Editor's Note: First published during the 1998 holiday season, this column is re-printed with good wishes to all.
Christmas trees now sparkle in millions of homes, but did you ever wonder how the tradition began? No doubt there are several stories regarding the start of this custom, and here's one I'd like to pass along.
"It's now been more than 150 years since Professor Charles Minnigerode decorated Williamsburg's first Christmas tree," says Robert C. Wilburn, president of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.
"A German native, the College of William and Mary professor brought the festive tradition with him the United States. When Nathaniel Beverley Tucker invited Professor Minnigerode to celebrate the holiday season at the St. George Tucker House, he trimmed a tree with candles and fancy paper decoration as a present for Tucker's children."
Beverley Randolph Tucker, a descendant, says that "regular sized candles were cut down and fastened on the tree, nuts were gilded, and other ornaments made. Presents were probably not distributed at this time, but there were songs, games, and refreshments." (Tales of the Tuckers, 1942).
From that humble beginning (and likely similar celebrations with other German immigrants), evolved what is now an American tradition observed in millions of homes.
As to the St. George Tucker house, it was donated to Williamsburg in 1993 after more than 200 years of family ownership. Used now as a donor hospitality center, the home is one of the most unusual examples of original colonial architecture to be found.
St. George Tucker was born in Bermuda and came to the colonies to study law at William and Mary under George Wythe, whom he later succeeded. He was a member of the collegiate Flat Hat Society -- a fraternity that evolved into what we today know as Phi Beta Kappa.
In 1788, Tucker bought three lots on the green in Williamsburg near the governor's palace. This was once the site of the first theater in America (Levingstone's) as well a small house. Tucker then built a home on the property which was expanded, wing after wing, until he decided to try something different: the house was pushed outward with the result that a visitor now finds parlors that have windows looking over the Williamsburg green as well as windows which look into the home's central hallway.
Such expansion was a necessity because Tucker had nine children and five stepchildren from two wives. While not all lived to adulthood, a family dinner could include Tucker as well as three children who served in the Congress at the same time: John Randolph (a stepson), Beverley Tucker, and Henry St. George Tucker. His brother, Charles Tucker, a physician, was appointed Treasurer of the United States by Jefferson and served from 1801 to 1828.
"When he was in his early twenties," writes Beverly Randolph Tucker, "he happened to be in Richmond during the meeting of the Assembly at St. John's Church and to have been sitting in the gallery when Patrick Henry made his famous 'Give me Liberty or Give me Death' speech and immediately afterward St. George Tucker wrote what we know of the speech today."
When the Revolution began, the British seized the Williamsburg magazine to deprive the colonialists of ammunition and powder. Believing that fair is fair, Tucker sailed to Bermuda, "liberated" the British magazine, and brought tons of ammo back to the colonialists.
After the revolution, Tucker taught at William and Mary, became a judge, and 1803 published an Americanized edition of Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England. This five-volume set is one of the foundations of our legal system and today is still in print.
Tucker held a number of opinions which are at the core of American law and custom.
On religion he wrote, "Liberty of conscience in matters of religion consists in the absolute and unrestrained exercise of our religious opinions, and duties, in that mode which our own reason and conviction dictate, without the control or intervention of any human power or authority whatsoever."
Tucker was also a strong believer in the concept of a free press.
"Liberty of speech and of discussion in all speculative matters, consists in the absolute and uncontrollable right of speaking, writing, and publishing, our opinions concerning any subject, whether religious, philosophical, or political...."
Perhaps most remarkably, in a state and a society where the ownership of slaves was equated with wealth and status, Tucker wrote "A Dissertation on Slavery: With a Proposal for the Gradual Abolition of It in the State of Virginia."
"Whilst America hath been the land of promise to Europeans," he wrote in 1796, more than 60 years before the Civil War, "it hath been the vale of death to millions of the wretched sons of Africa. The genial light of liberty, which hath shone with unrivalled lustre on the former, hath yielded no comfort to the latter...."
Tucker died in 1828, and it was his son, Nathaniel Beverley Tucker, also a judge and professor of law at William and Mary, who hosted the famous tree in 1842.
No doubt if Mr. Tucker were with us today he would extend to one and all the very best wishes for this holiday season and the coming New Year.
Published: December 23, 2003