In the Northern hemisphere, the shortest day and longest night of the year (falling sometime between December 20 and 23) is called the Winter solstice. When ancient peoples observed the air becoming colder, the days getting shorter and the deciduous trees, bushes, and crops dying or hibernating for the winter, many became afraid that the sun was disappearing and that the Earth would eventually freeze. They also noticed that some plants and trees remained green all year long and believed that such trees and plants had magical powers that allowed them to withstand the cold of winter.
Evergreen trees and other plants that stay green all year round have always carried a special meaning for the various peoples of the world. Long before the advent of Christianity, peoples of many ancient civilizations decorated their homes with pine, spruce, and fir trees. In many of these cultures, it was believed that evergreen boughs, hung over doors and windows, would fend off witches, ghosts, evil spirits, and diseases.
Ancient peoples who worshiped the sun as a god believed that winter came when the sun god became sick and weak. The celebration of the winter solstice marked the time when the sun god would begin to regain his strength and evergreens served as reminders of the coming spring when the land would be green again.
Not having evergreen trees, the ancient Egyptians filled their homes with green date palm leaves to celebrate that their god, Ra, who was depicted as having the sun in his crown, was beginning to recover from his illness. The palm leaves symbolized the triumph of life over death.
To mark the occasion when their farms and orchards would once again be green and fruitful, the early Romans honored Saturn, the god of agriculture, with a winter solstice feast called the Saturnalia. They decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs and lights and exchanged symbolic gifts; coins for prosperity, pastries for happiness, and lamps for lighting the journey of life.
In Great Britain, the woods priests of the ancient Celts, the Druids, used evergreens, holly and mistletoe as symbols of everlasting life during mysterious winter solstice rituals. They also placed evergreen boughs over their doors and windows to ward off evil spirits.
The Vikings of Scandinavia believed evergreens to be the special plant of their sun god, Balder. In the late Middle Ages, Germans and Scandinavians put evergreen trees inside their homes or just outside their doors to show their hope for the coming spring.
The modern Christmas tree, which is often mistakenly referred to as a “Pagan symbol,” (the Pagans believed that cutting down whole evergreen trees was destructive to nature) evolved from all of these early superstitions, customs and traditions.
The Legendary Origins of the Christmas Tree
Many of our modern Christmas customs, songs and traditions came from Germany, such as illustrations of Santa Claus, Christmas markets, shaped gingerbreads, tinsel, glass ornaments, and of course, Christmas trees.
The tradition of decorating a tree in celebration of Christmas originated in 16th century Germany. Legend has it that it Martin Luther, the German theologian and reformer who influenced Lutheran and Protestant doctrines, was the first to decorate an evergreen tree with lighted candles.
It is said that one night while walking through the woods and composing a sermon, he was awestruck by the beauty of evergreens shimmering in the snow under the stars. When he got home, he wanted to share his story with his children, so he brought in a small evergreen tree and decorated it with candles, which he lit in honor of the birth of Christ.
Although the first actual written record of a Christmas tree in 1604 dates well after Martin Luther’s death in 1564, this old story of the first Christmas tree is still widely believed and very popular.
Another Christmas tree legend, also from Germany and dating back to the 7th century, tells the story of St. Boniface, a monk from Devonshire who went to Germany to convert the German people to Christianity. It is said that when he found a group of Pagans worshiping an oak tree, he cut the oak down and a young evergreen began to grow from its roots. Taking this as a sign, St Boniface used the triangular shape of the fir tree to describe the Holy Trinity; God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. After that, the converts then revered the fir tree as God’s tree, just as they had previously revered the oak.
Christmas Trees in Early American History
The Christmas tree tradition as we know it today was most likely brought to the United States by Hessian troops during the American Revolution. According to a legend, a celebration around a Christmas tree in Trenton, New Jersey helped to turn the tide for Colonial forces in 1776. Hessian mercenaries, apparently feeling homesick after seeing a candlelit evergreen tree in the snow, left their guard posts to engage in merrymaking, which gave General Washington the opportunity to attack their position and defeat them.
The first actual record of Christmas trees being on display in America dates back to the 1830s, although the Pennsylvania German settlements had put up community evergreens in winter as early as 1747. But Christmas trees were not widely accepted in America until some time later. As recently as the 1840s, many Americans still thought of decorated evergreens as Pagan symbols.
To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. They condemned many customs associated with Christmas, such as the Yule log, holly, mistletoe, Christmas carols and Christmas trees, as “heathen traditions.” The Puritans believed that any joyful expression desecrated the sacred event of the birth of Christ.
William Bradford, the pilgrim’s second governor, tried to stamp out what he called the “Pagan mockery” of Christmas. In 1659, a law was enacted that made any observances of December 25, other than attending church services, illegal. Christmas “frivolity” was penalized and anyone, Puritan or not, caught hanging decorations or otherwise celebrating Christmas was fined 15 cents.
This joyless Christmas tradition of solemnity continued into the 19th century. Until 1870, Boston schools remained open on Christmas Day and students who stayed home could be expelled. As recently as 1851, Pastor Henry Schwan of Cleveland, Ohio nearly lost his job when he decorated a Christmas tree in his church and his parishioners condemned it as a “pagan practice.”
The Modern American Christmas Tree
Christmas trees were first introduced in England by King George III’s German Queen, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and by German merchants who lived in England. A few British families had Christmas trees but they were likely influenced by their German neighbors rather than the Royal Court. At the time, the German Monarchy was unpopular with the British public, so the Royal Court did not copy the Christmas tree, which is why they did not become widely fashionable in Britain.
In 1846, The Illustrated London News carried a sketch of Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous Royal family, Queen Victoria was very popular with her subjects and whatever the trendsetting Royals did at Court quickly became stylish in Britain as well as in the fashion-conscious cliques of Eastern American society.
By the 1890s, the popularity of Christmas trees was on the rise around America. Whereas the Europeans used small trees, the Americans preferred their Christmas trees tall enough to reach the ceiling. Most decorations were homemade. Young women spent hours quilling stars and snowflakes and sewing little pouches to hold secret gifts and treats, such as sugared almonds. They strung garlands with brightly dyed popcorn, interspersed with with nuts and berries. Wooden hoops were used to hold candles until the advent of electricity, which made it possible for Christmas trees to be lit continuously — and far more safely.
Silver tinsel, which tarnished easily, was invented in 1878. By the 1920s, however, it was made from lead because lead was cheaper and did not tarnish. Due to the danger of lead poisoning to children, lead tinsel was banned in the 1960s. Today’s tinsel is made exclusively from plastic.
In 1851, when a Catskill farmer named Mark Carr took two ox sleds filled with evergreen trees to New York City and promptly sold them all, the Christmas tree market was born. In 1890, F.W. Woolworth brought glass Christmas tree ornaments from Germany to the United States. The Christmas tree was beginning to catch on.
Christmas trees began appearing in town squares across the nation and having a Christmas tree in the home would soon become an American tradition. In the year 1900, one in five American homes had a Christmas tree. By the year 1920, they had become nearly universal.
President Franklin Pierce (1804-1869) had the first Christmas tree in the White House in the 1850’s. The National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn was started by President Calvin Coolidge (1885-1933) in 1923.
During the Great Depression of the 1930s, nurseries were unable to sell evergreen trees for landscaping, so they cut them for Christmas trees. Because they were more symmetrical than trees growing in the wild, cultivated trees became preferred and the impromptu Christmas tree farms of the depression-era eventually became full-fledged businesses.
Artificial Christmas trees were first marketed in 1885 when a thirty-three limb tree, priced at 50 cents, could be ordered from Sears, Roebuck and Company. They were produced by brush manufacturers that employed the same techniques used in making brushes. Bristles of animal hair or plastic were dyed pine-green and inserted between twisted wires to form branches in graduated sizes, each with a color-coded tag at the base. The customer assembled the tree by inserting the color-coded branches into a wooden pole that acted as the trunk.
To prevent deforestation, tabletop feather trees made of dyed goose feathers originated in Germany in the 19th century. The Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog sold the first feather trees in America in 1913.
Artificial trees are very popular in the United States where synthetic Christmas trees can be found in 70% of homes. They are considered more convenient and hygienic (especially for those with allergies), and if they are used a number of times, they are less expensive over the long term. In most of Europe, however, artificial trees are considered tacky.
In the 1950s and 60s, metallic trees with all the same shape and color ornaments became the rage. The trees were made of aluminum-coated paper, which posed a fire hazard when Christmas lights were placed directly on them, so they were instead lit by a spotlight with a motorized color wheel in front of it.
The late 1970s saw a return to classic Victorian nostalgia, which was a refreshing change from the “space age” Christmas trees of the previous decades. Green trees were once again in demand and manufacturers created replicas of antique-style German glass ornaments, real silver tinsel and pressed foil decorations.
Today’s indoor artificial trees are often sold pre-strung with lights, which not only provide a consistent display of color and light, but also allow people to avoid the most unpleasant yearly task of untangling Christmas lights. Some pre-lit trees contain fiber optics, which are lighted by a single lamp at the base. Most fiber optic trees come with a rotating color wheel that creates a shimmering multicolored lighting effect.
Other modern Christmas tree gimmicks include talking or singing trees, trees that blow their own “snow” (Styrofoam beads) and inverted trees. Inverted Christmas trees were originally used in stores by merchants who wanted their customers to get a closer look at the ornaments and other decorations being sold. The idea caught on with some customers who thought that the inverted trees would allow larger presents to be placed underneath them.
The Multicultural Holiday Evergreen
Today, decorated evergreen trees are often the subject of political controversy. In recent years, as America has progressed toward greater religious tolerance and freedom, the governments of some cities and towns have declined to put up lighted and decorated evergreens because they fear that they might be in violation of the First Amendment. Other localities simply call their decorated evergreens “Holiday Trees” in order to be inclusive and respectful of their community’s diversity.
Some Christians object to the idea of calling a decorated evergreen a “Holiday Tree,” believing that such a generic name is marginalizing to the Christian faith. But as their history demonstrates, decorated evergreens, which pre-date Christianity by thousands of years, were never exclusively Christian. Rather, the idea of decorating an evergreen tree in December is an ancient, multicultural notion whose meaning is as diverse as the variety of Christmas/Holiday tree styles available in stores today.