strings of popcorn; they positioned a tiny crown of gilded paper on the small tree’s apex. As a practical measure of precaution against the ravages of fire, several buckets of water were placed nearby. Minnegerode fastened candle stubs to the little tree’s branches and lit them. It was arguably the first grand illumination in Williamsburg’s long and glorious history and the first documented Christmas tree in Virginia.
Judge Tucker’s family and friends from around the region braved the winter weather and assembled at the Tucker’s Williamsburg home to celebrate Christmas Eve along with John Randolph Tucker’s (Judge Tucker’s nephew) birthday.
Gathered in the Tucker parlor they listened as Minnegerode, once a student of theology shared the German folk tale of how the twinkling of the stars between the branches of the trees at night induced Martin Luther to place lights on a fir tree to brighten the Christmas of his son. After Minnegerode concluded his poignant story, Christmas carols and hymns were heartily sung, and small gifts were passed out to the elated children. It was said that “supreme excitement reigned in the Tucker family.”
The German-style holiday celebration, needless to say, was a great success. Judge Tucker was so captivated by Professor Minnegerode’s German Yuletide customs that he continued the holiday tradition for the remainder of his life. Word of the fabulous German Christmas tree spread throughout Williamsburg—and eventually throughout Virginia.
The very next year, August Bodeker, another German immigrant carefully placed a “candle-illuminated tree” in the window of his Richmond apothecary shop. That was the next verifiable report of a Christmas tree in the Old Dominion. Apparently, there was simply no turning back from there. Virginians would never again be content with only wreaths and garlands to brighten their holiday season.
A sentimental German professor who taught Latin and Greek at the College William and Mary established a new holiday tradition that has continued to thoroughly delight the citizens of Virginia for more than 165 years.
In years past, a small tree has been placed in the parlor of the St. George Tucker House during the Christmas season as a remembrance of that marvelous occasion when the first Christmas tree, resplendent with candles and decorations, initiated a new Yuletide tradition in Virginia.
When holiday visitors—and local residents—gather in Market Square near the Powder Magazine to witness the illumination of an enormous evergreen on Christmas Eve, few realize that they are in reality commemorating the events of that Christmas Eve of long ago at the St. George Tucker House.
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Historical Footnotes: Charles Frederick Earnest Minnegerode studied for the Episcopal ministry and eventually became the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Richmond. During the War Between the States, Reverend Minnegerode became the spiritual adviser of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederate States of America. Nathaniel Beverley Tucker died in 1851 and was buried in Bruton Parish Churchyard. After serving the Confederacy during the War between the States, St. George Tucker’s grandson, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, graduated from the Theological Seminary of Virginia in 1873 and ultimately became rector of St. Paul’s Church in Norfolk.