Sometime in the 1930s, Virgil and Helen Johnson bought a handmade Christmas tree for their family from a Swedish carpenter’s union in Minneapolis. Through the years, the Johnson family decorated the unique Christmas pyramid, as it’s called, during their holiday festivities.
Almost nine decades later, the unique tree, which features several small shelves on which holiday ornaments and figurines could be placed, all topped by a wheel of fan blades, has become part of the collections at the Minnesota Historical Society. The shelves and fan blades all spin when the candles on the tree are lit, creating heat. However, MHS curators don’t plan to light the candles, for preservation reasons.
Rooted in German folk tradition, particularly that of the Ore Mountain region, and brought to America by German immigrants in the 1700s, the tree is thought to be a precursor to the modern Christmas tree. Generally constructed of wood, Christmas pyramids typically include a decorated pyramidal outer frame with candle holders and a central carousel with a rotor on top that’s driven by rising warm air from the lit candles. It is decorated with nativity scenes and other Christmas figures.
With the discovery of kerosene in the 1830s, the tradition of the Christmas pyramid spread. People had been using expensive candles or rapeseed oil to light the tree, but kerosene made it much cheaper to light. The pyramids can still be found in numerous styles and sizes throughout Germany and parts of the U.S.
Sondra Reierson, 3D objects curator and interim head of collections management at the MHS in St. Paul, said the Johnson family’s tree and its decorations are great complements to the other holiday decor, folk art and union-made material in their collections.
“It’s being added to our collections to document this era and style of folk art,” said Lauren Peck, MHS public relations specialist. “There is no plan for it to be on display to visitors.”
The late Virgil Johnson, the tree’s owner, was a well-known Minnesota hockey player, suiting up for Twin Cities minor league teams including the Minneapolis Millers and the St. Paul Saints, as well as playing for the 1938 Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. He was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 1974. He also played for the Hershey Bears and the Cleveland Barons.
Along with the tree, the MHS acquired the Johnsons’ collection of more than 100 family photographs and slides chronicling three generations of family history in Minnesota, dating back to Virgil’s grandparents’ arrival from Sweden in 1881 and continuing up to their time in North Minneapolis. Virgil’s grandparents, Andrew and Malin Johnson, settled in Minneapolis, building a boarding house in 1900 that catered to lumber mill workers. Nine years later, the family moved to Ralph, S.D., to take up land claims, but their homesteading proved unsuccessful and they returned to Minneapolis in 1913.
Virgil was born in 1909 in Minneapolis and spent his early years on the family claim in South Dakota. He graduated from North High School in Minneapolis in 1930, after lettering in football and hockey. He and his wife, Helen, had three children.