Boston lit one of the nation’s first public Christmas trees in 1912

The lights on the city's tree flickered on half an hour before New York City's.

Tremont Street and Boston Common (c. 1910-1920)
Tremont Street and Boston Common (c. 1910-1920). –Library of Congress

The infamous rivalry between Boston and New York, which dates back to the 17th century, also extends to the first public Christmas tree — at least for Caroline Kennedy.

The first public Christmas trees were lit in Boston, New York, and Hartford on Dec. 24, 1912. Kennedy, the daughter of President John F. Kennedy, wrote about her family’s history with the Boston tree in the foreword of her 2007 anthology A Family Christmas.

In our family, we take great pride in the fact that my great grandfather Mayor John F. Fitzgerald of Boston, after whom my father was named, led the carol singing and lit the first Christmas tree on Boston Common in 1912. Growing up, I understood this to be the first public Christmas tree in America, but when I was researching this book, I came across articles suggesting otherwise.

Mayor Fitzgerald, the son of Irish immigrants, was nicknamed “Honey Fitz” for his animated personality and charm.

Fitzgerald Family 1910
John F. Fitzgerald (seated in the center) pictured in a 1910 family portrait. —The Boston Globe/File

As Kennedy researched her book, she found articles asserting that the first public Christmas tree was erected in New York’s Madison Square Park.

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“I feared I was entering a Yankees-Red Sox type rivalry, and resolved to get to the bottom of these competing claims,” she wrote.

Kennedy’s worries were eventually put to rest after a “careful comparison” of newspaper reports. In a 2007 National Public Radio interview, she spoke about how Honey Fitz’s achievement was vindicated.

But he came through with flying colors, and he lit the first Christmas tree in Boston Common, half an hour before the first Christmas tree in New York City, so wonderful and a very happy family and to this celebration and this tale.

First Christmas Tree Boston 1912
The Boston Daily Globe story about the first public Christmas tree on Dec. 25, 1912. —The Boston Globe Archive

That first public observance was a “glowing success,” with an estimated 25,000 people witnessing the “fairy scene on the Common” that Christmas Eve, according to a Boston Daily Globe story the following day.

The Christmas tree, 35 feet high, located back and a little to the north of the West-st entrance, bore a complete coating of snow which sparkled around the 2000 vari-colored lights that flamed all over the boughs and ended in a star at the top of the tree.

At “about 5 o’clock,” the electric lights on the tree were turned on. A few hours later, the Naval Brigade Band “entertained a shifting audience that must have numbered altogether 25,000 people.” The mayor “circled around through the crowd, pleased with the scene, the music and the crowd.”

Approximately 200 miles south, a similarly-sized crowd was gathering at a ceremony in Madison Square Park. At about 5:30 p.m., the tree’s electric lights were switched on.

The New-York Tribune likened the star atop the tree to a divine message.

…the magic symbol leaped out into the night at 5:30 o’clock as if Jehovah had chosen that particular denizen of the park copse to convey a message to some modern Moses, as if one of those old miracles like the burning bush had suddenly come to disturb the rationalistic philosophy of everyday New York.

Madison Square Park Historic
A Christmas tree is erected in Madison Square Park. (c. 1910-1915). —Library of Congress

On Dec. 24, the Tribune also wrote, “Boston and Hartford, Conn., following the example set here, will have public trees to-day.”

Because Kennedy focused on Boston and New York, it is unclear if she was aware of the Hartford ceremony, where the tree was lit at 5 p.m. — the same time as in Boston.

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The gathering in Bushnell Park drew an estimated 500 people, according to a Hartford Courant story from Christmas Day. The “effect of the snow and the reflections of the hundreds of electric lights on the white sloping plains of the park was like a glimpse of elf-land,” the newspaper recounted.

Back in Boston, the band struck up “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” as the ceremony continued into the night, and “everybody joined in, making a scene and a sound such as was never heard on Boston Common before on a Christmas Eve,” according to the Boston Daily Globe.