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The Glowing History of New Haven’s Annual Tree Lighting [updated 2023]

As we head into the holiday season, Market New Haven had the pleasure of speaking with Colin Caplan, New Haven resident, historian, author, and pizza historian, about everyone’s favorite holiday festivity – the 110th annual holiday tree lighting, which takes place every year on the New Haven Green. Read what he had to say about this centuries-old tradition, and what it means to the people of New Haven. 

“The improvement of New Haven’s civic life became a focus of city leaders at the beginning of the 20th century, as exemplified by the first public Christmas tree lighting on the New Haven Green in 1913. With a growing city full of hopeful immigrant families, well-to-do long-time residents, and a robust population of civically minded men and women, New Haven recognized the need for more public ceremonies. The Christmas tree lighting act began in Germany as a custom called ‘Tannenbaum’ made its way to these shores with German immigrants a century or more prior. Its popularity found roots in American households, societies, churches, and stores, and the tree, with its flickering flames, represented faith, life, light, and hope.

Christmas trees were lit in private homes, department stores, churches, community organizations, and social clubs, but New Haven was without a public tree lighting ceremony for many years. The first wave of public tree lightings in American cities began in 1912 to connect people of all classes and backgrounds, ushering in a new American ideal for what Christmas meant as a public celebration. The first cities to celebrate included New York City, Boston, San Francisco, Hartford, and New Britain. The message made it to New Haven the following year when Amelie Sternberg Traut, the child of German parents and wife of a New Britain industrialist, lectured on the merits of a public Christmas tree lighting to the Woman’s Club of New Haven on October 10, 1913.

By late 1913, the enthusiasm behind the public Christmas tree lighting was heating up in New Haven, with members of the Women’s Club of New Haven encouraging Mayor Frank Rice to plan this celebration. With support from the New Haven Civic Federation, the mayor appointed a tree lighting committee headed by Lila M. Atwater, aided by other civically engaged city women. Thanks to that committee, an inclusive celebration was organized to benefit impoverished children and their families starting on Christmas Eve on the New Haven Green.

The plan included hoisting a large evergreen tree up in the middle of the Green and attaching strings of hundreds of colored electric lights with a star at the top. United Illuminating donated the electricity, and a local contractor offered their service for free. At 6:00 p.m., Mayor Rice pressed the button, lighting up the tree and beginning the festivities. A big band of Second Company Governor’s Foot Guard musicians accompanied 200 schoolchildren singing Christmas carols. That first evening, thousands of New Haveners attended the event. The tree stayed lit until New Year’s Eve, providing a glowing beacon for a hopeful future.

New Haven’s community Christmas tree lighting tradition continued year after year, growing in size and importance. The tradition has maintained its purpose for the greater community after over 100 years of public celebration. The ideals of these original civic-minded city leaders for an inclusive community celebration bringing light and warmth to the neediest is a tradition that helps renew bonds and begin new ones for New Haveners for years to follow.”

The 110th Annual City of New Haven Tree Lighting will take place on the New Haven Green on Thursday, Nov. 30 [2023] from 5:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Come on out to celebrate the holiday season and the history of this glowing New Haven tradition. The event will feature entertainment, amusement rides, a petting zoo, food trucks, and special guests! 

Originally Published Nov. 30, 2022

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