The History of the Christmas Tree

Christmas tree with presents and lights reflecting in windows around the tree in modern home

Most Americans celebrate Christmas by decorating a tree – whether it be artificial or a live tree. For many people, the holidays are simply not complete without a Christmas tree. Without one, where would Santa put all the gifts? When we stop to think about Christmas trees, it can actually seem a little odd. Why do we chop down trees from outside and then hang decorations on them? What does this have to do with Christmas anyway? Let’s dig a little deeper into the back story behind the Christmas tree.

Christmas Room Interior Design, Xmas Tree Decorated By Lights Presents Gifts Toys, Candles And Garland Lighting Indoors Fireplace

The Power of Evergreens

Well before Christianity and Christmas, the people of ancient times believed evergreens had special powers, especially in the winter months. These plants and trees that remained green during the harsher weather were hung over doors and windows during the winter solstice in an effort to ward off witches, evil spirits and even illness. The evergreens were a symbol of the summer months when crops would grow.

During the winter, it was believed that the sun god was sick. The sun god’s illness was manifested by the shorter days with less sunlight during this time of year. The winter solstice – which falls just a few days before Christmas – was seen as the beginning of the sun god’s healing, as the days gradually became lighter and longer. The ancient Romans celebrated the winter solstice with the feast of Saturnalia to honor the god of agriculture. Both homes and temples were decorated with evergreens to mark this feast day. Throughout ancient Europe, evergreens were used as symbol of life and vitality during the winter.

The First Christmas Tree

Just as the celebrations of these winter solstice feasts fed into the formation of the Christmas holiday, so did the life-giving power of evergreen branches develop into the first full Christmas tree. It is thought that the first Christmas trees were brought into homes by German Christians in the 16th century to celebrate the Christmas holiday. Some people built pyramids of wood which were then decorated with evergreen branches rather than using an entire tree.

In early America, Christmas trees were slow to take hold. They were viewed as a bit peculiar at first, and it was the German settlers in Pennsylvania who are credited with beginning the Christmas tree tradition in this country. This is not surprising given the Germans were the ones to begin this tradition for Christians in Europe. Even after the German settlers adopted the Christmas tree, it was still seen as more of a pagan symbol by many and was not widely accepted. In fact, in 1659, the people of Massachusetts were fined for hanging any kind of Christmas decoration. Attending Church was deemed the only appropriate way to celebrate Christmas in this Puritan town.

Christmas tree with presents and lights reflecting in windows around the tree in modern home

The Christmas Tree Takes Hold

As more and more immigrants from Germany and Ireland came to America, the Puritan influence gradually declined. To top it off, in the mid-1800’s the much-beloved Queen Victoria of England was photographed with her family around a Christmas tree. This display helped solidify the Christmas tree tradition in England and carried over to those in America who wanted to keep up with the times.

As the 1800’s came to an end, Christmas trees had become quite popular. Americans tended to prefer taller trees than those used in Europe, creating quite a stunning display. Trees were decorated with items ranging from homemade ornaments to popcorn and nuts. After the invention of electricity, lights were added to trees as well. By the early 20th century, the Christmas tree was an official part of American Christmas tradition.

In 1923, President Calvin Coolidge began the National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on the White House lawn. Today, Christmas trees are grown in all 50 states of the U.S. and 98% of all Christmas trees are grown on farms. The most popular trees used for Christmas trees are the Douglas Fir, Fraser Fir, Balsam Fir, Scotch Pine and White Pine.

Christmas Trees Around the World

Here are some fun facts about Christmas trees from various countries around the world:

  • England – The Norway spruce is the tree most commonly used in England for Christmas trees.
  • Canada – German settlers made their way to Canada from the United States in the 1700s, bringing the Christmas tree tradition with them.
  • Greenland – It is too cold for trees to grow here, so all Christmas trees are imported to Greenland.
  • Mexico – A full evergreen tree is considered a luxury in Mexico, so the more common Christmas tree is often artificial or a small branch or shrub.
  • Sweden – While many people here buy their Christmas tree in advance, they often do not bring it inside and decorate it until just a few days before Christmas Eve.
  • Norway – Trees are often cut down from the woods here and parents do the decorating while children wait in excitement to see the finished Christmas tree.

Now that you are well-informed on the evolution of the Christmas tree, you can get even more joy from decorating your tree this year!