Tidbits from the Archive: The Earliest St. Olaf Christmas Trees

DECEMBER 2003

By Gary DeKrey ’71, Archivist
Center for College History

Today, Christmas at St. Olaf provides opportunities for us to explore Norwegian customs and delicacies. A century ago, the cultural exchange was reversed at Christmas: Norwegian immigrants and their children found opportunities to explore new customs. Few early St. Olaf students or their immigrant parents had seen Christmas trees at home or in their former homeland. Elise Kittelsby, a niece of President Mohn and future wife of Prof. H. T. Ytterboe, was delighted by what she found at St. Olaf at Christmas in 1876. “The classroom had been transformed — the blackboards were covered with white, and on the platform were two green Christmas trees all decorated … with tarlatan candy bags, popcorn strings and candles. The trees were not so very large but were set on boxes so they looked quite tall.” The archives does not have a photo of the 1876 Christmas decorations, but we do have this image of Prof. Ole Felland’s 1910 tree. A small evergreen on a stand, it is decorated much as Elise remembered the earliest St. Olaf Christmas trees.

For further reading: Kathleen Stokker, Keeping Christmas; Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land (Minn. Hist. Soc., 2000).