Christmas Trees: A History

Evergreen trees have held special meaning for many cultures. Ancient Egyptians, Romans, and Druids all had cultures that placed significance on evergreens. At winter solstice, Egyptians would place green palms in their homes to symbolize the triumph of life over death in honor of their sun god, Ra. Romans decorated their homes with evergreens to celebrate their winter festival to honor Saturnus, god of agriculture. Druids, Celtic priests in Gaul, Britain, and Ireland, also decorated with evergreens during winter solstice to symbolize eternal life.

The tradition of the Christmas tree as we know it today has origins in Germany. During the Middle ages, Germans held Paradise plays about the story of Adam and Eve. Trees decorated with apples, known as Paradise trees, were the only prop. Also in Germany, wooden pyramids were set up and decorated with candles to represent Christ, light of the world. During the 16th century, devout Christians started to bring decorated trees into their homes. The idea of lighted candles on the tree is attributed to Martin Luther, a 16th-century German monk, priest, and Protestant reformer. One evening while walking he noticed the way the stars shined through the branches of trees, so he went home and decorated a tree using candles to recreate the scene for his family. While this story is entertaining, it seems to be pure legend, and most likely the combination of Paradise trees and the Christmas pyramids led to what we call Christmas trees.

The Christmas tree tradition was introduced to North America by Moravian German immigrants in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, during the winter of 1747. Decorations on these trees consisted of candles, tinsel, beads, and silver wire ornaments. Christmas trees were considered pagan symbols by most Americans and were not widely accepted until the 1840s. This was somewhat attributed to an illustration in 1846 of Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, and their children standing around a Christmas tree. Queen Victoria was very popular, thus it became fashionable in Britain and across the pond with the American East Coast society folks, to have a Christmas tree.

By the mid-1800s, Christmas trees were becoming quite popular. The first retail Christmas tree lot was in 1852 on the streets of New York City. The first Christmas tree in the White House was while Franklin Pierce was in office. By the late 1800s, glass ornaments had made their way to the United States, once again introduced from Germany. Metal hooks for hanging ornaments were introduced in 1892. Electric Christmas lights were invented in 1895, and were popular because they reduced the risk of fire that was caused by candles people were using in their trees.

During the early 20th-century, artificial trees were introduced to help reduce the number of trees that were cut each year. Currently, popular types of Christmas trees are Balsam fir, Douglas fir, Fraser fir, Noble fir, Eastern white pine, Scotch pine, Virginia pine, Eastern red cedar, Colorado Blue spruce, and white spruce. Decorations of lights, tinsel, ornaments, beads, and more adorned our Christmas trees today.

Merry Christmas!