Tuesday, December 14, 2010

If you've lived near Lake Michigan long enough, you will have heard or read something about the Christmas Tree ships. This year, the Christmas Tree Ship arrived on December 3 at Navy Pier, welcomed by escort boats, a band, school choirs and throngs of children with their families.

United States Coast Guard Cutter Mackinaw currently brings the Christmas trees for distribution to disadvantaged youngsters, but the Mackinaw is simply re-creating a long-standing tradition on the Great Lakes.

Christmas as we celebrate it today wasn't embraced by America until the mid-1800's. Our Puritan forefathers strictly forbade merry-making at Christmas time and December 25 wasn't declared a federal holiday until 1870. Christmas festivities were more common in the southern states and after the Civil War the custom of celebrating Christmas spread across the country.

Along with the celebration of Christmas came the Christmas Tree. Swaths of pine trees grew in the forests of northern Wisconsin, easy to harvest and sometimes even available for free. Retailers got the buyers lined up and all a resourceful person needed to do was get the trees from Wisconsin to Chicago. In the last half of the nineteenth century, that meant moving them by ship during the golden age of Great Lakes sailing.

Unfortunately, November is a treacherous month on Lake Michigan and many a ship loaded with Wisconsin pines never made it to the Chicago port. The Christmas Tree run was usually the last trip a captain made before the ice and snow made sailing impossible and it was always a calculated risk. If successful, the captain stood to make a profit almost as much as he earned during the whole rest of the year, but if a storm should blow up, he could lose both his profit and as his life.

The Rouse Simmons with Captain Herman Schuenemann at the helm is the subject of a well-known Christmas Tree Ship story. The Captain's older brother went down with his ship on a Christmas Tree run and the Rouse Simmons disappeared with her cargo and Captain Herman in 1912. The Captain's widow and daughters continued with the family business for a few years, stringing the new ship with lights and tying a pine tree to the top of the tallest mast in keeping with the Christmas Tree Ship tradition.

If you'd like to read more about the Rouse Simmons and the other Christmas Tree Ships, there are several good books available on the subject that would make excellent holiday gifts:

The Historic Christmas Tree Ship: A True Story of Faith, Hope and Love by Rochelle Pennington

The Christmas Tree Ship: The Story of Captain Santa by Rochelle Pennington

Lives and Legends of the Christmas Tree Ships by Fred Neuschel

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