Beginning in the 1890s and for nearly 40 years after, the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society brought holiday cheer to Brooklyn’s underprivileged children, treating them to a huge meal, gifts and musical performances.
The annual tradition was founded by a woman named Lena Wilson Sitting, whose legacy of generosity and holiday spirit deserves remembering around this time of year.
Mrs. Sittig was an accomplished children’s author, musician and lover of the arts. Her large social circle included many of the city’s most prolific writers and editors, as well as famous performers, theater owners and impresarios, who came in handy for the Christmas Tree Society.
Sittig and her husband, Frank, a successful wholesale grocer, lived for many years at 378 Jefferson Avenue, in Bedford.
The couple had three children, but the death of their firstborn son at the age of 2 was the defining event that dictated the course of the rest of Mrs. Sittig’s life. She would devote her life to helping poor children.
The First Christmas Tree Society Party
In 1892, Mrs. Sittig organized the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society. She got the idea after seeing a group of poor children looking longingly at a Christmas tree in a window.
With the help of wealthy friends in the entertainment and business world, Sittig was able to put together a massive Christmas party for more than 2,000 of Brooklyn’s poorest children.
Gathering in the Clermont Armory, the children were treated to a huge meal, a present, and a show put on by famous actors and singers. It was a huge success.
The next year, with even more volunteers and donations of goods and money, the party was better than ever. Even the transit system helped, offering free rides to children and their chaperones.
The venture’s success led to bigger and bigger events in the years to come. The venue changed each year, sometimes to some of Brooklyn’s largest theaters.
The Sittig Christmas Tree Society
By 1900, the Brooklyn Christmas Tree Society was one of Brooklyn’s most popular charities.
The Society was busy all year preparing for the event. It had become an efficient organization with officers, subcommittees and workers. Mrs. Sittig was president, of course.
One of the busiest subcommittees was the doll committee. The Society gave every little girl at the party a new doll. The dolls and their clothing were made by volunteers all year long.
The dolls joined many disparate groups of ladies across Brooklyn together thanks to sewing bees and doll drives, with the results donated to the Society.
Local stores got involved as well, showcasing the donated dolls in their windows. As the years progressed, retailers began donating manufactured dolls and other toys, as well.
In 1903, the name of the Society was changed to reflect the woman who founded it. The official name was now the Sittig Christmas Tree Society.
While most people thought this all just splendid, and donated generously, there were those who had issues.
The Brooklyn Eagle received several letters from people who groused about free meals, trolley rides and gifts going to the “undeserving poor” and their children. These people wanted to know if every ticket to the events had been vetted as to the real eligibility of every single recipient. These letters probably came from people who didn’t donate a dime.
The Secretary of the Sittig Christmas Tree Society, Joseph D. Smith, assured the readers that each ticket went to a deserving child and his or her family. The tickets were distributed through the Brooklyn Board of Charity, which worked with all of the religious and non-religious charities.
Mrs. Sittig’s Legacy
The Sittig Christmas Tree Society remained the largest children’s Christmas event for many years to come. In addition to her endless work for the Society, Lena Sittig was also a prolific children’s author.
Her short stories for children were published as collections, and also appeared singly in the Brooklyn Eagle. She used the proceeds of her writing to help poor children, both through the Society’s Christmas party, as well as year round help to those in need.
As the daughter of an inventor, it came as little surprise that she had invention in her blood as well. Today we’d probably call her a fashion designer. She saw a fashion need and met it.
In this case, it was in women’s cycling gear. She held patents for her garments that allowed the petticoats to be drawn up by straps and ties to stay out of the way of the wheels and pedals. She also devised waterproof cycling clothing made of a rubber coated lightweight fabric.
With all of this activity, it shouldn’t be surprising that Lena Sittig would be felled by exhaustion. In 1913, she collapsed during a doll-sewing event in Brooklyn. She checked into a sanitarium in New Jersey, where she was said to be recovering from a nervous condition.
She let everyone know that she would welcome letters and notes, even if she couldn’t write back at the moment. Well wishes poured in from everywhere.
But her condition was worse than anyone imagined. On August 26, 1913, the papers announced that Mrs. Sittig had died. She was only 58 years old.
Often, charities led by such dynamic presences as Lena Sittig fall apart when they leave or die. The Sittig Christmas Tree Society did not. Joined by Sittig’s family, the board of directors continued her great mission for another 20 years.
The Christmas Tree Society continued to have its annual Christmas party until at least 1933, a time when it was needed most. By this time, they were working formally with many other Brooklyn charities, and afterward were absorbed by them.
The Sittig family is buried in Green-Wood Cemetery. Unfortunately, their family plot is nowhere as remarkable as this family. The names can no longer be read on many of the headstones, including Lena’s.
Since Lena’s death, over 100 years ago, not much has changed. There are still thousands of children who are hungry and poor. We may have more of a safety net than when Mrs. Sittig was alive, but the need for a Christmas Tree Society is still there. After all, the look of joy on a child’s face when he or she receives a gift will always remain a priceless and timeless treasure.