Updated: Jan 14, 2020
Cincinnati Historical Society Photo: Fountain Square Christmas Tree lighting 1928.
It is believed that Dr. Ludwig Rehfuss was responsible for the first Christmas tree in Cincinnati sometime in the early 1830’s. Dr. Rehfuss, an immigrant from Baden, arrived in the Queen City in 1833 about a decade before the major migration of Germans to Cincinnati, becoming a prominent member of the city’s German community as an advocate of the German language in Cincinnati schools and one of the publishers of the Volksblatt, a German language newspaper.
The “modern” Christmas tree however, dates back to the late Renaissance in German speaking areas of Europe, though the evergreen tree clearly had religious significance across the pre-Christian Europe. By the 19th century, decorated trees were a widely accepted part of German culture and the practice of erecting a tree, often on Christmas Eve , was carried by German immigrants to the United States.
As a child, I remember hanging delicate glass ornaments with candle wax dripping that originally belonged to my great grandmother. Trees were often decorated with candles dating back to the 16th century until candles were replaced by temperamental electric light bulbs, which became popular in the 1920’s and 1930’s. The soft warm light of candles sounds quaint, but the candles posed a tremendous fire hazard requiring constant attention making electric light the clearly favored alternative in the early 20th century. The familiar strands of electric lights were first developed by Edward Johnson, Vice President of Thomas Edison's Electric Light Company between 1880 and 1882, but proved to be expensive and impractical for most middle class families until the 1920’s when electricity became a common feature in homes.
Early German trees were also decorated with apples, nuts, cookies and berries. Later ribbons, and small toys were added, the influence of Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg, Queen Victoria’s husband, who made a practice of erecting a tree in Windsor Castle throughout the 1840’s. However, the glass ornaments we traditionally associate with Christmas trees were first made by German glass blower Hans Greiner in the late 16th century. Though common in Germany by the end of the 19th century, the glass ornament was in limited use in the United States until F.W. Woolworth's started importing the glass baubles from Germany in the 1880’s.
By the 1920's then, the traditional Christmas tree as we imagine it, was a common sight in Cincinnati homes. Large public trees also became common place in the late 1800’s with the first tree put up on Fountain Square in 1913.