Christmas trees have a long history, dating back to the symbolic usage of evergreens in ancient Egypt and Rome and continuing with the German custom of lighted Christmas trees, which was introduced to America in the 1800s. Discover the history of the Christmas tree, from the earliest winter solstice festivities through Queen Victoria’s decorating practices and New York City’s yearly lighting of the Rockefeller Center tree.
How Did Christmas Trees Start?
Long before Christianity, plants and trees that remained green all year had a special significance for people throughout the winter. Just like people now adorn their homes with pine, spruce, and fir trees during the holiday season, ancient peoples draped evergreen boughs over their doorways and windows. Evergreens were thought to ward off witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and sickness in many nations.
Did you know that all 50 states, including Hawaii and Alaska, grow Christmas trees.
The winter solstice occurs on December 21 or December 22 in the Northern Hemisphere and is marked by the shortest day and longest night of the year. Many ancient people thought that the sun was a deity, and that winter arrived every year because the sun god had become ill and feeble. They celebrated the solstice because it indicated that the sun god was finally getting better. Evergreen boughs reminded them of all the green vegetation that would sprout when the sun god returned and summer returned.
The ancient Egyptians worshiped Ra, a hawk-headed deity who wore the sun as a flaming disk in his crown. When Ra began to recover from his sickness at the solstice, the Egyptians decorated their homes with green palm rushes, which signified the triumph of life over death for them.
The solstice was celebrated by the early Romans with a feast called Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans recognized that the solstice signaled that crops and orchards will soon be green and bountiful. They adorned their homes and temples with evergreen boughs to commemorate the event.
The enigmatic Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also adorned their temples in Northern Europe with evergreen boughs as a sign of perpetual life. Evergreens were considered to be the particular plant of the sun god, Balder, by the ferocious Vikings of Scandinavia.
Christmas Trees From Germany
The Christmas tree custom as we know it began in Germany in the 16th century, when pious Christians carried decorated trees into their homes. If wood was limited, some people made Christmas pyramids out of wood and adorned them with evergreens and candles. It is commonly assumed that Martin Luther, a 16th-century Protestant reformer, was the first to place lighted candles to a tree. He was walking toward his house one winter evening, writing a sermon, when he was struck by the brightness of lights sparkling among the evergreens. He built a tree in the main room and strung its branches with lit candles to recreate the scenario for his family.
Who Was It Who Brought Christmas Trees to America?
Christmas trees were unusual to most nineteenth-century Americans. The first record of one on display was in the 1830s by German settlers in Pennsylvania, though trees had been a custom in many German households for much longer. Community trees were planted in Pennsylvania German communities as early as 1747. However, as late as the 1840s, Christmas trees were seen as pagan emblems and were not recognized by the majority of Americans.
It’s hardly surprising that, like many other joyful Christmas rituals, the tree arrived in America late. Christmas was holy to the New England Puritans. William Bradford, the pilgrims’ second governor, stated that he worked hard to root out “pagan mockery” of the celebration, punishing any levity. Oliver Cromwell, the prominent minister, preached against “heathen practices” such as Christmas songs, adorned trees, and any joyous expression that desecrated “that hallowed festival.” The General Court of Massachusetts adopted a statute in 1659 that made any celebration of December 25 (other than a church service) a criminal crime; individuals were punished for hanging decorations. That seriousness persisted until the nineteenth century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants weakened the Puritan tradition.
Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were shown in the Illustrated London News in 1846, posing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was well-liked by her citizens, and what happened at court quickly became fashionable—not just in Britain, but also among fashion-conscious East Coast Americans. The Christmas tree was on its way.
By the 1890s, Christmas decorations were coming from Germany, and the popularity of Christmas trees was growing throughout the United States. It was observed that Europeans preferred little trees approximately four feet tall, but Americans like their Christmas trees to extend from floor to ceiling.
Americans decorated their trees mostly with homemade decorations in the early twentieth century, but the German-American faction continued to utilize apples, almonds, and marzipan sweets. Popcorn was added after it had been painted vivid colors and interwoven with berries and nuts. Christmas lights were made feasible by electricity, allowing Christmas trees to shine for days on end. Christmas trees began to emerge in town squares across the country as a result of this, and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American custom.
Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree
The first tree was planted in Rockefeller Center in 1931. It was a tiny, unadorned tree put in the midst of the construction site by construction workers. Two years later, another tree, this time with lights, was planted there. The massive Rockefeller Center tree is now adorned with approximately 25,000 Christmas lights.
Christmas Trees Around the World
Christmas Trees in Canada
In the 1700s, German migrants moved to Canada from the United States. They brought many of the items we associate with Christmas today, such as Advent calendars, gingerbread homes, cookies, and Christmas trees. When Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, erected a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle in 1848, it became a tradition in England, the United States, and Canada.
Christmas Trees in Mexico
El Nacimiento is the main Christmas decoration in most Mexican houses (Nativity scene). A decorated Christmas tree, on the other hand, may be integrated within the Nacimiento or set up elsewhere in the home. Because the purchase of a real pine is considered a luxury item by the majority of Mexican households, the usual arbolito (little tree) is typically an artificial one, a bare branch cut from a copal tree (Bursera microphylla) or another sort of shrub obtained from the countryside.
Christmas Trees in Great Britain
The Norway spruce is the traditional species used to decorate homes in Britain. The Norway spruce was a native species in the British Isles before the last Ice Age, and was reintroduced here before the 1500s.
Christmas Trees in Greenland
Christmas trees are imported, as no trees live this far north. They are decorated with candles and bright ornaments.
Christmas Trees in Guatemala
The Christmas tree has joined the “Nacimiento” (Nativity scene) as a popular ornament because of the large German population in Guatemala. Gifts are left under the tree on Christmas morning for the children. Parents and adults do not exchange gifts until New Year’s Day.
Christmas Trees in Brazil
Although Christmas falls during the summer in Brazil, sometimes pine trees are decorated with little pieces of cotton that represent falling snow.
Christmas Trees in Ireland
Christmas trees are bought anytime in December and decorated with colored lights, tinsel, and baubles. Some people favor the angel on top of the tree, others the star. The house is decorated with garlands, candles, holly, and ivy. Wreaths and mistletoe are hung on the door.
Christmas Trees in Sweden
Most people buy Christmas trees well before Christmas Eve, but it’s not common to take the tree inside and decorate it until just a few days before. Evergreen trees are decorated with stars, sunbursts, and snowflakes made from straw. Other decorations include colorful wooden animals and straw centerpieces.
Christmas Trees in Norway
Nowadays Norwegians often take a trip to the woods to select a Christmas tree, a trip that their grandfathers probably did not make. The Christmas tree was not introduced into Norway from Germany until the latter half of the 19th century; to the country districts it came even later. When Christmas Eve arrives, there is the decorating of the tree, usually done by the parents behind the closed doors of the living room, while the children wait with excitement outside. A Norwegian ritual known as “circling the Christmas tree” follows, where everyone joins hands to form a ring around the tree and then walk around it singing carols. Afterwards, gifts are distributed.
Christmas Trees in Ukraine
Celebrated on December 25th by Catholics and on January 7th by Orthodox Christians, Christmas is the most popular holiday in the Ukraine. During the Christmas season, which also includes New Year’s Day, people decorate fir trees and have parties.
Christmas Trees in Spain
A popular Christmas custom is Catalonia, a lucky strike game. A tree trunk is filled with goodies and children hit at the trunk trying to knock out the hazel nuts, almonds, toffee, and other treats.
Christmas Trees in Italy
In Italy, the presepio (manger or crib) represents in miniature the Holy Family in the stable and is the center of Christmas for families. Guests kneel before it and musicians sing before it. The presepio figures are usually hand-carved and very detailed in features and dress. The scene is often set out in the shape of a triangle. It provides the base of a pyramid-like structure called the ceppo. This is a wooden frame arranged to make a pyramid several feet high. Several tiers of thin shelves are supported by this frame. It is entirely decorated with colored paper, gilt pine cones, and miniature colored pennants. Small candles are fastened to the tapering sides. A star or small doll is hung at the apex of the triangular sides. The shelves above the manger scene have small gifts of fruit, candy, and presents. The ceppo is in the old Tree of Light tradition which became the Christmas tree in other countries. Some houses even have a ceppo for each child in the family.
Christmas Trees in Germany
Many Christmas traditions practiced around the world today started in Germany.
It has long been thought that Martin Luther began the tradition of bringing a fir tree into the home. According to one legend, late one evening, Martin Luther was walking home through the woods and noticed how beautifully the stars shone through the trees. He wanted to share the beauty with his wife, so he cut down a fir tree and took it home. Once inside, he placed small, lighted candles on the branches and said that it would be a symbol of the beautiful Christmas sky. The Christmas tree was born.
Another legend says that in the early 16th century, people in Germany combined two customs that had been practiced in different countries around the globe. The Paradise tree (a fir tree decorated with apples) represented the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden. The Christmas Light, a small, pyramid-like frame, usually decorated with glass balls, tinsel and a candle on top, was a symbol of the birth of Christ as the Light of the World. Changing the tree’s apples to tinsel balls and cookies and combining this new tree with the light placed on top, the Germans created the tree that many of us know today.
Modern Tannenbaum (Christmas trees) are traditionally decorated in secret with lights, tinsel and ornaments by parents and then lit and revealed on Christmas Eve with cookies, nuts and gifts under its branches.
Christmas Trees in South Africa
Christmas is a summer holiday in South Africa. Although Christmas trees are not common, windows are often draped with sparkling cotton wool and tinsel.
Christmas Trees in Saudi Arabia
Christian Americans, Europeans, Indians, Filipinos, and others living here have to celebrate Christmas privately in their homes. Christmas lights are generally not tolerated. Most families place their Christmas trees somewhere inconspicuous.
Christmas Trees in Philippines
Fresh pine trees are too expensive for many Filipinos, so handmade trees in an array of colors and sizes are often used. Star lanterns, or parol, appear everywhere in December. They are made from bamboo sticks, covered with brightly colored rice paper or cellophane, and usually feature a tassel on each point. There is usually one in every window, each representing the Star of Bethlehem.
Christmas Trees in China
Of the small percentage of Chinese who do celebrate Christmas, most erect artificial trees decorated with spangles and paper chains, flowers, and lanterns. Christmas trees are called “trees of light.”
Christmas Trees in Japan
For most of the Japanese who celebrate Christmas, it’s purely a secular holiday devoted to the love of their children. Christmas trees are decorated with small toys, dolls, paper ornaments, gold paper fans and lanterns, and wind chimes. Miniature candles are also put among the tree branches. One of the most popular ornaments is the origami swan. Japanese children have exchanged thousands of folded paper “birds of peace” with young people all over the world as a pledge that war must not happen again.
Christmas Tree Trivia
- Christmas trees have been sold commercially in the United States since about 1850.
- In 1979, the National Christmas Tree was not lighted except for the top ornament. This was done in honor of the American hostages in Iran.
- Between 1887-1933 a fishing schooner called the Christmas Ship would tie up at the Clark Street bridge and sell spruce trees from Michigan to Chicagoans.
- The tallest living Christmas tree is believed to be the 122-foot, 91-year-old Douglas fir in the town of Woodinville, Washington.
- The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree tradition began in 1933. Franklin Pierce, the 14th president, brought the Christmas tree tradition to the White House.
- In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony now held every year on the White House lawn.
- Since 1966, the National Christmas Tree Association has given a Christmas tree to the President and first family.
- Most Christmas trees are cut weeks before they get to a retail outlet.
- In 1912, the first community Christmas tree in the United States was erected in New York City.
- Christmas trees generally take six to eight years to mature.
- Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states including Hawaii and Alaska.
- 98 percent of all Christmas trees are grown on farms.
- More than 1,000,000 acres of land have been planted with Christmas trees.
- On average, over 2,000 Christmas trees are planted per acre.
- You should never burn your Christmas tree in the fireplace. It can contribute to creosote buildup.
- Other types of trees such as cherry and hawthorns were used as Christmas trees in the past.
- Thomas Edison’s assistants came up with the idea of electric lights for Christmas trees.
- In 1963, the National Christmas Tree was not lit until December 22nd because of a national 30-day period of mourning following the assassination of President Kennedy.
- Teddy Roosevelt banned the Christmas tree from the White House for environmental reasons.
- In the first week, a tree in your home will consume as much as a quart of water per day.
- Tinsel was once banned by the government. Tinsel contained lead at one time. Now it’s made of plastic.
- The best-selling trees are Scotch Pine, Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir and White Pine.