The true spirit of Christmas is all about giving to others, especially to those who have less. Those who are exemplary in this regard often do not become household names, and are often forgotten, except by those they have helped. In researching times and people long gone, I often come across people who should have been remembered, because their generosity of spirit, their talents, and their irrepressible zeal for doing what needs to be done makes them jump from the pages of history. Lena Wilson Sittig was one of those people, a remarkable woman for any age, doubly remarkable for the age she lived in. From the great tragedy of her life, the loss of her child, came a love for children that compelled her to action. Christmas in Brooklyn for the poor children living here at the turn of the century was a joyous occasion because of her work and her organization, the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society.
Lena Wilson was born in 1855, the daughter of Joseph and Christiana Vandervort Wilson. Her father was a literary critic and editor. She never went to school, and was completely home taught by her father at their home in Bayonne, N.J., where she received a prodigious education. In 1877, she married Frank Sittig, a very successful wholesale grocer, and they moved to Brooklyn in 1884, moving into a brownstone at 378 Jefferson Avenue, between Tompkins and Throop. They soon were regulars in Brooklyn’s social circles and clubs. Frank Sittig joined the Montauk, Union League and Lincoln clubs, while Lena was very active in theater, music and literary circles. A writer of children’s stories since her childhood, Lena was a frequent contributor to newspapers and magazines. She was also an accomplished musician, and counted as friends many of the most famous actors and musicians in New York. They opened their home at 378 Jefferson often, hosting concerts, literary evenings and musicales, many of which were reported on in the Brooklyn Eagle. In 1893, she co-hosted a dance with Mrs. Montrose Morris, who lived on the next block. That same year, she founded the first Women’s Press Club, for women in the newspaper field.
The Sittigs had two children, one of whom died at a young age, and it was this tragic event that led her to devote her life to helping poor children. Her first large project was making pillows and mattress pads for the Brooklyn Seaside Home, a project she did anonymously until Henry Ward Beecher found out who she was. In 1892 she began the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society at the request of a local Brooklyn newspaper. She enlisted her husband and friends to join her committee, and then she turned to her society, social and business connections for help. The committee rented the Clermont Skating Rink, put up a huge decorated Christmas tree inside, and invited over 2,000 poor Brooklyn children to a huge party. Each child received a meal, treats to take home and a gift. It was a huge success.
In the following year, Mrs. Sittig took this success and improved upon it. Much of Brooklyn society now wanted to be associated with the event, and her committee had grown to the point where she could break up her committee heads into districts: Bedford, the Hill, and Carroll Heights. (The Hill referred to Clinton Hill; Carroll Heights may have included Brooklyn Heights, Cobble Hill, Carroll Gardens and maybe even Park Slope.) She enlisted the help of the mayor, society women, local businessmen, and Brooklyn’s prominent theater owners and performers. Many of these theater people volunteered to perform, including the very popular actor De Wolf Hopper, who would play Santa Claus for these events for several years. Throughout the year, fundraisers were held, and donations of money, toys and clothing were collected. The goal was to entertain and give presents to at least 4,000 children in 1893. The event almost didn’t happen.
The Brooklyn City Railroad Company volunteered to offer 4,000 free rides to enable children to come from all over Brooklyn. They printed up special tickets for the event, which would once again be held at the Clermont Rink, a venue large enough to hold that many children, their parents, and other adults. The tickets were given to Mrs. Sittig and her committee to distribute. The special tickets read, “The surface railroads of Brooklyn wish all the children a Merry Christmas.” The owner of the unnamed evening Brooklyn newspaper that had originally suggested the idea of the Christmas Tree Society to Mrs. Sittig was livid that the railroad tickets did not have the newspaper’s name on it as a sponsor. The paper must have been on the lease for the space, because a week before the big party, the owner of the paper sent someone to Clermont Rink, where preparations were under way, to tell Mrs. Sittig that she and her committee must vacate the space, and that he, the newspaper owner, would be taking over the event. The committee would not be allowed to remove any of the gifts or decorations from the rink.
Mrs. Sittig was furious. De Wolf Hopper, who happened to be there at the time, withdrew his services, telling the paper’s representative to report that back to his boss. Brooklyn’s business and theater community immediately came to the rescue. The owner of the Columbia Theater on Washington Street volunteered his space for the entertainment portion of the day. De Wolf Hopper now promised he and his company of performers would put on an even bigger show than what they had already planned. Liebmann Brothers, a large Fulton Street department store, offered to open their doors for the gift distribution. In the space of a week, Mrs. Sittig and her committee raised enough money to replace the toys and gifts left at the Skating Rink. The Brooklyn City Railroad promised to honor the tickets, and take the kids to the stop near the Columbia Theater. The police department pledged their help in crowd control and shepherding the children from place to place. For expediency, it was decided to hold the gift giving part of the day at the Universal Theater, which was next door to the Columbia. By 10 am, the day of the performance and party, children, some accompanied by parents or adults, were streaming into the Columbia Theatre. There were so many kids that they had to sit two to a seat. More and more children poured in, and were soon sitting on laps, on stairs, and standing at landings and rails. The reporter for the New York Times said the noise of all of the children was deafening.
An hour of entertainment followed, with skits, dancing, singing, and scenes from plays, ending with De Wolf Hopper entering on a sleigh as Santa Claus. He and his wife, who played an elf, entertained the children, who were then instructed to go next door for the gifts. The police could hardly control the rush of children, some falling and almost trampled, who stormed the Universal Theater. Eventually, they were let into the theater by the hundreds, where each child received something from the lines of tables manned by Lena Sittig and her Christmas Tree Society committee. Afterwards, Mrs. Sittig told the Times reporter that the owner of the newspaper was not able to stop Christmas for these children, and she went on to thank her committee members, sponsors and benefactors.
The Christmas Tree Society went on to many more successes. Throughout the rest of the 1890s and into the new century, the committee grew larger; the number of children served also grew, as did the amounts of donations, and the scope of the organization. In 1900, the Brooklyn Eagle noted that the goal that year was to distribute 5,000 dolls alone. The Society enlisted women from all over Brooklyn to sew outfits for the dolls, as girls loved to dress the dolls in different clothing. This campaign netted thousands of pieces of doll clothing. Starting in 1894, the children were issued a three-part ticket which enabled them to ride public transportation free; attend the variety show at the theater; receive a gift, which included a toy, and a bag with oranges and candy; and return home. While at the theater, they got a separate ticket which entitled them to a meal at participating restaurants on Fulton Street.
All of this was paid for by a year’s worth of fundraisers held by the Christmas Tree Society, which were well attended by Brooklyn’s elite and sponsored by Brooklyn’s largest companies and wealthiest and most influential people. Lena Sittig used her personal connections to get well-known Metropolitan opera singers, famous actors, literary people and others to donate their services for these fundraisers. By 1904, the organization was known as the Sittig Christmas Tree Society. The event had grown to the point where there were at least two celebrations held, one in the Eastern District, which would cover the Williamsburg and Bushwick area, and the main celebration in western Brooklyn.
Search as I might, I was not able to find how long the Christmas Tree Society stayed active. The last newspaper account I found was in 1909. Hopefully they lasted a very long time beyond then. I did find out much more about the remarkable Lena Sittig, however. She found the time to be a successful children’s book author, with at least six collections of illustrated children’s stories in print. She was an inventor, with six patents in her name. One of her most famous inventions was a divided skirt for bicycling. That one made her an international success. The kindness of strangers is a Christmas tale always worth telling. The world hasn’t gotten too much better for many children. We need more Mrs. Sittigs.
(I first told this story in 2010, but it’s a good one to repeat in these hard times. I hope Mrs. Sittig’s story inspires many to give generously to those who have so much less in this holiday season. The photo is of a young boy at Christmas on Herkimer Street in Bedford, 1905. Brooklyn Public Library)