Oh Christmas Tree! A Brief History

Oh Christmas Tree! A Brief History
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Oh Christmas Tree! A Brief History

Christmas is almost here and crunch time is setting in. Time to finish up (or start) your holiday shopping, address greeting cards and put up the Christmas tree. Whether fresh cut, from a tree lot or artificial, about three quarters of American households plan to include a tree as part of their holiday festivities.

How did this popular Yuletide tradition start? It does seem to be a strange ritual if you really think about it. Every December people bring live trees into their homes, decorate them with lights and ornaments, and then discard them in January. So, what are the origins of this beloved Christmas symbol?

Origins

Decorating with evergreen boughs has been a seasonal practice since ancient times when pagans incorporated pine branches into winter solstice celebrations. The greenery symbolized light over darkness in anticipation of the spring season. Early European Christians included the use of a decorated tree in Miracle Plays. Often adorned with fruit and pastries, they were called Paradise Trees and were meant to represent the Garden of Eden.

The beginning of the Christmas tree as we know it today is most often credited to Germany. In 1539, it is recorded that Strasbourg Cathedral displayed a Christmas tree. The first person to bring an evergreen tree into their home and light it with candles is believed to be 16th century German Protestant reformer Martin Luther. Inspired by starlight shining through pine branches on a nighttime stroll in the woods, Luther brought an evergreen into his home just before Christmas and decorated it with candles. By the 18th century, Christmas trees were appearing all throughout Europe.

Christmas Trees in America

The arrival of the Christmas tree in the United States was probably in the late 18th century when Hessian troops joined the British to fight in the Revolutionary War. Christmas trees did not become widespread in the U.S. until the 1850’s after gaining popularity with British royalty. In 1848, England’s trendsetting Queen Victoria appeared in a newspaper illustration with her family gathered around a decorated Christmas tree. In 1950, a similar drawing was published in a popular women’s magazine in the States and soon the Christmas tree became a must-have decoration for the holiday season.

Trimming the Tree

Early Christmas trees in Germany were decorated with edible items like fruit and gingerbread. A figure of the Baby Jesus was placed on top of the tree, and later became replaced with a star or angel. By the early 1800s it was very common to see forest or nativity scenes beneath German holiday trees. Lead and glass ornaments started being made in the 1860s and 1870s. Frank Woolworth began selling glass ornaments in his stores in the US in 1880.

Real or Fake?

The first artificial Christmas trees started popping up in the United States in the 1930s. By the 50s and 60s aluminum and PVC plastic trees were being mass produced. “Fake” trees became popular for their convenience and today more US homes have artificial trees than real pine.

Whether natural or artificial, the Christmas tree has become one of the most recognizable symbols of the Yuletide season. All over the world, communities assemble for tree lighting ceremonies and families gather around the Christmas trees in their homes to celebrate the holidays.