The Horses’ Christmas Tree: One of George Angell’s Gifts to Boston’s Horses

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The Horses' Christmas Tree in Boston's Post Office Square was erected at a drinking fountain built for the city's work horses. The tradition was an immediate success with horses and humans alike and became a Boston tradition.

The Horses' Christmas Tree in Boston's Post Office Square was erected at a drinking fountain built for the city's work horses. The tradition was an immediate success with horses and humans alike and became a Boston tradition.

It's Christmas time here in Boston and the city is aglow. There are lights everywhere, and decorations and music. The stores are bustling, limousines line the streets. The snowstorms and ice of the past few weeks were an inconvenience but now they're forgotten. You can wear any shoes you want to a party tonight.

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Credit: Boston Public Library Archives

But it wasn't always this way.

Winter was a dreaded time in the city. It was dangerous and even deadly, for both humans and the thousands of horses that worked on the streets. Or tried to work on the streets. No, there was nothing easy about winter, if you were a horse in the city.

One day was different, though. There was a Christmas day for horses, and it seemed to be good for both man and beast.

Boston Public Library Archives

Credit: Boston Public Library Archives

Winter was a dangerous time for horses in the city. This horse has broken the shaft on his wagon. Notice the snow shovel in a handy place and that a blanket has been laid over the horse's back.

Boston was once famous for the Christmas tree it hosted just for horses. The tree waved high above crowded Post Office Square for several holiday seasons around the time of World War I and was the centerpiece of a festive occasion for horses and humans alike.

In 1912, the city dedicated a huge fountain with a tall spire in the center of the square. It was a memorial to George Angell, an animal advocate pioneer who was the founder of what would become the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA). School children saved pennies and donated them to the city to build the fountain, and the location was selected because a count was kept that showed that 5000 horses a day crisscrossed the busy plaza.

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The staff and volunteers of the Animal Rescue League of Boston took Christmas for the Horses very seriously.

How important was George Angell? He published the first US edition of Black Beauty and promptly financed the donation of two million copies of it.

When Christmas came in 1915, the MSPCA decided to do something special.

The idea was to build a Christmas tree next to the fountain and give the horses a free and hearty dinner; additional credit for Boston's Christmas horse tradition must also go to Anna Harris Smith, founder of the Animal Rescue League of Boston. "Why not give these faithful, hard working servants of ours some little Christmas treat? Why not have Christmas for horses?" she asked the public.

And a new Boston tradition was born.

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This archival photo from the Animal Rescue League was found in the archives of Yankee Magazine a few years ago and shows a festive group of horse advocates in 1919.

The Christmas tree in Post Office Square gave way to celebrations in other parts of the city, or roving wagons of grain and apples and carrots that went where the horses were. Both the Animal Rescue League and Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals made special efforts; perhaps other groups did as well.

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This clipping appeared in the Evening Record."From mid-morning until dark on the day before Christmas, Post Office Square presents a scene the like of which is nowhere else witnessed. Around a fine Christmas tree upon the Angell Memorial Fountain and fittingly decorated, at times crowding into the square in such numbers as to make traffic problems difficult for the extra detail of police officers, horses drawing their burdens, heaviest in the holiday season, mingle with those who feel that Christmas is the time to show one's regard and appreciation for the services of dumb animals, especially the horse, man's hardest working servant. In addition to the good dinner provided for the horses, steaming hot coffee and homemade doughnuts are unstintedly supplied for the drivers and their helpers. 

"The chief significance and value of the Horses' Christmas is the effect that it has upon human kind. Even the spectator or passerby is strikingly reminded that horses are not mere machines; that the better they are cared for, the more willing, serviceable, and efficient are they, and the more creditable to their owners."

–Our Dumb Animals (MSPCA Magazine), 1919 

Boston Public Library Archives

Sometimes horses were hurt when they slipped, other times they were stunned or tangled in harness. Shafts or whiffletrees might break. Getting a horse back on his feet was no easy task sometimes.

The 1919 Christmas celebration was also a special tribute to the horses that had gone to war in Europe. MSPCA announced in advance, "Arrangements are being made, partly as a memorial to the horses that have served in the war, and partly for the sake of those who here at home have served the same great purpose, to repeat the Christmas tree for horses and drivers that was so successful two years ago."

In 1928, Boston's Christmas tree for horses was memorialized in verse by pioneer woman journalist Maude Wood Henry of Toledo, Ohio.

The Horses' Christmas Tree

By Maude Wood Henry 

Let’s give them a rousing Christmas,
The horses, I mean, this year;
Let the big tree in the public square
Be weighted with Yuletide cheer. 

Send word to the drivers of Boston

That the date be not forgot;

Bid each bring his beast to the Christmas


In the same old well-known spot. 

A tree for the work-worn horses,

Tired horses that plod the street;

Who earn their way with no other pay

Than a bed and a bite to eat.

O, give them a royal welcome

To a banquet of warming food;

Let them eat until they have had their fill

Of the things a horse finds good. 

A bigger and better Christmas

For the horses of Boston town;

For the big tree there in the public square

Is a star in the city’s crown. 

Boston Public Library Archives

Credit: Boston Public Library Archives

These hardworking Boston horses may have been enjoying a meal courtesy of Christmas for the Horses.

At those early events, banners urged the public to "Be Kind to Animals" and "Blanket Your Horse". Of course, the tradition spread to other cities and places and, for one day at least, winter didn’t seem so bad.

Today we have fewer horses working the streets but many more horses in great need. Perhaps there is something each of us can do in our own lives to revive “Christmas for the Horses” for those who need it most.

Thanks to the Boston Public Library for its amazing record of life in Boston and its generosity in sharing.