By Diane Euston
In honor of the Christmas holiday, I have chosen to write this piece in prose form. It is based on a true story with some poetic license.
After I originally wrote this years ago, Susan Ditsch Ahern, a descendant of Oswald Karl Lux, told me that she would read this to her family every Christmas Eve. It truly captures the spirit of Christmas and the development of some of the customs we still use today.
He was a craftsman; he was trained, diligently so, in Prussia to carve beautiful creations from the simplest of things. Like many of the freshly-arrived immigrants to the United States, Oswald Karl Lux wished to immerse himself in new customs while still holding onto some of those from his homeland. He was a German. This did not change with his address.
He was on a mission just days before Christmas..
Oswald left his little makeshift workshop at the back of his home on Archibald Blvd. in Westport – the best a carpenter could do with very little money. Regardless, Oswald was content to follow through with a promise he had made to himself.
This promise was to his young children. Oswald scratched his beard, and he wrapped his trench coat closer to his body in hopes of shielding the bitter cold wind as it gusted straight through his small frame. The cold wasn’t going to stop him – he must continue. He had to make Christmas for his family something to remember.
The merchants in Westport didn’t have what he was looking for. Two days before Christmas in 1883, he walked the streets with a distant hope, store-by-store, searching and describing what he wanted to purchase. But alas, the stockpiles of items weren’t what he had envisioned.
He wanted to bring an authentic German Christmas to his family, especially for the little ones that left Leobschutz before they could recall the town in its seasonal splendor. Oswald knew that for this Christmas – the second they were to celebrate together- had to be special. His family had sacrificed so much, and this Christmas was going to be extraordinary.
Christmas trees in the United States as we know them today didn’t exist, but that wasn’t going to stop Oswald.
He had resolved to mount his horse and tie up his wagon to it so he could travel four miles north to bustling Kansas City. Perhaps what he was looking for could be found in one of the many stores that had advertised their propensity to supply Christmas goods.
As he traveled up and down the hills on the main road, he imagined six-year-old Hattie waking up on Christmas morning and rushing to the front of their home to see what Santa Claus had brought her. Oh, and Olga. . . Olga would grab her big sister’s hand and run with her full speed in wonderment to what awaited.
It reminded him of a harsher time in July 1880- just over two years earlier- when three-year-old Hattie clasped his hand as they boarded the ship from Hamburg to New York alone. It was a decision that most could not even fathom, leaving his pregnant wife, Agnes and seven month old Olga behind in Prussia.
He and little Hattie set up a new home in Kansas City. That first Christmas in this new country was coated in sadness, because their growing family was an ocean apart. Christmas 1883 was going to be different; now that Richard was born healthy and they were finally together, the Lux family was going to have a proper Christmas together. Their first was much less extravagant- they had no money to spend with so many mouths to feed.
The German immigrants newly-established in Kansas City, Oswald figured, would have what he was looking for at their shops. Time was running short, but he knew he had to try. Oswald arrived at 15th and Grand and peered up at the sign above the shop.
Warneke Baker Company would be his first shot in the city. Their bakery was renowned for their confectionery, dried fruits and trinkets for Christmas trimmings. As he peered through the frosted window and spotted several Christmas adornments, including beautifully frosted cakes, he smiled in hope. This place could have what he so desperately craved.
Oswald Lux opened the wooden door and a bell jingled to announce his entrance, echoing throughout the empty store. Standing behind the counter was a young man dressed in a white apron. The clerk’s eyes brightened as 37-year-old Oswald removed his gloves and his hat from his head.
“Good morning, sir! How may I help you?” the clerk inquired with a growing smile on his face.
Oswald’s heart raced a little quicker and the color drained completely from his face when he immediately noticed the clerk had no accent. This may be a store owned by Germans, but they didn’t necessarily hire German employees. Kansas City at the time was booming, and merchants such as Warneke Baker Company employed anyone willing to work.
The man behind the counter, unfortunately for Oswald, was American.
Oswald tried to form his words in English, a plethora of words in German flooding his brain. He remained uncomfortable and shy in his demeanor.
He had practiced his words so many times before as he had combed all the stores in Westport the day before.
“Tree,” he thought in his mind in English and German,“I want a Christmas tree.”
Oswald grew a little taller and looked in the young clerk’s direction. “I look for tree. Christmas tree,” Oswald announced in a thick German accent.
The clerk’s eyes widened as he listened to the man’s simple request. With only a second of hesitation, the clerk threw his pointer finger up into the air excitedly. “Yes! Yes. A tree! I think I have what you’re looking for!”
Oswald grew a little more uncomfortable as he recognized that this young man wouldn’t be able to speak to him in German. However, his animated actions made it easier for Oswald to understand him.
The clerk waved Oswald over to the other side of the small store. Reluctantly, Oswald began to walk on the black-and-white checkered floor and toward where the clerk now stood. He raised his eyes and placed his gloves on the glass counter.
Behind it, the clerk proudly stood next to a miniature Christmas tree no taller than 18 inches. Its delicate branches drooped in sadness, and the displayed fruit and candies tied to it hung on for dear life. Branches were reluctantly weighted down by a few pieces of dried oranges tied with red ribbon on the few sprigs of greenery.
This type of tree, early on in the integration of American customs, was standard. A small tabletop tree was all that was offered.
Oswald looked curiously at this small tree. His brow furrowed as he made eye contact with the proud, young clerk craving another commission before Christmas. His hands rested on his hips as he beamed back at Oswald. Yes, this clerk thought he had this sale in the bag.
“No, no, no…” Oswald shook his head back and forth. “I look for… for… for big tree,” Oswald motioned with his hands above his head.
The clerk crooked his head to the side as he realized that this sale wasn’t going to be as easy as he had thought. The man, he figured, was mistaken. “How big are you thinking, sir?” he asked as he sprung his hand up and down at his waist indicating the size.
Oswald threw his arms above his head, his hope and prowess on display. He proudly responded, “Dis big!” with his arms again expanded as far as his lanky arms could reach.
He had struck out again. There was no tree in Kansas City or Westport that came close to the customs of his German hometown.
As Oswald slowly opened the door to leave Warneke’s, the clerk hollered, “I wish you luck, sir. But I don’t think you’re going to find anything that big here in the city.”
Oswald turned, tipped his hat and nodded to the young clerk as he shut the door behind him. The cold rushed his body as he buried his face closer to his jacket collar and headed toward his horse and wagon. He had to rethink what he was going to do next.
He did try other stores, and reluctantly, he had to admit the clerk was right. There were no tall evergreen trees available in Kansas City for purchase. As he headed south back home to Westpor, his hands tightly muzzled in his coat pockets to avoid the cold, he was lost in thoughts and defeat.
He just couldn’t imagine letting the little ones down on Christmas morning. He had already told them tall tales of Christmases long ago in Prussia- the beauty of a perfectly trimmed evergreen tree brightening up the coldest of winter days. An 18-inch tree or smaller was literally all these merchants had, and that wasn’t even close to what he had promised to deliver.
As he headed up the hill on the main road back toward his home on Archibald Ave. in Westport, his eyes shifted to the west at the barren winter landscape. In the distance, he spotted the small gray headstones that made up the landscape of Union Cemetery.
His horse trekked along, and Oswald’s gaze shifted to the dots of stones that disappeared as enormous evergreen trees hid their sight. They stood out in the distance, the only color in wintertime. He just wished he had a tree like those. . . those branches would hold the weight of wrapped presents and dried fruits.
Those branches. . . Wait. Those branches!
He slapped the reins on the horse’s flank and turned his horse toward the west. As he drew closer to Union Cemetery, he stopped at one of the towering evergreens peacefully coating the landscape of the graveyard.
Oswald took out his pocket knife from his coat. He breathed in deeply and closed his eyes; the familiar smell of fresh evergreen enraptured him. Yes, this would work. He can make this work.
Oswald quietly crooked his head toward the large tree and gingerly cut branches off of its umbrella. His gloves became sticky from the sap, so he removed them to quicken his task. He gathered the healthiest branches in his reach, bundled them and placed them in his wagon.
Excitement overtook him.
He knew now that his skills as a cabinetmaker would soon be at work. He had the greenery, but he needed sturdy branches that would hold up to the weight of all he had envisioned in his mind.
As he turned into the town of Westport, he was overcome with another brilliant idea to pull off this massive undertaking. He stopped and purchased a broom and asked the owner of a saloon in Westport if he could have one of the empty beer barrels chucked at the back of his business. He loaded the contents into his wagon and turned toward Archibald Street to his cozy home.
For the next two nights, Oswald worked by candlelight to transform these objects into something beautiful. He removed the head, hoops and rivets of the barrel to free the curved wooden staves. The scent of Kentucky bourbon drifted to his nose and throughout the small shop behind his home.
Oswald fastened the staves to the broomstick handle one-by-one, the longest, about fifteen inches, being at the bottom. He used shorter sticks to fashion the top of the tree. Recycling colored tissue – the only wrapping paper at the time – he concealed the wooden staves and carefully covered over the tissue with the sprigs of evergreen acquired near Union Cemetery.
Oswald cautiously walked backward, his eyes concentrating on the project at hand. He put his hand to his mouth and thought about what else he needed to make this makeshift tree something special.
He looked about the small room and spotted the candles that lit his nighttime workshop. Of course! The tree needed candlelight to illuminate it. This would be just like what they had at home in Prussia and exactly what he had described to his small children.
Oswald drove nails through the ends of his “tree” and then placed short, fat candles on each nail. He smiled in satisfaction as the makeshift branches started to resemble a semblance of a Christmas tree.
After the children were put to bed on Christmas Eve, Oswald quietly carried his creation into his home and mounted it in the front window. Oswald and his wife, Agnes silently tied toys, dolls, sweet treats and apples on each branch. Before the signs of daylight, Oswald quickly lit each of the candles on the tree and impatiently waited for the children to rise from their slumber.
As daylight barely crept through the windows, the children awoke with instant excitement that comes from anticipation of Christmas morning. The oldest children, Hattie and Olga, jumped out of bed and raced to the doorway into the front room.
Standing before them was the most beautiful creation they had ever seen. Glowing even in the early morning light of a clouded winter day, the lighted Christmas tree, standing only three feet tall, was a delight. Their cries of enthusiasm were replaced with awe at the lighted tree.
Before breakfast was finished, the marvel of the tree had drawn small neighborhood children to the streets. Through the fog-covered window of the Lux home on Archibald Street in Westport, the children saw the glowing beauty of the largest tree they had ever seen. One-by-one, they rang the doorbell at the Lux household so they could get a closer look at the finest tree they had ever seen.
For over a week after Christmas, the Oswald Karl Lux home was the site of continuous activity. The tree’s popularity triggered Oswald to remove it from the front window and onto the street so everyone could stop and see it. Boxes and boxes of candles were used to keep the tree lit every hour of the day, and children returned to stare at its splendor.
Two years later, Oswald’s want of purchasing a large tree for his family was no longer an issue. Evergreen trees imported from Michigan became available in Kansas City in 1885.
Yet the first lighted tree in all of Kansas City and Westport would forever be attributed to Oswald Karl Lux, a German immigrant who wished to light up the faces of his small children on that Christmas day in 1883.
The simple joy these children encountered on Christmas morning was enough for the Kansas City newspapers to take notice, and the outward vision of German immigrants such as Oswald would have been viewed as foreign at the time.
This was true until the country embraced the custom of the hand-cut tree. But before this phenomenon took place in the late 1880s, people like Oswald had to be creative in their introduction of a long-standing tradition of Germans – the fresh-cut Christmas tree.
He built it for his children and excited the whole Westport neighborhood. Little did Oswald know that his life contribution to Kansas City had little to do with his craftsmanship as a carpenter and everything to do with his personal vision of Christmas we all embrace today.
Merry Christmas, Kansas City!
Diane writes a blog on the history of the city. To read more of the stories, go to www.newssantafetrailer.blogspot.com.