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A Brief History of the Christmas Tree

Updated on November 18, 2014
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree
The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree | Source
1891 painting of family with Christmas tree
1891 painting of family with Christmas tree | Source
Many Christmas trees feature an Angel on top
Many Christmas trees feature an Angel on top | Source
Christmas tree featuring many colored baubles.
Christmas tree featuring many colored baubles. | Source
Brightly colored, well decorated tree.
Brightly colored, well decorated tree. | Source
Typical American Christmas tree.
Typical American Christmas tree. | Source

O Christmas Tree

Evergreen trees have long been a source of wonder and hope during the cold, barren winter months. They have been viewed as a symbol of eternal life since ancient times. Some cultures believed that decorating their homes with evergreen trees warded off demons, witches, and evil spirits. Evergreens were revered in ancient Egypt and the Roman Empire.

The origin of the Christmas tree is somewhat opaque. According to legend, German priest Martin Luther, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, created the idea. He supposedly brought home an evergreen tree on Christmas Eve around the year 1500. He and his children decorated it with candles. An even older legend claims that St. Boniface, the patron saint of Germany, invented the Christmas tree in the eighth century. No one knows for sure who first created the concept, and it will likely always remain shrouded in mystery.

However it started, the custom quickly gained widespread popularity among sixteenth century German Protestants. Early ornaments included apples, popcorn strings, and candy canes. Roman Catholic Germans initially resisted the custom because of its strong early association with Protestantism. However, Christmas trees gradually became common in all areas of Germany. They soon became popular in other parts of Europe and Russia, especially among the rich noble classes.

German immigrants eventually transported this custom to the United States and Canada. However, many early American viewed Christmas trees as a frivolous desecration of the holiday (they also thought this about Christmas carols, decorations, etc.). Some communities even outlawed celebrating Christmas in anything other than an extremely solemn and serious manner. Christmas trees were criticized as a bizarre pagan foreign custom. They were rarely seen outside of communities with German roots.

A major turning point occurred in the mid-19th century. In 1846, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing around a decorated Christmas tree with their children. In 1850, the American periodical Godey’s republished the image but changed the royal family’s appearance to appeal to its American audience. The iconic sketch had an enormous influence on the popularity of the Christmas tree in the United States. By the late 19th century, it had become much more common for American households to have one. Glass ornaments, including baubles, began to be sold and mass produced in the U.S. during this period.

By the early 20th century, Christmas trees were steadily growing in popularity. By this time, electric lights had replaced candles on most Christmas trees. In 1923, the National Christmas Tree appeared for the first time on the White House’s south lawn. It has since become an annual tradition for the President of the United States to light the tree each December. The iconic Rockefeller Square Christmas tree in New York City was first lit in 1933. Flocked “snowy” trees became popular in the U.S. in the 1940’s and ‘50s and are still sold today. In 1982, a Christmas tree was first displayed at the Vatican. This was a matter of some controversy at first due to the custom’s Protestant roots, but in the decades since it has become an established tradition.

Artificial Christmas trees also originated in Germany. They have become increasingly popular in recent decades due to maintenance, financial, and environmental concerns associated with live Christmas trees. Live trees are still the most popular option, but millions of their artificial counterparts are also sold each year.

Today, the Christmas tree is one of the iconic symbols of the Christmas holiday, in the same way that turkeys are associated with Thanksgiving and jack-o-lanterns are connected to Halloween. While the specific customs involving the tree vary by culture, most Christmas trees are decorated with electric lights and adorned with colorful ornaments. Many feature an angel or other figure on top. Colorfully wrapped presents are often nestled snugly around the base of the tree. It is an evocative sight that is present each December in millions of homes around the world.

"O Christmas Tree" Song and Video

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    • nanderson500 profile image
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      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Thanks midget38! It was a fun one to research.

    • midget38 profile image

      Michelle Liew 4 years ago from Singapore

      I have got two standing right in front of me now! A great historical account on the Christmas tree. Most of us put them up but do not know why! Thanks for sharing! I pass this on.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Wow, eight trees! My parents have almost that many. I have only one, but then again I live in an apartment. Thanks for the comment!

    • tillsontitan profile image

      Mary Craig 4 years ago from New York

      I started buying artificial years ago when Christmas tree fever struck...I have eight full sized trees in my house and it takes a few weeks to put them up and decorate them ;)

      This was an interesting read nanderson. You do a nice job with Christmas history.

      Voted up and interesting.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      That is cool! Christmas decorations start going up at some stores here as early as September in some cases. I still have to wrap the gifts I bought and put them under my tree. Thanks for the comment!

    • epus profile image

      Epus Gren 4 years ago from Philippines

      I didn't know about the point that Christmas tree was from the Protestants.

      I am happy seeing a Christmas tree in our living room with gifts at the bottom.

      We, Filipinos, are very much devoted to Christmas season. We celebrate the season starting the month of September.

    • nanderson500 profile image
      Author

      nanderson500 4 years ago from Seattle, WA

      Personally, I put up a fake tree every year but many people I know get real trees. What do hubbers prefer? Real? Fake? Flocked? No tree at all?