Marshfield, January 1914: A Christmas tragedy
Young Rosa Greenberg is fatally injured as she lights candles on the tree
By Kris Leonhardt
Stringing the lights on the Christmas tree has long been a tradition among Americans. However, the practice started in a very different way. Legend dictates that Protestant reformer Martin Luther began the practice of placing wax candles in evergreens to resemble twinkling stars in the trees as early as the 1500s.
The tradition, though beautiful in nature, brought about much tragedy before a safer alternative was found.
In the morning hours of New Year’s Day in 1914, 7-year-old Rosa Greenberg was planning a surprise while her parents were busy milking cows on their rural Marshfield farm.
As her grandfather sat by the kitchen stove, Rosa carefully closed the door to the front room and looked eagerly at the tree. She could almost picture the adults’ surprise and delight as they entered the room to be greeted by the glowing Christmas tree.
She worked quietly and steadily, lighting each of the candles one by one. Starting with the lower branches, she worked her way up the tree.
As Rosa reached the highest branches, she strained to light the candles just beyond her reach. In doing so, the little girl’s clothes dropped toward the lower candles as she leaned into the tree.
As her clothes burst into a flame, she called out to her younger brother, who tried desperately to blow out the flames with all of the power the little one could muster.
Alerted by the commotion, the children’s grandfather burst into the room. Seeing the little child afire, he grabbed her up in his arms and took her into the kitchen. Using the kitchen pump, the elderly man dowsed her with water, calming the flames that had almost entirely burned off her clothing.
Little Rosa was taken to Saint Joseph’s Hospital, but she would later succumb to the burns that had injured her young body.
The use of candles would be marked by much sorrow, and though Thomas Edison had created his first strand of lights in the 1800s, it would take society about 40 years to accept them as a common practice.
As each of the lamps needed to be individually wired, electricians had to be hired to do the work. The expensive cost of the lights, coupled with the limited availability of electrical power, made the concept out of reach for many at the turn of the century.