On Dec. 12, 1913, an editorial in the Winston-Salem Journal asked: “Why not have a community Christmas tree in Winston-Salem?”
The editorial pointed out that other cities around the country had community Christmas trees, including Greensboro and Columbia, S.C.
It had been seven months since the towns of Winston and Salem had merged to form Winston-Salem, a 5.25-square-mile area with a population of 18,700. The idea for a community tree for the city’s first Christmas held a lot of appeal.
The editorial pointed out that in other cities “men gladly contribute money to defray the expenses of putting up and illuminating the tree and filling baskets with good things for the poor.”
In Winston-Salem, however, it was a woman who led the effort.
Mary Katharine Smith Reynolds, the wife of tobacco magnate R.J. Reynolds, gave the city $50. That is the equivalent of $1,179.50 in 2013 dollars.
Mrs. Reynolds said she would donate the money if the idea came to fruition. The mayor, the board of aldermen and the ministers of the city’s churches were all on board. But the clock was ticking. It was Saturday, Dec. 13, and the ceremony was scheduled for Christmas Eve.
Mrs. J.E. Sills stepped in to organize the community tree. It was decided that it would be put on the northwest corner of Court Square, at Fourth and Main streets. Across the street from the courthouse, where the Reynolds Building stands today, was City Hall. This was the city’s epicenter of activity.
Because there was segregation at the time, the black community wanted to have its own tree lighting. It was to be held at the same time as the one on Court Square. Mrs. Sills agreed to organize both.
The black community’s Christmas tree was on the grounds of the Depot School. The band in Winston-Salem’s black community, assisted by the black orphanage, played Christmas music. A choir comprised of students from Slater Academy — now Winston-Salem State University — school children and churches sang.
Professor S.G. Atkins of Slater Academy said that 1,000 children would take part. Students from Slater Academy provided the tree; the students from Depot School decorated it. It was lit in the same manner as the tree on Court Square.
On Dec. 16, Mayor Oscar Eaton went to the city water plant at Winston Lake and “scoured the woods for a tree,” according to the Journal. He selected a 40-foot cedar. Eaton said that the tree would arrive on Dec. 17 or 18.
Mrs. Sills went to the meeting of the board of aldermen on Dec. 17 to ask that the lights around Court Square be turned off so that the tree could shine.
According to the Journal, “The board assured Mrs. Sills that they entertained no objection to the plan.”
The businesses around Court Square also agreed to turn off the lights in the front of their stores so that they wouldn’t interfere with the glow of the tree.
The massive tree arrived on Dec. 18 about 5:30 p.m. on a two-horse wagon. It took five or six men to unload it, according to the Journal.
“The tree is about 35 or 40 feet high and appears to be well proportioned and to have the natural tapering form necessary to the making of a pretty Christmas tree,” the newspaper reported. “It will make a beautiful tree and will be one of the most beautiful spectacles that the city has ever seen when it is decorated and the electric current is turned on.”
The excitement was growing.
Officials with the Moravian Church said they would support the community tree if the ceremony was held at 6 p.m. so as not to interfere with the Moravian Christmas Eve services.
In addition, the bands from the Moravian churches would perform at the ceremony. City officials quickly agreed.
Things were really coming together. An unnamed merchant provided the lights and ornaments, which would have used up the $50 that Katharine Reynolds had donated.
As the excitement over the approaching Christmas tree ceremony increased, the Journal and the Twin-City Daily Sentinel encouraged readers to donate money to help the city’s less fortunate.
The Journal collected money for the Empty Stocking Fund and ran updates each day to show the progress.
The Associated Charities distributed the items that were purchased through the fund. To encourage people to give, the Journal tugged on its readers’ heartstrings.
“The relief must be given in a systemic way and through a systemic agency and the Associated Charities, which has charge of the distribution of the many articles, is in close touch with just the class of people that citizens desire to help at this time. The brave people who have toiled and toiled and whose only reward has been adversity and disappointment,” the newspaper wrote.
The Twin-City Daily Sentinel — the evening newspaper — encouraged readers to donate to The Salvation Army. The goal of each fund was $500, and both goals were met.
Finally, it was Christmas Eve.
The ceremony started as the clock in the tower of City Hall struck 6. As soon as the tree was lit the Salem band, under the direction of B.J. Phohl (cq), played “Joy to the World.”
Bishop Edward Rondthaler of the Moravian Church opened the ceremony with a prayer.
The band played “Hail to the Lord’s Anointed” and the children’s choir sang “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” Bands were stationed in the courthouse belfry, City Hall clock tower, and the second floors of stores around Court Square.
No pictures of either ceremony are known to exist.
Fam Brownlee, a historian in the North Carolina Room at the Forsyth County Public Library, said few local pictures were used in the city’s newspapers.
“The locals knew what it looked like, so the papers didn’t think it was important,” Brownlee said.
The first Christmas of the merged city was a rousing success. Almost everyone turned out for the tree lightings. The Journal reported that more than 10,000 attended the ceremony at Court Square and more than 4,000 attended the one at the Deport School.
After the ceremonies, bands and small choirs went around singing and playing for others who couldn’t make it to the ceremonies.
The tree was lighted from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. from Dec. 24 through the end of the year. At the stroke of midnight Dec. 31, the tree was darkened.
The banner year for Winston-Salem became a cherished part of its history.