When talking to the director of Kutztown’s American Folklife Institute, Richard Shaner spoke of last year’s Easter egg tree decorated at the Hendel House, a residential museum on Centre Avenue of the Berks County Historical Society. The museum staff decorated the tree with colorful Easter painted eggs, (which had their inner portion removed) was a very delightful attraction, some traditional dated specimens were very old.
Shaner said, “They likened my memory to the bare sassafras trees wrapped in cotton for Christmases,” as he remembered in his childhood with neighbors, John and Marion Kutz, whose family lived next door on Front Street in Reading, who shared this tradition. These were the early World War II years and local families living in Berks County could not waste their hard earned money on buying expensive live pine trees to decorate for Christmas.
“In those depressed war years before we had many Christmas tree nursery farms growing hundreds of pine trees for market, real pine trees were indeed expensive,” Shaner recounted.
Chris Miller, a trustee at the Berks County Historical Society, who helped create the beautiful historic Hendel Mansion Easter egg tree, also recalled that these cotton wrapped sassafras trees were a delightful alternative to the real thing, a spruce, pine, cedar, or fir tree.
Even in recent decades, whenever a Dutch family came upon hard times and could not afford a fresh pine Christmas tree, an astute member of the family sometimes suggested the idea of cutting down a sassafras tree, since they grew like weeds along the highway and were abundant. Embellishing them by wrapping each branch with strips of quilting cotton, just as if it was covered by an onion of snow (snow after St. Patrick’s Day) or blizzard covering each and every limb, and hanging with bright Christmas tree ornaments.
“Cotton was cheap in those days,” Shaner recalled, and this also provided necessary family time to commune and wrap each branch, which brought the family together.
Besides saving money, each family who displayed one of these works of art also was creating a family portrait of ingenuity. But the John Kutz and Shaner families would never think of decorating a Christmas tree without having a Dutch Christmas Putz or train yard beneath it, with the essential Jesus nativity.
The locomotion train yard with buildings and age old Christmas heirlooms were intermixed with hand crafted and beautifully lead cast deer or plaster cast barn animals. Even though wrapped in cotton, these stately sassafras trees towered above their meticulously laid out Christmas Putz landscapes and did not hide any scene from the viewer, as would a pine tree thick with evergreen branches.
Thereby, when a family decided to wrap a tree with cotton strips, they were more concerned about its balanced decoration, and creating a good train or putz yard beneath it. Likewise, after putting all their creativity in this winter wonderland snow creation, they were reluctant to tear it down, so some families stored wrapped trees in the attic.
A few years ago, while visiting with the redware potter, Lester Breininger, I was astonished to see that he also wrapped leaveless trees in cotton for Christmas, a very beautiful one at that. And when on occasion our nation decides to conserve energy and protect our national resources, local people might resort back to decorating wild sassafras trees along our roads.
But one thrifty woman I talked to did have a clever space-saving trick by taking the cloth off a useless old umbrella and wrapped the open metal spokes in cotton. Not easily wrapped, she did save space in her Christmas parlor by hanging it from the old ceiling fixture, with Christmas balls and tinsel.
The ideal size for an old fashioned wrapped sassafras tree seems to be five foot high, and perhaps these folk art creations made more appeal when “in wartime we had Victory gardens and paper drives, and also crushed tin cans for the metal they contained for the war effort,” Shaner said.
Dr. Alfred L, Shoemaker’s exceptional book “Christmas in Pennsylvania,” printed in 1959 by his Pennsylvania Folklife Society on Kutztown’s Main Street, has always been an outstanding folk cultural study on the subject of local Christmas practices and folk art. In its 50th anniversary, a reprint has just been made available by StackPole Books, with an introduction and afterword by Dr. Don Yoder. Yoder provides further insight.
Although Shoemaker may have thought Christmas trees wrapped in cotton were part of the textile industrial age of nearby Reading and elsewhere, I’m glad to see that Yoder included a wonderful example of a sassafras cotton tree in this anniversary book, photographed in Philadelphia in 1912.
A sassafras tree wrapped in cotton, The Norristown Register spoke of one on Jan. 1, 1878, bearing eggshells on its branches and a second one in the Moravian issue on Dec. 20, 1893, but this one bearing empty eggshells, (blown eggs) is a fastidious craft.
Grandmother, Nancy, living in Fleetwood, recalls using red bell ornaments on their cotton wrapped trees. I congratulate Yoder for updating this valuable record of celebrating Christmas in Pennsylvania, by including a rare cotton wrapped Christmas tree photo from the collection of Boyd Hitchner.
However, the excitement of decorating a cotton wrapped tree at Christmas time with bright Christmas ornaments and candy canes with popcorn cannot be beat, as many locals practiced it.
Cornelius Weygandt in his 1936 book The Blue Hills, about the PA Dutch people, featured an early cotton wrapped Easter egg tree made by Mrs. Elmer L. Palsgrove, of Reading, who including an Easter rabbit Putz beneath her colorful tree. Thereby, Weygandt taught Americans about this early Dutch idea and now Yoder has brought attention back to the Christmas wrapped cotton tree.
Observing older photographs of churches decorated for Christmas, I realized that local country churches decorate wild spruce or cedar trees. Slender and tall, these native trees from the field and forest brought into the church sanctuary took on significance for the congregation that surpassed the most expensive groomed nursery pine they could afford to purchase.
Outfitted with the church’s seasonal finery and praise to Jesus the Lord God, our rural worshippers practiced a religious humility rarely seen in high fashioned urban churches or cathedrals, next to the simplicity of Dutch people creating cotton wrapped Easter egg trees or Christmas ones.
Richard L.T. Orth is the assistant director of the American Folklife Institute in Kutztown.