History Nebraska Blog

Christmas Trees Opposed by J. Sterling Morton

J. Sterling Morton and his newspaper staff in Nebraska City on May 29, 1899. NSHS RG1013-PH30-11 (at left).

J. Sterling Morton (1832-1902) had a distinguished political career in this state, serving twice in the territorial legislature, as territorial secretary from 1858 to 1861, and on two occasions as acting territorial governor. He also served as secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture under President Grover Cleveland from 1893 to 1897. His chief legacy, however, is his promotion of tree planting on the prairies, and upon his initiative, the State Board of Agriculture in 1872 established Arbor Day.

In 1898 Morton established The Conservative, a weekly, three-column newspaper, in his hometown of Nebraska City to further his economic and political views and to promote agriculture and tree planting. He surely would have applauded the modern advent of the artificial Christmas tree, for on November 23, 1899, he used his newspaper to attack the custom of cutting down healthy trees for use as holiday decorations. Morton wrote:

“Millions upon millions of the straightest, most symmetrical and vigorous hemlocks, spruces, pines and balsams, will soon be aboard freight cars and going towards cities to be put into homes for Christmas trees, which shall bear tin bells, dolls, bon bons, glass bulbs and all sorts of jimcracks for the amusement of children. The generations following will want for lumber which these Christmas trees would have made.”

Blocks and other toys at the base of a Christmas tree. NSHS RG5366.PH3-22 (at right).

Reaction in the Nebraska press to Morton’s criticism of Christmas trees was mixed. The Courier (Lincoln) on December 9, 1899, agreed with him, saying, “The fragrant fir hung with presents, glittering with lights, and surrounded by the beautiful, happy faces of children is a pleasant sight. But it costs the life of a tree and we cannot afford it.” The Kearney Daily Hub said on December 13: “There are a great many of us . . . . who have not stopped to think about it at all . . . and it seems now that attention has been called to the wanton destruction aforesaid, that it ought to be stopped. But he [Morton] shouldn’t deprive us of our Christmas trees without offering us something else.”

Today realistic artificial Christmas trees (some pre-lit) and living, potted trees for sale or rent have enabled many to dispense with a cut tree for holiday decoration. Traditionalists can still visit a commercial Christmas tree farm to select a living tree.

– Patricia C. Gaster, Assistant Editor / Publications

Yearly memberships start at $32

Learn More