First Municipal Christmas Tree?

Last Friday’s tree lighting ceremony has a long history here in Dundas. It was held for the first time in 1914, and contemporary accounts boast that the tree was the first of its kind in Canada. It has been held yearly since then, with the exception of 2020, due to safety concerns, and was held virtually for 2021. Curiosity begs whether attendees of the 1918 ceremony had similar concerns or whether the deadly flu left as suddenly as it had arrived.

A brief blurb from the Dundas Star December 17th 1914, describing preparations for the first Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
From the Dundas Star, December 17, 1914.
December 24th, 1914 article describing the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony
From the Dundas Star, December 24, 1914.

While there are no surviving copies of the programme Santa supposedly arranged to be printed and distributed “so that everybody may obtain a souvenir of the first Municipal Christmas Tree celebration to be held in Canada,” the DMA collection does include the programme from the 2nd Municipal Christmas Tree celebration, held December 23, 1915:

2nd Municipal Christmas Tree Program
Programme for the Christmas Tree Lighting, December 23, 1915.

Although it’s difficult to be sure, this celebration may very well have been the first of its kind in Canada. The tradition of the Christmas tree originated in Germany, an older tradition first documented in the sixteenth century. It was adopted by the British after being popularized by the royal family, who had celebrated with one since at least 1800. Canada’s British and German immigrants brought the tradition with them, and evidence suggests the first North American Christmas Tree was hoisted in 1781 for a Quebec party of British and German officers. Electric lighting for these trees wasn’t invented until 100 years later, in 1882, by Edward Johnson of the Edison Electric Company, and available commercially circa 1890 (Canadian Encylopedia). The mayor of Dundas in 1914, W.H.C. Fisher, offers the town to Santa for the day, saying that he has “the freedom of Dundas, the “Hub of Hydro”. Much ado is made about the lights and lighting in the 1915 programme also, suggesting it was still both a novelty and luxury.

A souvenir coin from the DMA collection (2012.047.010), advertising Dundas as “The Hub of the Hydro and Highway Systems”, date unknown.
8.00 His Worship, Mayor Fisher, will press the button (illuminating the tree)

There are reports in Canadian newspapers of the 1913 New York City municipal Christmas tree lighting, referencing the success of their first in December 1912, as well as another in Chicago in 1913. If it wasn’t the very first in Canada, Dundas’ 1914 ceremony was certainly among the earliest, as the celebration’s popularity as a public event quickly brought it north of the border. While there were school trees, church trees, hospital trees, and business trees, so far, no references have emerged to an earlier municipal Christmas Tree in Canada.

The second celebration appears to have had a more military theme than the first due to the intensification of WWI, and the programme includes the phrase “Long Live Santa Claus” just above “God Save the King” at the bottom of the page. The event was also a fundraiser/clothing drive for soldiers’ hospitals “as comforts to our wounded soldier lads”, with children encouraged to bring either a monetary or homemade gift for Santa rather than receiving one from their “old friend”. These would be handed over to the “ladies who are doing such noble work”, the Women’s Patriotic League and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and sent to the front, along with $123 raised by the organizing committee.

Dundas’ Christmas Tree has a 108-year history— may it shine on through another century!