Before Christmas trees were considered essential decor for the holidays, they were simply fragrant evergreens that served as a source of joy during the harsh winter months. Here, we'll take you through the most useful—and interesting—Christmas tree history to dazzle guests with at your annual holiday party. (And if you're curious for even more Christmas trivia and fun facts, here's the origin of "merry Christmas" and the true story behind the beloved song "White Christmas.")
What does the Christmas tree symbolize?
In ancient cultures, the winter solstice was heralded as the beginning of brighter days ahead, an indication that the sun god was regaining his strength. Evergreen trees, of course, retained their color through all seasons, and thus were displayed and embraced in coordination with the solstice as a reminder of warmer months.
In Egypt, a similar mindset was adopted. The Sun God, Ra, typically grew weak as conditions became colder and darker. The solstice was seen as the turning point in seasons, so Egyptians decorated their homes with palm leaves and branches. Similarly, in ancient Rome, a feast called Saturnalia was held during the solstice, which also encouraged people to celebrate the springtime (and bountiful harvest) ahead with evergreen decorations.
When did Christmas trees originate?
The true Christmas tree tradition can be traced to 16th-century Germany, where Christians began to decorate trees—or, if times were tough, simple pyramid-shaped stacks of wood— inside their homes. The tradition of adding candles to the tree branches is most commonly attributed to Martin Luther, leader of the Protestant Reformation movement in the 1500s. (Legend suggests he was inspired by the stars in the night sky and wanted to re-create the scene in his own home using candlelight.)
According to A Christmas Cornucopia: The Hidden Stories Behind Our Yuletide Traditions, the first-ever Christmas tree was in London, near what is now Leadenhall Market. However, it seems it was a one-time trend, as Christmas trees wouldn't be back in Britain until the 19th century.
In what country did the Christmas tree originate? And are Christmas trees religious?
Despite the Christmas tree's roots in Christianity, most Americans refused to adopt the tradition at first because they believed it to be attached to pagan beliefs. The tradition was mostly contained to Germany until the late 1700s and early 1800s. Until then, the Puritans of New England upheld especially strict views of Christmas in America, and people were severely punished if they celebrated or decorated in any way. (They believed the holiday was so sacred that a church service was the only appropriate way to celebrate.) This solemn American observance of Christmas continued until Irish and German immigrants began to make their way across the Atlantic and established their own traditions despite the Puritan rule.
German settlements, particularly in Pennsylvania, typically decorated community trees in the late 18th century, and soon the trees found their way into the individual homes of German families—but most of the country was still skeptical. It wasn't until England's Queen Victoria and Prince Albert (who was of German heritage) were depicted in a popular newspaper in 1848 standing around a Christmas tree with their family that the tradition became more widely embraced. Americans were hereby convinced that Christmas trees were desirable holiday decorations.
Where did the custom of decorating Christmas trees originate?
Other than the candle aesthetic already established in Europe, decorations like ornaments (often imported from Germany) became more popular in the late 1800s, and homemade decorations like cookies and garlands (think: popcorn, berries, nuts, and more) became decorating staples.
These more homespun decorations gave way to electric lights and synthetic materials, like tinsel, as technological and industrial developments changed throughout the 20th century. The popular Shiny Brite ornaments, inspired by imported German glass ornaments, marked the beginning of the U.S. ornament industry in the early-to-mid 1900s.
Where does the National Christmas tree come from?
In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge started the White House's National Christmas tree-lighting tradition with a 48-foot Balsam Fir brought to Washington, D.C., from Vermont. The annual ceremony continues today, and the tree, a blue spruce grown in Virginia, is now planted on the north side of the Ellipse at the White House.
Where does the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree come from?
In 1931, a simple tree was placed in the middle of Rockefeller Center in Manhattan, New York. Soon after, it became a tradition similar to the White House tree to signify the start of the holiday season in New York City. This tree is typically a Norway spruce selected by the head gardener at Rockefeller Center and is selected from submissions sent in each year.
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