Many of America’s Yuletide customs were brought to Pennsylvania by European immigrants. Of them, a various number of our modern holiday traditions first occurred in Lancaster or nearby surrounding areas.
America’s First Christmas Tree
Christmas trees were popular in Europe long before they became a tradition here. In an interesting twist of irony, this iconic symbol of the holiday spirit was brought to the United States by Hessian mercenaries hired by the British to kill American insurgents during the Revolutionary War. The first Americans to see a Christmas tree were likely the guards at the Hessian prison barracks in Carlisle in 1777.
The popularity of the Christmas tree in America was slow to grow. For decades many Americans considered the Christmas tree to be symbolic of pagan religions. Many New England communities passed laws banning the Christmas tree. Similarly, other modern Christmas traditions were declared illegal, such as carol singing and Santa Claus. Hefty fines awaited those who violated the bans.
The Scandinavians and Germans of Pennsylvania and later New York were the only colonists allowed to have fun at Christmas. Things changed in 1859 when Massachusetts became the first state to declare Christmas a legal holiday.
The first documented Christmas tree in the commonwealth belonged to Lancaster resident Matthias Zahm. His 1821 diary entry reads, “Sally & our Thos. & Wm. Hensel was out for Christmas trees, on the hill at Kendrick’s saw mill.”
It is unlikely that this was the first actual Christmas tree in Lancaster County, let alone the United States, but it is the earliest recorded example of one.
Here’s another fun fact. Pennsylvania’s German settlers in the Biglerville area north of Gettysburg baked the first Christmas cookies.